When she saw it, she knew what she had to do. Courtney Woolard, browsing through piles of books at the Friends of the Library book sale found a script in the discard pile. Titled, “The Guys,” and focused on the days after the September 11 attacks on the twin towers, the play compelled her. Her first thought was that, for the sake of those who had died and with her brother who is a firefighter in mind, “This is going to be painful, but I’m going to read it.”
The play details one of the most painful chapter in modern American history and certainly in the history of the New York Fire Department. While in a single year, the FDNY might expect to lose a few of its members, in the course of about one hour it lost nearly 350, along with 71 police officers and a number of first responders. Some of the city’s stations were devastated by the overwhelming loss. The play Courtney picked up that day at the Friends of the Library sale followed the story of a captain who must deliver eight eulogies.
While the account is somewhat fictionalized, it is an accurate portrayal of the situation many in which many captains found themselves. Many of their firefighters had died. Some had memorial services and, later, funerals as parts of their bodies were uncovered. Captains were expected to deliver on eulogy after another. And, in this account, the captain feels he can’t do it and turns to a professional editor to help. Courtney found the story so compelling she felt she had to direct it at Theatre Knoxville Downtown.
The play, written by Anne Nelson in a one week period, focuses on Joan (the editor) and Nick (the captain) and began its original run 0ff-Broadway just twelve weeks after the tragedy struck. Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray starred in the primary roles. It has since been presented all over this country and in several others. A film adaptation was released in 2002 starring Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia.
The local company has met with the local firefighter’s association in order to help present the play as authentically as possible and members of that group may appear at the first performance. The three performances will be presented at the Emporium this weekend and are free. Donations will be accepted to benefit families of firefighters who perish or become permanently disabled.
Courtney recounted an event which brought home for her, in a very personal way, the dangers faced by firefighters everywhere. In Jefferson City, in 2002, her brother entered a burning building with three others when there was a sudden “flash over.” Her brother and one of the others escaped unharmed, but the chief was seriously burned and the fourth person succumbed to smoke and died. It “brought home the 2001 event to me and helped me realize the heroes aren’t just in New York City.” Her brother shared his story with the actors as they began production, making the danger and loss more real to each of them.
The play also highlights parts of the story that most of us wouldn’t expect. One such detail, not included in the play, but which Bonny Pendleton of the theatre pointed out to me was there were not enough bagpipe players to carry out the tradition of having bagpipes played at the services, so players from outside the city had to be brought in to perform the duty. While the stories are true, the identities of the particular firefighters were obscured to preserved the privacy of their families.
It’s a difficult topic for many of us, but it’s also important to keep the memory alive. Incredibly, to those of us who are older, most people under twenty can’t remember the story and won’t know it unless it is told. Courtney insists despite the accuracy, the storytelling isn’t forced. Joe Jaynes plays the role of Captain Nick Flannigan and Windie Wilson plays the role of Joan, the editor/writer.
Presented through the support of an Arts Build Communities grant and with the support of the Tennessee Arts Commission and the Arts and Cultural Alliance, three performances will be presented this weekend at the Emporium, starting Saturday afternoon at 3:00 PM and followed by two Sunday performances at 3:00 PM and 7:00 PM. While the performances are free, reservations are strongly encouraged and may be found here.
Also related to the fifteenth anniversary of the attack, a 9/11 remembrance ceremony will be held in front of the City County Building Sunday morning from 8:40 AM – 9:00 AM. There will also be a remembrance ride starting at the World’s Fair Park at 10:00 AM.
Finally, for today, don’t forget to let me know if you’d like a pair of tickets to Alive After Five. Email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the subject heading “I Want to Be Alive After Five.” The giveaway ends at midnight tonight.