Everything comes back to Guy Debord. Midmorning on a sunny Monday, author and playwright Tim Gilmore and I sit at Vagabond Coffee talking about Jacksonville, mass shootings, gun control and art. In large part, it’s a conversation about conveying feelings and ideas outside of a didactic framework. “Because,” as Gilmore says, “shouting rarely changes minds.”
Gilmore is easily one of Northeast Florida’s most recognized and prolific writers. His books include Devil in the Baptist Church: Bob Gray’s Unholy Trinity, Goat Island Hermit: The State of Florida vs. Rollians Christopher, Central Georgia Schizophrenia (Everything Buried Will Rise) and The Mad Atlas of Virginia King. These are stories in the Southern Gothic tradition: lots of psychology and a wealth of descriptors, from the places to the personalities.
He often takes as his subject matter the forgotten, overlooked or mythical aspects of this corner of the universe. In so doing, he’s able to capture and convey the spectacular, contradictory peculiarities that exist here in this borderland between vacation dreamscape and confabulations of Southern gentility. That these tales are populated by the venal, mad, heroic and sublime is a testament to Gilmore’s willingness to not blink. He takes Jacksonville and its history as it comes and, while these are rarely stories without revelations of systemic inequities, his isn’t a straightforward quest to enumerate facts. Rather, these are attempts to synthesize sweat, blood, dust and sand—the tactile material of the past—into something that offers a self-reflective glimpse for the region.
This makes for an interesting endeavor in a place that always seems so eager to forget (or knock down) the past, in favor of something more brightly colored. Part of this disposition might be because, as a city, we are always on the verge, yet somehow—despite location, population and an NFL franchise—we can’t quite agree on who we are. And maybe we don’t know who we are because we don’t know who we were.
James Edward Pough was born on Feb. 16, 1948. He grew up in Hansontown (now the site of FSCJ’s Downtown campus) and, as an adult, lived on Jacksonville’s Northside. He worked, he took care of his siblings—they called him “Pop” for his kind manner—and in the late spring of 1990 (June 18, to be exact), he killed nine people (10 including himself) and wounded four others at General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC) on Baymeadows Way. The night before, he’d killed two people and injured two more. The GMAC massacre was the deadliest mass shooting in Florida’s history until the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.
Revisiting this event and the toxic mixture of rage, entitlement and possible mental illness that catalyzed it is hard. It’s hard to want to think about it, and hard to want to know about it. Yet we must come to terms with it, for it was a sotto voce harbinger of horrors yet to come.
Over coffee, Gilmore talks about his stage play, Repossessions: Mass Shooting, Baymeadows. Based on interviews with survivors, family and friends of those who witnessed what happened, it explores the GMAC massacre and the aftermath from “all of the angles.” The author had become curious about the GMAC event in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas mass shooting in Parkland.
“When Parkland happened,” he says, “I felt so useless and helpless and sickened. Why does this country that I so love and in which I’m inextricably bound allow, continuously, such death to occur? And not just mass shootings. They’re dramatic, but they’re a tiny part of the American gun death epidemic. The world’s other wealthy countries don’t put up with this over and over […] When these huge events make you feel powerless, you ask yourself, ‘Isn’t there some small action I can take?’ And don’t even our smallest actions have potential to ripple out?”
He continues, “Jacksonville is my hometown and I was a few days short of being 16 when [the GMAC massacre] happened. Writing about GMAC could somehow address Parkland. Parkland made finding out about and writing about GMAC imperative.”
Perhaps, too, it stems from the response of the Parkland students themselves. Theirs was not a reaction solely of grief; they have called the nation to action.
Discussing the choices he made in presenting the characters and information in the play, Gilmore explains that Repossessions was inspired by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project’s The Laramie Project. That play examines the events and aftermath of the Matthew Shepard murder from multiple perspectives. Delivered as monologues from each character to the audience, the fourth wall is broken, and the result is an anxious immediacy.
Folio Weekly attended a rehearsal of Repossessions at FSCJ’s Wilson Center for the Arts, where the play will premiere. The feeling created by watching the production is a sense of visceral intimacy. The play lays bare the way Pough moved through the GMAC office and explicitly describes the damage he inflicted. It’s almost two plays in one: There are the borderline poetic and fist-clenchingly honest reactions of the survivors, and then there are the chilling accounts of the day itself. It is unnerving but effective. The discomfort yields a deeper understanding of what it means to witness a mass shooting. It changes the understanding of what a mass shooting is—this isn’t a montage of wide-angle scenes filled with police, rescue vehicles, stretchers and weeping bystanders; it’s a slow unfolding of horror.
