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SALEM — For the better part of 40 years, Benny Sato Ambush has directed thought-provoking theatrical productions throughout the world. The Lynn resident says few of those shows have ignited conversation or stirred audiences as much as “Gunplay: A Play About America,” the drama he’s in charge of at Salem State University.
“The play looks at where we are as a nation, with the panoply of issues surrounding guns,” said Ambush, a retired Emerson College drama teacher and in-demand freelancer. “An excerpt of the play was even read on Capitol Hill” prior to Congress passing the Handgun Violence Prevention Act (aka Brady Bill) in 1994.
Eight performances of “Gunplay” will be presented at the Sophia Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts, 356 Lafayette St., October 17-27. The cast of 16 is made up entirely of Salem State theater students.
Ambush said Frank Higgins wrote the play after a mass shooting at the University of Iowa in 1991 that left six dead — eight years before the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado — and he has tinkered with it for years, adding and subtracting. He and the playwright met in the San Francisco Bay area in the early ’90s when Ambush ran Oakland Ensemble Theatre and Higgins complimented him on his work. They have worked together many times since.
At first, Higgins titled the pay simply “Gunplay.” That’s been expanded to “Gunplay: A Play About America.”
“In a nutshell, this work is a series of vignettes and monologues that explore various perspectives and points of view … a snapshot of our country,” said Ambush. “And our country is not aligned or in agreement with many of the issues.
“This is not a political tract or a piece of journalism. Frank doesn’t take sides. He’s careful to balance the for and against. He raises questions for the audience to wrestle with, to reach their own consensus. Some of the entries are new, less than a year. The play is filled with facts, historical references about real people, real events.”
Ambush said some monologues are historical, others poignant and heart-rending, or satirical or parodic. “And some punch you in the gut,” he said.
“You may be sitting next to somebody who doesn’t share your point of view, and that could lead to interesting conversations. The work is meant not to answer questions but to raise questions and conversation about the constellation of issues around guns, gun safety, and gun violence.”
Born in Brookline and raised in Worcester, Ambush is best known locally for his work with Gloucester Stage Company. He’s directed several plays there, including Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa” and the award-winning “Master Harold and the Boys.” Next on his docket is directing August Wilson’s “Fences” in April at New Repertory Theatre in Watertown. Ambush, who studied Theatre Arts and Dramatic Literature at Brown University, recently directed Yukio Mishima’s “The Lighthouse” at the Tennessee Williams Theater Festival in Provincetown.
He’s worked with many theater companies locally and throughout the United States, and in such places as the former Soviet Union, Kenya, Turkey and a number of European countries.
His relationship with Salem State University started two years ago when he sent a cold-call email to former department chair Celena Sky April. “You’re a theater department; I’m a theater guy. And I live 4.2 miles from your campus. Let’s work together.” She invited him to be a keynote speaker at graduation that year.
Then playwright/current chair of the Theater and Speech Communication Department, Peter Sampieri, asked him to direct “Offended,” a play he’d written. He’s cast graduates of the Salem State theater program in his shows elsewhere; a SSU grad will serve as his costume designer for “Fences” at the New Rep.
Now retired, Ambush served nine years as Senior Distinguished Producing Director in Residence at Emerson Stage. When he was hired by Emerson College, he settled in Lynn’s Diamond District because it was close to the ocean, a walk to the commuter rail station and much more affordable than Boston, Cambridge and neighboring communities. “And it’s near Marblehead Harbor and Cape Ann. I’ve been all over the world, and no place is nicer than our North Shore.”
“Gunplay: A Play About America,” at Salem State University’s Sophia Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts, 356 Lafayette St., Oct. 17-27. Tickets: $20 adult/$15 seniors and students 18 and older/younger than 18 admitted free; salemstatetickets.com or 978-542-6365. On Sunday, Oct. 20 there will be a conversation immediately after the show led by Ambush. On Thursday, Oct. 24, Higgins and Ambush will offer pre-show conversation beginning at 6:30 p.m.