We are told from the start that America’s history is one of violence, and of wars. This is mostly true but Morna Young’s Americana: a Murder Ballad shows us that it’s more complicated than that; it’s a history of Americans committing violence against other Americans, then sensationalising this ingrained violence to justify its continued existence.
This is a political piece of theatre that challenges the very fabric of American society
We’re drawn in by the spectacle, the nationalism, the red, white and blue as the cast sings the refrain, welcome to Americana, home of liberty, o Americana, the land of the free, which slowly becomes more and more threatening as it repeats. Told through the medium of murder ballad and filled with gallows humour in the form of colloquialisms that revolve around guns, we are taken through the stories of 11 highschool drama kids, as each takes on the role of the Shooter, in an endless cycle of violence that is controlled by the faceless Writer (Cole Wagner). The individuality of the characters develop as their stories are told, which gives them the power to fight back and control the narrative. The message is clear: these kids aren’t statistics nor are they labels. They are individuals who the system, or in this case the cycle and the Writer, have failed.
Everything from the start is vaguely threatening, but the extent of it does not immediately hit. There is an element of gothic ruralness that hangs over us like the sword of Damocles itself, mostly due to the style of music which is intensely country and uses different vocal qualities that not only adds to the storytelling but also adds increasing foreboding to the lyrics. We feel what the characters feel and that sense of impending doom, constantly waiting for something to happen is difficult enough for 75 minutes. These feelings are emphasised by the red, white, blue and game of shadows that make up Benny Goodman's lighting design. The staging and immersive nature of the piece makes us question our role in this cycle; whether Number 11/ Rose (Zoe Prior) in confronting the Writer is confronting us, the system, or both.
The most important thing about Americana: a Murder Ballad is that it is real. It’s real life immortalised in a cycle of songs and violence, and there are levels of analyses to peel back. This show is dripping with parallels between what is onstage and what is reality, to the point where even the staunchest supporter of the 2nd Amendment may be uncomfortable.
This show would not have the impact that it has on us if it were not for the talent of the cast. From playing instruments to singing unaccompanied, there is a sense of camaraderie and support that appears to stem from an unfortunate commonality. Their performance comes from a place of authenticity and makes us listen. They confront us with their reality in a way that is meant to horrify and make us think, but also brings hope that if it makes others horrrified and think, maybe things will change.
Words have power, but it depends on who wields it. Nothing that I report as a bystander (because that’s what we become during this show) will be as meaningful and immediately bone-chilling as what you will see and hear at Americana: a Murder Ballad. Because this is a political piece of theatre that challenges the very fabric of American society and its exceptionalism. Genuine thoughts and prayers that we will see more of this show in the future.