Thoughts on The Clay Duke Dec 10, 2013

by Jameson Fink

Who doesn’t want to see a live performance that’s a retelling of a shooting at a school board meeting via music, dance, humor, strobe lights, fog, underwear, and discomfort? These were my somewhat skeptical thoughts I had as The Clay Duke was about to begin. (Though I will admit to being intrigued.) 

Seemingly imbued with the power of clairvoyance, OtB Artistic Director Lane Czaplinksi anticipated my sentiment (which apparently was not confined only to the recesses of my nervous mind), writing about it in his Curator Note in the program. He concluded:

Cynics might have a hard time with this handling of subject through performance hijinks; others will appreciate that in grappling with complex issues and the “crazy feelings” that accompany difficult events sometimes the best response is to dance. 

The program also contained an insert which had a message from Clay Duke’s widow, Rebecca. (Clay was the shooter who took his own life at the meeting.) This note was received by the show’s choreographer and director, Dayna Hanson:

Life is fragile. Handle with care. We all have some known or unknown mental, physical, or financial common denominator which is the thread that binds us all. Hug, smile and laugh with your kids and friends more, hold your mate a little closer for it can all be gone in an instant.

I was challenged and moved even before the start of the performance. One of the powerful aspects of The Clay Duke is that there is no beginning, middle, and end to the story, so you can just get up and walk away in the tidiest of manners. It’s not like digesting a linear narrative. Rather, The Clay Duke is full of disjointed moments that are jarring and disarming. And sometimes even funny. Is it more effective to tell a story through a traditional chronology or via a series of impressionable moments of language, sound, and movement? It’s not an either-or, I’m just impressed that the latter strategy can be used to deal with the confluence of some of the most controversial issues we’re facing: gun violence, mental illness, and our schools.

Music and movement play a big role in The Clay Duke. It begins with distorted audio from what I assume is taken from the events of the school board that day. The first human to enter the stage dances around manically and threateningly, looking and acting like a lithe Charles Manson. It transfixes you, not without some discomfort, from the beginning.

There’s also choreographed dancing reminiscent of the famous zombies in Thriller, set to more aggressive techno-dub style beats. Contrasting with disarming and weirdly intimate singer/songwriter performances played out with just the unadorned sounds of an electric guitar and solo voice. 

Can I go from Michael Jackson to the Wu-Tang Clan? An audio loop repeating “Got my money man? Give me your money or I’ll bust you up.” was akin to a sample belonging alongside a RZA beat. All the cast members pair off as the aggressor and the victim, changing position and perspective on stage in a hypnotic manner.

The Clay Duke made me think about how much our internal lives are affected by outside forces. It’s a story of class, economics, health care, unemployment and how all that anguish from those grim realities can be focused onto one person, who then changes the course of his own life, and those he leaves behind, forever.


OtB Ambassador Jameson Fink has been working in the wine industry and blogging about wine since 2004. Saveur Magazine nominated his site,, for a 2013 Best Food Blog Award in the Wine/Beer Category. He is a tireless advocate for year-round rosé consumption and enjoys a glass of Champagne alongside a bowl of popcorn.