We got the news on the Spanish language TV station because all of the other stations had been knocked out by the planes that attacked the World Trade Center.
As in all major catastrophes every moment, every nuance is carved into my memory: the disbelief, fear, uncertainty about the future, the understanding that somehow our world had changed forever.
A year later, I was on a Fulbright Fellowship in the Republic of South Africa. The war in Afghanistan had started. The war in Iraq was imminent.
As I talked to them I realized that people in Africa didn’t fully understand the effect the attacks had on ordinary Americans. I decided to write a play based upon stories from real folks. It became “9/11 A Day In The Life Of A People.”
The U.S. Consulate in Cape Town sponsored the first reading of the play at the American International School.
It was acted by six of us reading the 12 parts; a couple of Fulbrighters, a couple of other academics and a couple of students. Only two had any theatrical training. Many people in the diplomatic community attended. The play provoked deep emotions and hopefully it helped illuminate the situation for our African hosts.
When we returned to Penn State we performed the play at PSU’s Downtown Theatre Center on the anniversary of the attack. It has been performed every year since. In 2007, we were invited to perform it at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The next year it was part of the Philadelphia Fringe.
Last year, it was performed at the Schlow Library in conjunction with the dedication of ASCENT, a sculpture created by Mark Pilato in commemoration of the 9/11 tragedy.
At each performance the play allowed members of the audience a chance to pause and reflect on their personal experience of that dreadful day. Some have criticized the play, saying it was too early to “theatricalize” the event. Others have celebrated it for allowing them to have catharsis. I believe that good theater at its critical center is not just entertainment but rather a collective spiritual journey, which helps illuminate the world as we know it or sometimes how we believe it should be.
Earlier this year, the play was co-winner of David Award for Activist Art presented by The Sozo Institute and negotiations are under way to publish the play in time for the 10th anniversary of the attacks. This will open it up for others to perform, to pause, to commemorate and hopefully to celebrate our coming through this horrible time together as a people.
Charles Dumas is a professor in the School of Theatre at Penn State and writes a monthly column that appears in the Centre Daily Times.