Using Theatre to Give a Voice to the Uvalde Community


Ayvaunn Penn, assistant professor in the Department of Theatre.

Ayvaunn Penn, assistant professor in the Department of Theatre.

“We do not want this to happen again, and it will require us all to set aside our difference and put in the work,” said Ayvaunn Penn regarding gun violence in schools. “The children of our nation are worth it. All lives are worth it.”

Penn, assistant professor in the Department of Theatre, uses her work to encourage communities to engage in challenging conversations on social issues for global reform. Her newest play, “For the Love of Uvalde,” continues this mission by documenting the grief and aftermath of last year’s Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

Theatre for Social Rectification

Ayvaunn Penn, assistant professor in the Department of Theatre.

Penn began her career in theatre out of a passion for storytelling. As an undergraduate student, she was an English major and pursued acting and writing for the stage. Penn quickly observed and experienced  the disparity in opportunities for Black women and shifted her focus from acting to playwriting and directing.

While earning her master’s in fine arts in playwriting at Columbia University, Penn was greatly influenced by her professors David Henry Hwang and Lynn Nottage, influential playwrights and Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize recipients. Her professors used their craft to boldly and unapologetically tackle social issues. Penn soon followed suit.

“It became important to me to create roles for people from marginalized groups and position myself as a decision-maker with the power to diversify casting,” said Penn.

Penn continued her career in the performing arts and recognized the impact theatre has on bringing awareness to social issues and encouraging community conversations. As a result, her body of work evolved to address these critical concerns and to challenge audience members to engage in discussions often avoided out of hesitancy and discomfort.

“It is truly a blessing to be able to say that my work unto this end as a playwright-director and diversity, equity and inclusion facilitator has been successful in engaging communities across the country as well as internationally,” said Penn.

Tragedy Strikes  

 The Robb Elementary School shooting in 2022 forever impacted residents and families in the close-knit community of Uvalde. A gunman killed two teachers and 19 children, making it the country’s deadliest school shooting since 2012.

“It is a horrific atrocity no matter where you are from, but being a native Texan made the tragedy hit me even harder,” said Penn.

Penn was actively writing and working on research for a different play at the time. However, when she heard the devastating news, she dropped everything and began working on a play about the Uvalde school shooting.

“I was striving to give a voice to the families of victims and capturing the various points of view shared by those involved directly and in the aftermath,” she said.

“For the Love of Uvalde”

Penn spent two months crafting the play, lyrics and composition, including countless hours dedicated to following news updates and learning the stories of the people involved in or impacted by the school shooting. It took an additional month to work on music arrangements.

For the Love of Uvalde logo

For the Love of Uvalde logo

Penn brought on Brittany Steele to orchestrate the vocal arrangements. Steele is an artist based in New York City and a long-term collaborator and friend. Their last project, “The Feather Doesn’t Fall Far from the Wing,” was featured at the Tony Award-winning Signature Theatre.

“For the Love of Uvalde” features four original songs, two of which recur in various arrangements. Alan Shorter, professor and associate chair of the Department of Theatre, assisted with transposing the music. TCU School of Music graduate student William Taylor, pianist for the Jan. 28. premiere staged reading, contributed arrangements tailored specifically for the needs of the first developmental public presentation of selections from the play.

“Music always occurs very organically for me. I simply set out to write the story I want to tell,” said Penn. “If a tune comes to me, I follow my instincts and go with it. Nothing is forced.”

 Community Impact & Discussion

“For the Love of Uvalde,” Penn said, reminds us to never forget the tragedies woven into our country’s history and provides a voice to families mourning the loss of their loved ones.

This play with music explores varying views from the victims’ families, politicians and medical professionals. The piece’s core is the memorial scene honoring those who lost their lives in the Robb Elementary School shooting. During this scene, the song “The Prayer” takes place. Some of the key lyrics include:

“Help us set aside our pride
No more factions
No more sides
Open our hearts
Open our minds
Help us work together
Get this right
Do whatever it takes to protect innocent lives
And in the meantime
[Somehow] dry the tears that can never be dried”

“I want audience members to walk away reflecting on how we can work together to reduce gun violence in our schools and in our country,” said Penn.

The premiere public staged reading of “For the Love of Uvalde,” presented by Theatre TCU with TCU School of Music and El Progreso Memorial Library, features select songs and monologues from the play. It will take place on Jan. 28, 2023, at 6:30PM in PepsiCo Recital Hall located in the Mary D. and F. Howard Walsh Center for Performing Arts.

A panel-led community discussion will take place immediately following the reading. Among the panelists are TCU Chief Inclusion Officer Dr. Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado and James McQuillen, Director of Theatre for Youth at Casa Mañana. In addition, El Progreso Memorial Library in Uvalde will be a streaming location for community members to join and participate in the discussion and reflection. Library Director Mendell Morgan will serve as discussion moderator for Uvalde attendees.

Important Note: “For the Love of Uvalde” is written based on testimonies of those involved in or around the Robb Elementary School Shooting. Some content may be difficult to hear. Suggested for mature audiences only.

Read more about Penn leveraging the arts for social change.