All Over Creation: I, Witness
The victims of the Virginia Tech shootings were memorialized in a potent play at UT
When your daughter's a college freshman, you expect the occasional call home where she needs something. The one she made last Sunday, though, wasn't one of those calls, the can-you-give-me-some-money/fix-my-car/post-my-bail kind. What my daughter wanted was for me to serve as her witness. And not, thankfully, in a legal proceeding.
Rosalind was one of a few dozen students in the University of Texas Department of Theatre & Dance taking part in a memorial event for the fifth anniversary of the shootings at Virginia Tech. Playwright Erik Ehn had written a series of monologues for each person who died in that tragedy – 32 texts for each of the 32 victims – and 27 of them were to be performed simultaneously April 16 on the south mall at UT and on campuses at Brown University, where Ehn directs the playwriting program; City College of New York; Brandeis University; Brooklyn College; the New School; Whittier College; Macalester College; Whitman College; UT-Arlington; Santa Clara University; and the University of Ulster in Ireland. The idea behind having all the performers in each location delivering the texts for every person at the same time was to create "a kind of meditation garden," says Ehn, through which witnesses – a term he specifically uses instead of "audience members" – could wander at will, absorbing parts of many individual pieces or one in its entirety. On the theatre blog HowlRound, Ehn explained: "The history is meant to be geologic this way. Bigger than we can see." Each performer, though, was encouraged to ask someone to be their personal witness, tending a candle flame that would be lighted at the beginning of the event, which corresponded to the hour of the shootings in 2007. Roz invited me to be hers, and I agreed.
So I trooped down to campus at 7:15am last Monday and watched a committed band of young people stake out their spots around the rectangular lawn faced by Parlin, Calhoun, Rainey, Benedict, Mezes, and Batts halls, then pass flame to flame until 27 candles were burning around the expanse of green. I held one, too, as Rosalind immersed herself in a river of words honoring a young woman she never knew. I don't know by what process the students and subjects were put together, but Austin Michelle Cloyd seemed a providential match for Rosalind, not just because the young woman called this city home for some time in her brief life but also because she and Roz share the same height – 6 feet, 1 inch – and a similar sense of social justice. Ehn didn't record those facts in his plays because he knew this young woman personally; every reference to her character he drew from the public record – hence his title for the collected plays, What a Stranger May Know. He was memorializing Austin Cloyd from the distance that most of us must. And yet, from that remove, Ehn found in her story nuggets of meaning that he polished with metaphor and story, embellishing and repeating them in the manner more of a musical fugue than a traditional drama, so that by the end of the hour and a quarter that it took Rosalind to read the 32 plays about Austin Michelle Cloyd, she was someone vivid and personal to me, someone to whom I felt an intimate connection that I did not want to abandon. I wanted to cradle her memory just as I had the burning candle while Rosalind spoke.
Because I stayed with Roz for the duration of her reading, I had only a limited opportunity to experience the other plays, but from where I sat, I did take note of the other student performers. They were swimming against the current in so many ways – having had little time to spend with their texts, they were discovering the stories of their subjects as they were sending the words into the air, and though they spoke passionately, their fellow students flooded by them on the way to class showing little curiosity about what they had to say. None of that fazed these students, though; they'd found something meaningful in this project and pursued it with all the fire they could muster. They truly honored those lives that had been lost. I was proud of them and grateful to have witnessed their gift of grace.
And for me, that gift was made all the more potent for taking place in the shadow of the tower from which Charles Whitman shot and killed 16 people 45 years ago. I'm aware that the location for the UT performance of What a Stranger May Know was chosen with this in mind, but I'm unsure whether that incident has the pull over my daughter's generation that it has for mine. As someone who first set foot on campus as a freshman just 10 years after the tower shootings, it's a stain on my psyche that will never be washed away. So to be in the place where bodies fell in much the same tragic way that they did at Virginia Tech five years ago and see a new generation respond to that later tragedy with a ceremony of healing was to me a special balm, a cleansing of both wounds. Whether similar losses of the past were ever in Ehn's thoughts as he penned these oh-so-specific plays, I don't know, but he managed to touch on them here, to enfold them in this work, and add to the healing.
"Be with me. I am with you." The phrases echoed throughout all the plays in What a Stranger May Know. They had a special poignance there, considering the lives lost on that campus far away, and on this one. But as my daughter and her fellow students spoke them together one final time, I heard clearly their meaning for the living. We do well to remember the dead, and they live in us as long as we do, but we do better to recognize those still present, still breathing, and to cherish what little time we share with one another.
What a lesson for a Monday morning.
Dan Solomon, Fri., June 14, 2013
Rachel Feit, Fri., June 14, 2013
Jonelle Seitz, Fri., June 14, 2013
Amy Gentry, Fri., June 14, 2013
Caitlin Greenwood, Fri., June 14, 2013
Robert Faires, Fri., June 7, 2013
Robert Faires, Fri., Feb. 15, 2013
Robert Faires, Fri., Nov. 30, 2012
Robert Faires, Fri., Sept. 28, 2012
Robert Faires, Fri., Aug. 31, 2012
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