Early in the day on February 3, 2004, Jaime Rodrigo Gough was murdered in a bathroom on the second floor of Southwood Middle School in Palmetto Bay. Though he's still awaiting trial, it is almost certain that then-eighth grader Michael Hernandez was responsible for the slaying.
The events of that day had strange reverberations in the life of Justin Koren. At the time Koren, a Southwood alum and longtime thespian, was bouncing between Great Britain and Manhattan, building a career in theater.
"I got a Miami Herald e-update," he says. "It said, 'Breaking News! Murder At Southwood Middle School!' And I absolutely froze." He called the school and got patched through one of the few people who did, as the switchboard was swamped and assessed the situation. Then he didn't report to work for three days. Three years, one obsession, and hundreds of hours of taped interviews later, Koren emerged from a creative frenzy as the artistic director of a new theater company called Magnetic Theatricals, and with Defining Code Red. The play was inspired by the tragedy, and seeks insight into something that, for many in the community, may always be too painful to understand.
Defining Code Red
Written and Directed by Justin Koren. With Francisco Padura, Catherine A. Williams, Sally Bondi, Ratreisia A. Ferguson, Madelin Marchant, Marc Fajer, Terry Doe, Kyle Freeman, and Paul Poppe. This weekend at Magnetic Theatricals, at the Riviera Theatre, 1560 S Dixie Hwy, Coral Gables. Call 305-807-3050, or visit www.magnetictheatricals.org.
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"This is the untold story," he says. "The media doesn't want to tell the story of some kid who was trapped in a room for seven hours, or a teacher who lost one of her pupils and then, just hours later, had to counsel other kids on how to deal with it."
Diane Perless, Magnetic's cofounder and Code Red's creative midwife, says, "The whole idea of Magnetic Theatricals is to present plays about relevant issues. Community issues. Not just with this play, and not the way so many people do, though they have wonderful intentions. What do they say on Law And Order? 'Stories ripped from the headlines.' That's us."
Last week, I caught a run-through of Code Red's first scene during a rehearsal at the Riviera Theatre. Justin is a firebrand of a director, slapping his ruler on the lip of the stage over and over "Move faster! Faster! Faster!" rewinding the events of February 3 and replaying them again and again at speeds that tap into the hysteria that must have overtaken Southwood Middle that morning. It was like watching a blitzkrieg strike against recent history: At first the characters are being interviewed, some time after the fact, cool and calm. Then, with no warning, they are back at the school, events speeding up all around them, speeding right beyond their capacity for comprehension. The subtext here is that history doesn't go away: Bury it on Monday, and on Tuesday you find it thrashing around underfoot, biting at your legs and trying to make you fall. If Defining Code Red and Magnetic Theatricals can live up to the promise of that rehearsal, and keep dragging ideas like this into life and into the light, they'll live up to Perless' explanation of their mission. It will then be incumbent upon the rest of us to pay attention.