A Northumbria University academic has been commissioned to create a verbatim play to mark the 20th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.
Steve Gilroy, director of performing arts programmes (and associate director at Newcastle’s Live Theatre), worked with new writers at London’s Royal Court Theatre before moving to Northumbria in 2005. His “research practice”, he said, has focused on documentary theatre and includes “a number of pieces about trauma and conflict”.The award-winning Motherland, which toured the UK in 2009, pieced together the stories of women whose lives were touched by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other plays based on extensive interviews have explored the lives of Olympic athletes and the human stories behind the eurozone crisis and the conflict in Israel/Palestine.
As for the 19 April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people, Mr Gilroy admitted that he had only “a rough memory of it being a big deal and the confusion about the perpetrators of the act, with the media jumping to the conclusion that it was Islamic terrorists”. So why did Oklahoma City University turn to him as the best person to assemble a commemorative play about it?
“There’s a strong tradition of documentary theatre-making in the States,” he replied, “but they don’t recognise the particular strand of verbatim theatre. Besides, people there welcomed an outsider perspective, because they have had 20 years of memorialising the event. The [national] memorial and museum looms large in the downtown area of the city.”
At the outset, Mr Gilroy decided that he “couldn’t unknow what I already knew but tried not to find out any more”, so as to avoid too many preconceptions.
He spent two separate weeks in Oklahoma and drew up a list of people he wanted to interview, in person or through carefully briefed assistants, face to face or online. The list included the city’s former mayor, chief of police and fire chief, but Mr Gilroy also sought out one of the Muslim suspects, a BBC correspondent who arrived early on the scene, even an arborist who looked after a nearby tree that miraculously survived the blast. Chance was also allowed to play a role: an interview with the police chief in a diner led to a waitress chipping in, and some of her comments were incorporated into the script.
An image from the time of the bombing showed a firefighter holding a child from the crèche in the Murrah Building who turned out to be dead. Mr Gilroy interviewed the firefighter and the child’s mother and sister. But although some interviews contained tragic material, he was also able to track the subsequent “regeneration of the city” and “an incredible resurgence of hope and dynamism”. From about 45 interviews, one of them six hours long, he forged a play just over two hours long.
Directed by Courtney DiBello, adjunct professor of stage management at Oklahoma City, the play will be performed at the university’s Burg Theatre with a cast of 11 student actors from 16 to 19 April. There are plans for an educational package to be made available to every high school in Oklahoma. And Mr Gilroy is determined that another production will eventually be staged in the UK.