'The Clay Duke' Reacts to Catastrophe

Dayna Hanson and company recount a confusing tragedy through theater, dance, and empathetic fascination.

By Jeremy G. Novak December 2, 2013

Dayna Hanson and Thomas Graves perform in 'The Clay Duke'

An insane man with a gun takes a room hostage. He enters with a plan, it unravels, he claims he’ll die that day, and minutes later he is proven correct when he takes his own life. In The Clay Duke, to be performed at On the Boards December 5-8, director and choreographer Dayna Hanson takes on that incident from infamous YouTube footage of a 2010 Panama City school board meeting.

Fortunately, the gunman at the school board meeting missed his aim that day and none of his hostages lost their lives. But for Hanson, the event inspired an examination of citizen gunmen and their motivations, a persistently timely subject, given how tragically frequent such shootings have become.

The Clay Duke draws on notions of Chekhovian suicide and the 1970s Death Wish films starring Charles Bronson to present a human and honest reaction to an incomprehensible event.  Long fascinated with Chekhov, Hanson uses text from Chekhov’s short stories throughout to question whether the gunman, Clay Allen Duke, was truly a villain or rather a product of his environment. This is where Death Wish comes in.

“Nobody who goes into a public place with a gun and with ill or violent intentions could do that if Charles Bronson hadn’t done it in Death Wish,” Hanson says. The connection to Hollywood vigilantism is undeniable since Duke spray painted the symbol from V for Vendetta on a wall before drawing his gun in the meeting. 

Known for her work as co-artistic director with the Seattle dance ensemble 33 Fainting Spells, Hanson relies on movement to render the chaos of this event. Performers repeat moves, break patterns, and push to uncomfortable points to help reveal and then shatter the colliding worlds of the routine meeting and the course set in Duke’s rattled mind. The eccentric movements encompass all elements of this catastrophe, from terror to banality.

The true motivations and horrors of such an event can never be fully uncovered, but Hanson seeks a measure of understanding. “Responding to something that’s pretty deep and individual, if we can really go at that with full force, then hopefully it can make that turn from being personal to universal,” she says. She confronts this drawn-out disaster head on, and unpacks it with a sense of cautious fascination, surprising empathy, and a refusal to look away. 

The Clay Duke
Dec 5–8, On the Boards, $20

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