Waiting for Obama Brett Aune Chris Kendall

Brett Aune, left, and Chris Kendall played a father and son in the original New York staging of 'Waiting for Obama,' a play about guns set in Colorado Springs. 

John Moore Column sig

Six years ago, I was asked to write a play addressing the urgent issue of gun violence in America. One that would be staged in the immediate run-up to the 2016 presidential election as a featured selection of the storied New York International Fringe Festival. A last chance to collectively grapple with America's signature paradox – the sanctity of the Second Amendment in a country with 30,000 gun deaths a year.  

The clock was ticking down on the Obama administration, along with nearly eight years of paranoid rhetoric that “Obama is coming for your guns.” When a family member said that very thing to me in January of 2016, I replied that if Obama really is going to go door-to-door and take all the guns (and the Bill of Rights) away from 65 million gun-owning households, well then, he had better hurry up. Because he was running out of time.

Then I wondered, wait a minute … What if he did? In a play, anything can happen. Because theater is make-believe – just like the dubious notion that Obama might actually take anything from anyone.

I knew from the start my play would be an homage to two of the greatest plays ever written. “Waiting for Godot” is Samuel Beckett’s absurd masterpiece about two men who wait around all day, every day, for a visitor who never comes. Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” tells the story of the most ordinary small town in America. And in doing so, it tells the story of every small town in America. I called mine, naturally, "Waiting for Obama."

Listen to “Waiting for Obama” right now

America-The-Beautiful-Park Colorado Springs

America the Beautiful Park in Colorado Springs.

It was Club Q that had me thinking back to my play this week, while we are all trying to make sense of that senseless massacre. Because my play, too, was set in Colorado Springs. Had to be. Maybe it was the massive military industry that powers much of El Paso County that made that a no-brainer. Maybe it was the city’s pronounced conservative/progressive divide. The meaningful majesty of the Garden of the Gods. The icky Ted Haggard scandal. Focus on the Family. NORAD, which oversees air defense for all of North America. The Air Force Academy. As you might imagine, the military accounts for about 40 percent of the city’s economy, which to some might project a false sense of safety and natural order.

The kicker, for me, was learning that Colorado Springs has a park named America the Beautiful. What better place for a play about guns in America than the home of America the Beautiful Park?

“Some awfully strange things happen in Colorado Springs,” Martha, the matriarch of the family, tells our mysterious visitor in the play.

Colorado Springs, of course, has had its share of mass gun violence. One day in 2015, the year before I wrote my play, several people called 911 to say they saw a man walking down the street carrying a rifle right out in the open. And the 911 operator told them all there was nothing the police could do about that because in Colorado Springs, he wasn’t breaking the law until he actually started shooting. And he did, killing three people. Three weeks later, a man walked into a Planned Parenthood and killed three in a standoff that lasted five hours.

WAITING FOR OBAMA review London

'Waiting for Obama' was considered for the first time by the international press in 2020, when the play was beamed to 14 countries by Broadway On Demand. This reviewer was taken aback to learn about Colorado Springs' permissive, open-carry laws.  

Back in 2007, a man opened fire at a youth missionary training center in Arvada, killing two, then drove to Colorado Springs and opened fire at New Life Church, killing two more before he was stopped by a heroic member of the church's safety team. I was thinking about Jeanne Assam this week as the world rightly celebrated the former Army major who took down the Club Q shooter – with the help of a trans person who has yet to receive the same level of media adoration. Ironically, Assam was shunned by that same scandal-plagued New Life Church after reports championing her heroism also outed her as gay. The hypocrisy was thick.

Waiting for Obama March for Our Lives

'Waiting for Obama' has enjoyed a busy second life as a staged reading at gun-awareness events including "March for Our Lives," Fort Collins' 2018 response to the Parkland school shooting in Florida. It was held at Bas Bleu Theatre, where organizers from every high school in the city joined cast members for a post-show conversation on the issues raised in the play. 

Colorado Springs felt like the natural epicenter for my story to play out. “This city is a magnet for pro-life, pro-gun evangelical Christians,” Martha says of her hometown in the play.

“I like to call it home,” her husband, Hank, retorts. Colorado Springs, Hank fully believes, offers the most freedom a man can have anywhere in America.

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But, in truth, Colorado Springs isn’t particularly special when it comes to gun violence. It’s Our Town. It’s Your Town. It’s Everytown USA. Consider that there were 600 mass shootings in the first 327 days of 2022.

