Amanda Stevens, Ben Mitchell, Chad Gentry, Erin Hisey, Frank Duren, Inside the Tornado, Jaia Chen, jgamble, Jimmy Kontos, John Nara, Kim Gentry, Margaret Carr, Michael Carr, Paul Crook, Shelton State, Steve Burch, Susie Johnson
On April 27th, 2011, a massive tornado ravaged much of the southeast, including Tuscaloosa. Now, a little over a year later, the Shelton State Community College Theatre Department—in conjunction with University of Alabama professor Steve Burch and community members Paul B. Crook and Kim and Chad Gentry—has developed what can only be described as a “theatrical event” to commemorate the event. Inside the Tornado consists of ten short plays and two songs which explore different experiences surrounding the storm. Except for the first play—“Home” by Paul B. Crook—all of the plays were written by students in Burch’s playwriting class.
Each of the plays made some use of the same impressive set (designed by Jaia Chen): the frame of a house with broken walls and, suspended from the ceiling, a bit of twisted metal fencing with assorted items—a wheelbarrow, a white picket fence—attached to it. The sound and lighting (designed by Frank Duren and Erin Hisey, respectively) were extremely effective at portraying the ambience of a storm—Duren’s sound often included bits of news broadcasts about the storm, as well as sounds of the tornado itself—behind the dramas on stage.
Some of the plays—“The Man in Black,” “Dorm Life,” and “Future Perfect”—presented the experience of living through a storm: the loss of power, the inability to communicate, and the inanity of petty quarrels in the face of a life-threatening situation. Amanda Steven’s “The Man in Black” was particularly moving as it dramatized the plight of Mia (played wonderfully by the very young Margaret Carr), a young girl whose father had died in an earlier storm, and whose mother—Sheila, played by Susie Johnson—would die in the course of this one. Carr’s screams as her mother shielded her from the “Man in Black”—a personified death played by Abe Fields—were horrifyingly real.
Other plays—“Lost Penny,” “Wreckage,” “April,” “Video Diary,” and “Rubble”—dealt with the aftermath of the tornado: whether that meant the clean-up operation (“Wreckage” and “Rubble”), the displaced animals (“Lost Penny”), the psychological damage dealt by the storm (“Video Diary”) or the post-storm exploitation of the Tuscaloosa residents by imagined media—and, importantly, unnamed—outlets. Ben Mitchell’s performance of David in “Video Diary” (written by Jimmy Kontos and directed by John Nara) was particularly powerful in its range of both pitch and tempo.
I came into these plays with some misgivings. “How can these plays possibly do justice to the pain suffered by so many?” I asked. “Isn’t it disrespectful to dramatize a natural disaster?” Luckily, Michael Carr—the director of many of these plays—began the show with a short speech: “Six months ago,” he said, “these plays didn’t exist. And a year ago, there was no reason for them to exist.” And as I watched these small dramas unfold before me, I realized it wasn’t disrespectful at all. As the professor in John Nara’s play “The Lesson”—a play which does not deal with the experience of the tornado, but with the experience of writing a play about the tornado despite not having been present during the event—says: “A story isn’t a representation. It is a thing itself.” These dramas weren’t trying to recreate the storm, or the very real and horrifying experiences that many in Tuscaloosa went through on that day; instead, they were things themselves: experiences we could share once again, this time in a safe space. I left the theatre wondering why I had ever had any doubt; I left it knowing that what I had seen—a community coming together to purge themselves of pity and fear in a shared, safe space—is the reason why theatre exists at all.
Inside the Tornado ran May 3-5, 2012 at the Bean-Browne Theatre at Shelton State Community College. All proceeds went to the Red Cross.