blackbird spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Afterthoughts by the Director | volume of smoke

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
So far from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
By night, and am not silent
Psalms 22:1-2

How do we cope with tragedy? How does tragedy become history? What do we, fallible creatures that we are, do in face of immense, unexplainable disaster?

We have in our recent history had much experience with these questions. I remember vividly walking in Brooklyn on a beautiful, sunny, cloudless day in September when the super of my building told me that two jets had slammed into the World Trade Center, just on the other side of the Manhattan Bridge, less than a mile away. I remember getting into the subway, catching the last train into Manhattan before the subways closed down, going to work as if an epoch changing event wasn't occurring all around me. I remember never thinking for a moment that I would spend the rest of the day desperately contacting loved ones, walking miles all over the city and finally coming home, where a green-black cloud hung over my neighborhood for what felt like forever and oddly smelling dust collected on my windowsill.

Tragedy has a power over us almost unequaled by anything else. It focuses us, forces us to be decisive, and through this shows our innermost panicked essence. The central event of this play, the Great Richmond Theater Fire of 1811, had that effect on the people of this city. Clay McLeod Chapman takes this event and by representing real people, opinions, and events from the time creates a mosaic of tragedy. By weaving together over twenty four individual voices, each giving its own little snapshot of the fire, what emerges is a poetic and powerful accounting of human response to disaster.

Clay brought me this script in August 2004, and I leapt at the chance to be involved. Here was a play that, though its focus is on an event so far in the past as to be abstract, had real and concrete things to say about our condition in America today. Here was Richmond's own Spoon River Anthology, a playground for actors and directors to test their creative mettle in order to create a compelling, challenging, socially relevant piece of theater that speaks to the past, present, and future. And on top of all of that, it's funny.

Enduring questions survive for the simple fact that there can be no satisfactory answers to them. Theater at its best is a process of constantly trying to ask better questions, over and over again, searching for the unanswerable and then presenting our questions on stage in as entertaining a way as possible. With any luck, a production of volume of smoke can do just that.

—Isaac Butler