Waiting for Obama Leslie O'Carroll Luke Sorge

Leslie O'Carroll's Martha plays grandmother to Luke Sorge's Benny in the original 2016 production of 'Waiting for Obama' in New York.

“Waiting for Obama,” which was directed in New York by Denver native Brian Freeland, introduces a loving but fractured family that is deeply invested in the gun issue. It focuses on a father and grown son who agree on only one thing: That Obama is coming for their guns. Of that, they are certain – and neither is going to give his up willingly. The conservative father because he is a Constitutionalist and a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association. His progressive son because he has been a victim of gun violence. Every night, these two stand vigil in their respective doorways with AR-15s strapped to their shoulders, waiting for the bogeyman to show up. And in my play, he does.

Like “Our Town,” “Waiting for Obama” takes place in an unreal world that is based in absolute reality. Your “Our Town”-like narrator is a 16-year-old boy who lives on the roof. (Seriously, he never comes down. And it snows in Colorado Springs – a lot.) “It can get awfully loud downstairs,” the boy says of every living room in America, but specifically his own. “I like to come up here and listen to the quiet.”

But that quiet is constantly interrupted by gunfire from around the world and his own backyard. The boy, who is named Benny (after a real kid named Ben who actually grew up in Colorado Springs), can see everything that is happening in the far-off distance and reports it back to us, as if he is our eyes on a world gone mad. There’s a murder-suicide in Phoenix. A family fight in Alabama. A home burglary in South Florida. These are all real-life incidents that took place around the time of my play. It is Benny who, from the roof, first sees the solitary stranger approaching who might just be the outgoing President of the United States.

Waiting for Obama Fort Collins 2016

Before 'Waiting for Obama' was staged at the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival, it was shown to a packed audience at the Bas Bleu Theatre in Fort Collins.

The play necessarily engages in some of the “gotcha” rhetoric of it all. The requisite chest-bumping over the Second Amendment and what a “well-armed militia” does and doesn’t mean. Facts, statistics and loopholes are exploited. A race card or two is played. There’s talk of the suicide epidemic and our ongoing mental-health crisis in America. When Hank zings Obama for the high murder rate in his home state of Illinois, which has the toughest gun laws in the nation, Obama quips back that most Illini get their guns right next door in lax Indiana, “where you can get a gun for (passing gas) out loud.”

But, mostly, “Waiting for Obama” is the story of a family probably not unlike yours, fighting their way through the daily noise of gunfire and toxic talking points. It’s ultimately about a boy who can’t come down from the roof because the ground below is just too scary to live on.

In retrospect, I can say that Colorado Springs is very much an essential character in this story. But it’s merely standing in for Dallas; Chesapeake, Va.; Hennessey, Okla.; West Palm Beach, Fla.; Philadelphia; Temple Hills, Md.; Houston; Costa Mesa, Calif.; and Chicago. Those are the nine cities where there have been mass shootings since Club Q. Six days, 18 dead, 29 wounded.

Ever since Columbine, it seems pundits have been asking: “What is it about Colorado?” But this problem is a poisoned plant with a river of blood-red roots running through it. Anderson Lee Aldrich was born in Orange County, Calif., and, if reports are to be believed, grew up in a family environment that would make Joe Exotic blanch. Aurora shooter James Holmes was born in San Diego and moved to Colorado just two years before that massacre.

The question is not, “What is it about Colorado?” It’s, “What is it about America?”

Laurence Curry Waiting for Obama

Denver's Laurence Curry is the only actor to yet have played the former president in 'Waiting for Obama.'

In his farewell address to the nation in 2017, the real-life Barack Obama proffered that our potential as a nation will only be realized if our democracy works. A democracy that was built on principles — the rule of law, human rights, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and an independent press.

“But that order is now being challenged — not only by violent fanatics, but by our own fear,” he said. "Fear of change, fear of our neighbors, fear of difference, fear of real information. By intolerance of contrary thought. By a belief that the sword or the bomb or the gun is the ultimate arbiter of what's true and what's right.”

If only our politics, he said, better reflected the decency of our people.

'Waiting for Obama,' a magical and surreal exploration of relationships touched by tragedy, leaps head-first into America’s most complex conundrum … Guns. You can listen to the entire play by clicking here or on all major podcasting platforms

John Moore is the Denver Gazette's Senior Arts Journalist, and the playwright of 'Waiting for Obama,' which is available in radio-play format on all podcasting channels. Email him at [email protected]