Mary Hollis Inboden, actor and survivor of the Jonesboro school shootings
Mary Hollis Inboden, actor and survivor of the Jonesboro school shootings Credit: Anne Petersen

Mary Hollis Inboden was a sixth grader at Westside Middle School just outside Jonesboro, Arkansas, on the spring day in March 1998 when two fellow students there ambushed their classmates. One of the killers, age 11, tripped a fire alarm in the building and then ran to a neighboring field where he and his 13-year-old coconspirator opened fire on the students as they exited the school. Inboden says they were lined up on the playground waiting for a roll call when she heard what sounded like firecrackers and saw people drop, screams and puffs of dust rising around them. She ran back into the school and called 911. When it was over, four students (including her best friend) and a teacher had been killed; ten others were wounded.

Inboden left Jonesboro when she was 16, heading to Memphis for college and then to Chicago to pursue an acting career. In her desire to move on with her life, she fell out of touch with the other survivors of what had come to be known as the Jonesboro massacre. But when NPR came looking for someone to interview on an anniversary of the incident, and again after the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, they found her. And at the end of the second interview, searching for the right thing to say to survivors of the new tragedy, she surprised herself by offering this advice:

“I’m not sure that anything that I say will offer them any kind of comfort right now. But in bad, ugly times we need people close to us. And definitely, definitely to keep the people who were there, who have been affected, close, because those are the people that you are going to share a very, very, very hard bond with for the rest of your life, and to have those people close will provide the students a lot of comfort in years to come.”

“That’s not actually something I had done,” she says now. Giving that impression was “a lie,” she adds, and she didn’t even know if it was good advice. And that, like a sharply focused survivor’s guilt, began to eat at her.

Inboden is a member of the New Colony, a five-year-old theater troupe with an unusual working method. Starting with a list of characters and a mere idea for a plot, New Colony’s plays are communally developed: roles are cast, the actors take on the job of fleshing their characters out in a series of improvisational workshops, and then the script is written. In the spring of 2010, Inboden broached the idea of developing a play based on her Jonesboro experience to company member and playwright Evan Linder.

“I was finally ready to talk about it in my medium, which is theater,” she says. “But I had rules. I didn’t want to sensationalize the story, and I didn’t want it to be about the actual shooting. I wanted it to be about the survivors.” To do that accurately, she began what she says was a painful process of reconnecting. She sent e-mails to 30 or 40 of her former schoolmates, and “about two-thirds of them” agreed to participate, answering a list of questions like “When, if ever, are you not thinking about the shooting?” and “What scares you?”

Their responses were aired in subsequent workshops and distilled into three fictional characters in a six-character play built around Inboden’s coming to terms with the event she’d thought she could bury. Between December 2010 and February 2011, Linder wrote the script. The finished play, The Warriors (the title is named after the school’s sports teams), opened in March 2011 for a one-month run to sympathetic reviews. Inboden says a half dozen of her Westside classmates, most of whom still live in the Jonesboro area, made the trip to Chicago to see it.

There haven’t been any other productions, but shortly after last month’s rampage in Newtown, Connecticut, New Colony member Will Rogers, who’s also associate producer at Victory Gardens Theater, contacted Inboden to suggest that the theater produce a staged reading of the play as a benefit for the Sandy Hook school community.

Now scheduled for January 6, “The Warriors for Newtown” will feature a reading with a cast that’s new apart from Inboden, who will again play herself; Kimberly Senior directs. Linder, who’ll take part in a postperformance discussion, says he and Inboden have decided to make the play available as open-source material. They’re hoping that it will continue to be produced as a benefit.

The Warriors is basically about me assuming a lot of things about my old classmates, and then learning that they’ve survived and healed and become really strong individuals,” Inboden says. “When the shooting happened at Newtown, I felt it in my gut that I have this material that could be helpful. Nobody needs to rush those families to healing, but there is this whole other life as a survivor, and I have this material that speaks a hopeful message.”