When punk rocker Mia Zapata was found murdered on a Seattle street, the crime sent shockwaves of fear and anger through the music community.
Zapata’s dramatic death, and the decadelong search for her killer, are the inspiration behind “The Emma Peel Game,” a new play by Cal Poly lecturer Philip Valle. The mystery thriller premieres Friday at Cuesta College’s Cultural and Performing Arts Center.
“We wanted to do something that attacked a subject that is uncomfortable” for many, namely sexual assault and violence against women, explained director and costume designer bree valle, who heads Cuesta’s drama department. That’s why “The Emma Peel Game,” which revolves around the murder of a young punk musician, felt like the perfect way to address those issues, she added.
“(Punk is) about anarchy and it’s about breaking the rules and coming up against those rules,” valle said. “The punk band is a great vehicle to assault the status quo.”
Philip Valle first encountered punk rock as a student at UC Berkeley in the 1980s.
Asked what attracted him to the punk movement, he said, “There’s a notion of counterculture and anarchic ideology … the notion of being apolitical while still having a political stance.”
Zapata, lead singer of Seattle punk band The Gits, embodied those principles up until her death at age 27.
Early in the morning of July 7, 1993, she was beaten, strangled and raped in Seattle’s Central District.
But it wasn’t until 2003 that investigators tracked down her assailant, a Florida fisherman with a long history of violence toward women. Tied to the case with DNA evidence, Jesus Mezquia was convicted of raping and killing Zapata and eventually sentenced to 36 years in prison.
Twenty-four hours after The Lucy Cannons wrap up their European tour with a concert at a London club, the band’s guitarist, 18-year-old Mia (Emily Franklin-Clark), is found dead with a stainless steel guitar pick in her mouth and a black lace hood over her head.
Mia’s bandmates — singer Luce (Lauren Josephs), drummer Steena (Tatiana Farmer) and bassist Ange (Skylar Pienack) — are understandably shocked. As the homicide investigation unfolds, they must grapple with ideas such as feminism, terrorism and revenge.
Valle and his wife were careful not to give away any details about how “The Emma Peel Game” ends. But both said the play aims to empower women.
“The story is all about ‘How do we treat someone who is a predator?’ ” bree valle explained. “When you’re faced with that choice … is it about forgiveness? (Or) is it about retribution?”
Although “The Emma Peel Game” moves from London’s Heathrow Airport to the streets of Oakland to an old warehouse on the San Francisco Bay waterfront, bree valle said technical director Richard Jackson’s set doesn’t change. “We’re relying on sound design and lighting design as well as the actors’ behavior to tell that story,” she explained.
Embellishing the action are a mosh pit, skateboarding and live music by The Lucy Cannons.
The band plays three songs on stage, all of them penned by Philip Valle. The four women are backed by assistant director Sydney Moran on drums and sound designer Bo Branum on guitar; Branum also plays death metal singer Huston.
Philip Valle, who originally envisioned the cinematic story as a screenplay, said he modeled The Lucy Cannons after female-fronted groups such as The Gits, Bikini Kill and X. The band’s name comes from the phrase “loose cannon,” meaning “someone who likes to push against the rules,” his wife explained.
“Part of the punk movement was a do-it-yourself kind of thing: ‘We’re going to create a movement but nobody’s going to tell us how to do it,’ ” Valle said. “It’s liberating because it instills the notion that all of us are free to create whatever reality we want.”
It’s a concept, he added, that works as well in the world of theater as in music.
“The Emma Peel Game” marks the third time in four years that bree valle and her husband have teamed up on an original production for Cuesta College’s theater arts program.
The pair also collaborated on “pool ’63,” a civil rights drama that premiered in 2013, and “Refried Elvis,” a comedic rock ’n’ roll musical that debuted in December 2015. Both productions received national awards at the regional Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.
While “pool ’63” and “Refried Elvis” were intended for general audiences, “The Emma Peel Game” is recommended for ages 18 and up due to its mature subject matter.
“This is one of the first shows we’ve done that is really for college students because it contends with a lot of things they’re dealing with,” Valle said. “That’s an audience I’d love to reach more often, and inspire them to think that theater can be creative and challenging and … touch their lives.”
At a time when the performing arts calendar is dominated by holiday productions such as “The Nutcracker,” “The Emma Peel Game” offers politically charged counterprogramming.
“I really hope this play, while it is entertaining, is a little shocking and a little disturbing,” Valle said, “and promotes some discussion about things we don’t normally talk about in our community.”