“Vin Shambry is one of the most powerful and talented performers at this year’s Fringe.”
Of all the takeaways from E.M. Lewis’s one-actor project The Gun Show, there is none clearer than this: lead actor Vin Shambry is one of the most powerful and talented performers at this year’s Fringe. As the sole actor, his voice, mannerisms, physicality, and humor are magnetic, charming, and immensely human; he could be talking about throw pillows or breakfast cereal for an hour and it would probably still warrant a standing ovation.
But in this play Shambry talks about guns. He talks about them over five stories, which are delivered with grace and rhythm, but written with a somewhat vague sense of pace and subject matter. From a charming opening anecdote comparing the blood-soaked climax of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs to modern gun-filled headlines, the tone is set as one of culturally relevant iconoclasm. The plot overall weaves personal stories – such as a retelling of a harrowing robbery at gunpoint – and very public true ones, including a shocking reenactment of professional lunatic Alex Jones defending the Second Amendment days after the Sandy Hook massacre. Shambry’s performance throughout is engrossing and electric, with clever audience interaction that entertains and commands the room.
The play at first seeks a deceptively simple point about guns in America: that the conversation has devolved into two sides that insult and deride each other without helping anyone. Lewis writes of the Whole Foods-shopping, Rachel Maddow-listening left, and the gun-toting, NRA card-carrying right, lamenting that the vastly larger middle ground opinions are drowned out or ignored. Stories of the responsible, sensible use of guns are convincing, as are cautionary tales and assertions about how guns can be used for true destruction and terror. Points raised later in the play are strikingly personal, and to director Shawn Lee’s credit, masterfully withdrawn.
There is a moral stickiness to elements of the overall approach, however, that one cannot shake. Shambry performs specifically as Lewis, whose identity and backstory are revealed slowly and subtly throughout the performance, and there is a vague sense of a plot-twist as it becomes apparent that Shambry is not playing himself, but speaking of experiences from people of differing genders, race, age, and background. The Gun Show exists on at least three planes in this sense. Firstly, there is Shambry delivering a powerful spoken essay on gun violence and the complexity of personal firearms. Secondly, there is Lewis, writing as a woman who has intentionally chosen a vessel very unlike herself to deliver these statements. Thirdly, there is a back and forth actor/writer dialogue, at times literally shining a light on Lewis, who is present in the audience, with recognisable moments of mutual understanding that he is playing her, and she is writing for him, yet as herself. This aspect of the performance is both disorienting and brilliantly simple.
The stickiness, however, comes from the misleading qualities of the advertising and format. On the poster, Shambry’s face, as a Black man, juxtaposed against an American flag with the tagline “What the hell is happening in America?” seems geared towards a specific set of issues that will be discussed, specifically race-related gun violence. Yet The Gun Show never once addresses the innumerable and unnecessary deaths of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement, instead favouring a much more general take on the gun conversation, written specifically by a white woman. While the play itself does not necessarily suffer for it, this bait-and-switch from a topic as devastating and unjust as racial inequity can’t help but feel slightly distasteful, as if these stories are teased but minimised in favour of a separate issue. That’s acceptable, given Lewis’s admittedly gripping stories, but The Gun Show will leave a sense of unease in your stomach if you expected something else.
This show commendably begins the conversation of just what the hell is happening in America, and – for Americans and non-Americans alike – proves the conversation is well worth having. The writing could be sharper, and the points broader, but when you’re hearing them from someone like Vin Shambry, it’s simply unmissable.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller