The invitation headline read: The Mysteries of 9/11: An evening of performance, poetry, and improv on America’s #1 taboo topic. The readings were presented on February 16th, 2017 at New Dramatists, the famous play development center near Times Square, in partnership with New York City’s Truth Action Project. Sander Hicks—an alumnus of New Dramatists and a principal coordinator for Truth Action Project—was the moderator as well as the guiding force behind the evening’s events.
Founded in 1949 by Michaela O’Harra, New Dramatists is one of the country’s leading playwright centers and a nationally recognized new play laboratory. In the 65 years since its founding, 600 new dramatists have passed through its doors, creating work that has laid the foundation for contemporary American dramatic literature. Current playwrights and alumni have won 19 Pulitzers, including 5 of the last 9 prizes.
The response to the invitation was so enthusiastic that the event was moved from the reading studio to the main stage of New Dramatists, where it attracted a capacity crowd of 90 people. Part of the excitement was due to the superb quality of the cast, which included Brandy Burre, star of The Wire; John Ventimiglia, The Sopranos; Lynn Cohen, The Hunger Games; Marc Duret, The Borgias; Jake Robinson, American Odyssey; and Kevin Sebastian, Blue Bloods, to name a few, all assembled by casting director Eve Pomerance.
But something else was in the air as well. The political mood in America is desperate; people see the direct line between 9/11 and the current administration. The fog of propaganda that seduced the public into a state of willful and contemptuous ignorance is dissolving to reveal the painful truth.
The evening began with a forty minute reading of seven selected scenes from the completed play A Blanket of Dust, by Richard Squires. When the daughter of a US Senator loses her husband in the World Trade Center, and she investigates the reason for his murder, she finds herself at war with the United States. Brandy Burre read the protagonist Diana Crane, with John Ventimiglia as her partner, Andrew Black. Burre’s performance—even in a reading—brought members of the audience to the verge of tears.
After a brief intermission four scenes were read from Bronze Star, a work in progress by Sander Hicks. Bronze Star explores the suspicious death of whistle-blower Dr. David Graham of Shreveport, LA, who fruitlessly warned the FBI about his contacts with two of the 9/11 hijackers, ten months before the actual event. Giacomo Rocchini and Kevin Sebastian gave particularly strong readings as the snarky, comic Arab operator Mohamed Jamal Khan and the devious neocon, 9/11 Commission Director Philip Zelikow.
The readings concluded with a group performance of Les Jamison’s epic poem, Masters of Plunder. A question and answer session with Hicks and Squires followed, moderated by the evening's excellent director Mahayana Landowne, followed by a lively reception that was still in full swing when the building closed an hour afterwards.
Given the general hostility toward any public discussion of the issues of 9/11, New Dramatists and Playwright’s Lab director John Steber should be praised for acting as though the exercise of free political speech is the most natural thing in the world.
And the evening proved, to this writer at least, that the performing arts can and should play a role in the debate. The forensic evidence that’s been amassed over the past 16 years and disseminated through articles, conferences, books and documentaries has built an overwhelming factual case for the controlled demolition of the World Trade Center, which the establishment can only counter with evasion and increasingly ludicrous deception. Turning such knowledge into widespread, actionable belief is arguably best achieved by the arts. Oliver Stone’s film JFK transformed the debate in this country on that state crime against democracy. Theatre and feature films should play a similar role in the quest to bring the crimes of 9/11 into court.