During that rehearsal, director Ken McCulough of FSCJ DramaWorks noted, “Scenes of mass shootings are always scenes of simultaneous horrors.” In order to convey the speed and momentum of the event—it was over in two minutes—McCulough uses several devices. The actors take actions across different parts of the stage, creating a sense of movement, even though the director notes, “It’s similar to a reader’s theater, very presentational in style.” There are also passages that, similar to a Greek chorus, echo words and ideas to reinforce one of the hardest things to comprehend about an event like this: the speed with which it unfolds.
It’s important to note that all the words spoken onstage are the words of those Gilmore interviewed. (However, the actors’ portrayals are not imitations). And the reactions are not totally what one might expect. Yes, rage, sadness and guilt are there, as well as the idea that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” This comes from the husband of one of the victims. He’s so emotionally sealed up he can’t abide expressions of sympathy. When asked about this, about how to even begin to talk about gun control in a society in which even victims refuse cause-and-effect logic, Gilmore suggests that we focus on statistics, not emotion. This is addressed in the play: Chest-pounding and language seem to stir folks, but haven’t affected legislation. The assault weapons debate continues to rage.
McCulough underscores an important point about Repossessions. “It is not anti-NRA or anti-gun.” He does note, however, that this particular topic could attract someone who is unhinged. Because of that, he says he’s been in meetings with FSCJ’s dean and campus security as well as JSO, who will be onsite on performance nights. He admitted that the security chief expressed reservations about mounting the production because of the March 15 shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand.
As for his own beliefs, as a veteran actor, director and professor (he’s been with FSCJ for 23 years), McCulough said, “The arts have a responsibility to deal with this.” It’s not the first time McCulough has staged a topical show. In 2002, he was the first director to stage the aforementioned Laramie Project. Through his career (this is the 50th production) he’s moved between works of social responsibility and things that are really funny. He says he strives for balance, but that he always seems to return to these more gothic works that require respect and gravitas.
For this production, the emotional texture of the play is reflected in spare staging coupled with complex technical cues. There are two revolving stages designed by Johnny Pettegrew, head of the FSCJ Theatre & Entertainment Technology program. Though there is minimal set dressing, the density of the material is subtly reflected in lighting and movement. Reality shifts—so too does the stage.
“Pough had a reputation as being quiet and dependable. People thought ‘this is a good guy.’” Gilmore and I have wandered into the swampy territory of diagnosis, of why. The playwright explains that, as far as folks around him knew, Pough was stable and grounded. In the weeks leading up to his killing spree, though, his life was wobbling: his mother had died after a long illness, his marriage had ended, possible trouble at work (at W.W. Gay Contractor), and he was failing classes at FSCJ, then Florida Community College at Jacksonville. By all accounts, though, it was the repossession of his car—by GMAC—that sent him over the edge. “What he did was despicable and horrible [and yet] I’m interested. He was a human being; he wasn’t a flat character.”
The central tenet of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle is that the capitalist-driven phenomena of advertising, film and celebrity coalesce into an instrument for pacifying the masses. It’s an explanation of our media-saturated culture wherein objects and attention stand in for happiness and satisfaction. If we reduce Pough’s motivations to anger about a repossessed vehicle, then his motivations can be parsed—in part—through Debord’s idea of object as identity.
Then there’s the issue of how to present Pough in an art form. As a character in the play, he is a deeply menacing presence. He is malevolent. However, the choice that Gilmore and McCulough make in representing him is to acknowledge his humanity while denuding him of power.
One questions that’s often asked in shooter situations is about warnings and behaviors leading up to the event. When asked by the authorities, GMAC management said they had no inkling something like this might ever happen. That was a lie the company told in order to protect themselves from civil lawsuits. Threats were common; Pough made one days before the shooting. However, a record of that threat is mysteriously missing.
The fascination with mass killers is the search for “why?” What tips the scale from hopelessness to rage? How do we push back not just against violence but the culture that glorifies it? Repossessions: Mass Shooting, Baymeadows doesn’t offer simple answers. But it does stir the viewer to personal reflection; to begin to address the question of what one expects of oneself, and how to go about achieving that expectation.