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Surrendering 9/11 (or What My Own Play Taught Me)

In this guest post, Sarah Tuft, author of 110 Stories, explores the challenges, both political and personal, of writing a play about 9/11.

Burning towers… Stars and Stripes rippling through the title graphics… The term “heroes” splashed across the page…

It’s every 9/11 cliché I abhor. Yet there it isin the ad for my play, 110 Stories, being produced in Torrance, just an hour south of my new hometown of Los Angeles.

I want to die, I say. “You asked for it,” I reply.

Fourteen years ago, I wrote 110 Stories based on first person accounts of the day and its aftermath as an antidote to exactly that kind of sensationalism. As a 9/11 volunteer, I’d been privy to information that contradicted the official rhetoric with its red, white, and blue hyperbole. While former New York Mayor Giuliani pronounced 9/11 as “the greatest rescue effort of all time,” firefighters told me that their outdated radios didn’t work in the towers. When the EPA declared the air safe to breathe, a nurse reported she’d overheard EPA workers at the site intentionally fudge air quality numbers. And although public officials praised “our heroes” in their speeches, EMTs complained that the City wasn’t providing rescue workers with adequate screening for respiratory illnesses.

So after all their screw-ups and subsequent cover-ups, how did “The Right” still manage to spin 9/11 to serve their agendas? How did they seem to take possession of the event itself?

It happened quickly. In 2002, a friend connected me with the Founder and Artistic Director of a socially conscious Off-Off-Broadway theater. We’d both hoped he’d mount a reading of 110 Stories in his downtown space to raise funds for my local firehouse. The one that lost ten men. The one that served his theater too.

“I want nothing to do with flag-waving, jingoistic patriotism!” the Tastemaker screamed at me and hung up. “But you didn’t read the play,” I pleaded with the dial tone. “It reveals the hypocrisy. It exposes the lies. It berates America for turning a mortuary into a tourist attraction.”

Just last year, I was told a respected LA theater company passed on the play, out of hand, because they assumed “9/11” means “right wing.” Even my friends roll their eyes at 9/11, dismissing it as “a giant stubbing its toe” or “the chickens coming home to roost.”

But you weren’t there, I think. You didn’t walk your dogs the other direction, away from the firehouse, because if you went the usual route, Firefighter Gerard wouldn’t be there to feed them biscuits.

Dogs can help find bodies. Dogs can provide therapy for a child whose parent’s face is on one of those “missing” posters. But dogs don’t have political alliances that limit their compassion. So when Gerard isn’t there with biscuits and the firehouse is enshrined in candles, flowers, and baked goods, the dogs go crazy.

110 Stories has had its angels too, its champions from both sides of the aisle. Artists who’ve been known to advocate for progressive causes got on board, such as Alec Baldwin, who single-handedly launched the celebrity benefit readings by lending his name to two productions. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee flew back early from Birmingham, on their own dime, to participate in a reading alongside James Gandolfini and Susan Sarandon. And on the other end of the political spectrum, vocal Conservative Stephen Baldwin performed in 2011 while right-leaning Gary Sinise lent his support to the 2010 Geffen Playhouse production. There’s also this…after that one little NY theater refused to open its doors to a benefit production, assuming the play was “right wing” without even reading it, both the highly respected Vineyard Theatre and the renowned Public Theater donated their stages.

Even so, I flip out when I discover one of the producers of the upcoming Torrance performance has a blog that touts what sounds an awful lot like Tea Party philosophy.

Thank goodness they misspelled my name so this doesn’t show up when people Google me!

Then I remember110 Stories was not just my attempt to rescue the truth from the rubble. I also wrote it to heal… my city, our trauma, the right/left dividenow deeper and more venomous than ever. I wanted to preserve the compassion we’d so easily shared right after the tragedy, the unity we’d so readily embraced. 110 Stories reveals how when faced with the reality of death, we cherish the gift of life.

I won’t be tricked into being divided because I won’t be conquered.

Aren’t most of us losing our privacy, working longer hours without compensation and on the wrong side of income inequality? Something isn’t working, and whether it’s government or big business or the relationship between the two, the enemy is NOT each other.

So I took a deep breath and reached out to “that enemy”the producers of my play in Torrance. They were thrilled to hear from me. They were gracious and kind. They invited me to the production and connected me with the director, whose ideas I loved. So I dismounted from my progressive “high horse,” the comfort of an “us versus them” perspective and attended.

And they got it! It was a beautiful production brought to life with metaphor, not sensationalism. No mention of politicsright or left. Even the producer’s opening remarks echoed my intended take-away of 110 Stories. Compassion, activism, engagement. And money was raised for Operation Gratitude, which sends Care packages to our troops.

Maybe I did what I set out to do. When fourteen years ago, I set out to bottle the post-9/11 kindness so we’d always have it on tap for emergency use, I never would’ve predicted I’d be the one who’d need to take that first sip.

–Sarah Tuft

Sarah Tuft’s 110 Stories has been performed at Geffen Playhouse, The Public Theater, and Vineyard Theatre by actors including Billy Crudup, James Gandolfini, Neil Patrick Harris, John Hawkes, Samuel L. Jackson, Melissa Leo, Susan Sarandon, and Kathleen Turner. It’s been featured in vulture.comgothamist, The New York Post, and on A&E Bio. Sarah’s plays Awesome Big Somebody, Shoot Me, Can You Hear Me Now, Pass Intercepted, and Me Tarzan have been produced and/or workshopped at the 24 Hour Plays at BAM, EST’s Lexington Center, Sundog Theatre, Makor Theatre, and Naked Angel’s Tuesdays At Nine. Sarah’s directing credits include The Eggnog Talking (Cherry Lane Theatre), Drama at the Point (Emerging Artists), and Mistress Syntax (24 Hour Plays at Atlantic Theatre.) Her short film, Tide (Laurel Holloman), premiered at Hamptons International Film Festival, screened at LA Shorts Fest, Lake Placid, and aired on IFC. Her short, Closing Time (Callie Thorne), premiered at Clermont-Ferrand. Sarah’s essays have been published in HuffPostIndiewire, and The New York Times. Sarah’s background as an artist includes one-person show of paintings and photos at The Corcoran Gallery of Art as well as exhibitions and video art screenings at New Museum of Contemporary Art, The Kitchen, Central Park SummerStage, AFI, and broadcasts on MTV and PBS. Sarah founded DnA for directors in New York and is a member of Film Fatales LA and Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative. Current projects in development include a half-hour dramedy pilot, Gay Like Mom, and a film adaption of 110 Stories.

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