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Al Martinez

An Unbroken 'Chain' Links Us to Attacks

November 01, 2001|Al Martinez

Under ordinary circumstances, Ojai is the kind of place one visits to escape the tremors of life.

Tucked into a corner of the Santa Ynez mountains 11 miles east of Highway 101, it offers a mix of art and scenery to visitors seeking a day or two of what the poet Shelley called a silence of the heart.

But these aren't ordinary circumstances, and Ojai is no longer a place to hide.

What I went there to see and hear in a small town blessed with high mountains and sweet autumn nights was a drama that compresses virtually every agonizing, soul-wrenching element of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks into 75 minutes of words and music.

It left me overwhelmed again, as I had been less than two months ago.

The play is called "Human Chain." Written, directed, produced and performed by Ojai residents, it is a compilation of newspaper and magazine articles, poems and segments of stories and plays read by five actors seated on stage, facing the audience.

What emerges is a startlingly sad and beautiful rendering of history as it happened, with the words of both players and observers plucked like jewels from the media that reported it.

The power of "Human Chain" lies in the reality and compassion of the events that drive its sobering drama, and in the simplicity of its presentation. Its subtext reminds us that in a world crouched in horror, we are all linked.

I was drawn to "Human Chain" because I was told the play included a recent column I had written on the loneliness of goodbye. Ego lured me to my own words, and I have never heard them read with such power and in such a dynamic context.

Elizabeth Rosengren, Peter Bellwood, Anne Kerry-Ford, Jim Lashly and Charlotte Bronstein were the actors who recited the work of so many of us who had written so much on such a horrifying, history-altering day. The music of singer Julie Christensen and singer-guitarist J.B. White embraced the words with a quality of grief and hope that became, in essence, a requiem to a lost world.

As the lights went up on the stage of the 55-seat Theater 150, a recording of Billie Holiday opened the show with "Autumn in New York," in itself a haunting memory of an existence that preceded Sept. 11.

Then Bronstein read from a poem by Gail Brandeis, "I used to like to watch buildings fall./I loved the planned implosion, the glorious collapse,/a clattering orgasm of brick, the dust of stories/poofing up into the air. No more, no more."

And others read from news accounts:

Lashly: "I heard an unbelievably loud bang , then a tremendous jolt that rocked the building."

Bronstein: "The first jet hit the other tower just above the level of my office window."

Lashly: "The whole building rocked."

Kerry-Ford: "I thought a bomb had gone off ."

Bellwood: "I heard glass breaking."

Rosengren: "Some people asked, 'What could it have been?"'

Bellwood: "People were jumping."

Kerry-Ford: "A man in khakis and an open blue suit jacket, feet up in the air, falling down the side of the building ... gone."

There were single words in staccatos of imagery: "Luggage." "Torsos." "Chairs." "Alone." And phrases: "I walked and walked." "All those poor people." "Thousands and thousands." "There were bodies."

And Christensen sang "Amazing Grace" into a stillness that followed, its melody soaring high above words left like pools of rain shimmering in the hazy darkness.

The words, the phrases, the music took us from the moment that ended the old world into the hope and horror of a new world that the attack created. History clothed in drama is all the more compelling for the memories it stirs.

And all kinds of memories were ghost-dancing through my head.

"Silence vibrates/the day after/smoke swirls," Rosengren read from a Philip Larkin poem.

The names of firemen who died are repeated softly, softly: "William Krukowski, Ladder Company 21. John Chipura, Engine Company 219. Raymond York, Engine Company 285. Gerard Schrang, Rescue Unit 3 ... "

A child asks, "Why did all those people die when they didn't do anything wrong?"

"Durrell Pearsall, Rescue Unit 4. Sergio Villanueva, Ladder Company 132. Joseph Grzelak, Battalion 48 ... "

From John Donne: "No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man/is a piece of the continent, a part of the main ... "

Kim Maxwell-Brown, co-producer of "Human Chain" and artistic director of Theater 150, said later, "We chose a theme of many voices to show we can get through all of this with an open heart, without fear or hate." Her husband, Dwier Brown, co-created and directed the play. It is scheduled to run through at least next weekend. All of the proceeds will benefit the September 11 Fund.

I hadn't wanted to dwell again on the events that shook our world. But I am drawn back to them as one is drawn to images of a bad dream. By the time the play ended, I was awakening once more on the morning that Armageddon began, staring at a television screen, watching the towers fall in the replay of a nightmare that had assumed reality.

As I left the theater, I heard a woman say, "I fear this 'holy war' will go on forever. What will become of my grandchildren?" I thought about that and about the play as I drove back to the hotel. I felt like crying.

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. He's at

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