Sandy Survivors Take The Stage
The words boomed out across the P.S. 276 auditorium last Saturday night, filling the room with the dramatic words of anguish and pain.
“Can I tell right from wrong?” the pleas continued. “If I have sinned, wouldn’t I know it?”
The audience was being treated to a dramatic reading of the Book of Job, the landmark Old Testament text that is one of the most widely known pieces ever written on suffering and loss.
“Why have you made me your target?” Job furiously demanded of God, after the tragic loss of his children and his livelihood, and after skin disease had ravaged his body. “Is it right for you to spoil what your own hand has made?”
This was not a religious service, but the debut of Job in Canarsie, an interactive theater project commemorating the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the community. Job’s words, which might easily have been echoed by many local residents after last year’s devastating superstorm, were being channeled not by a minister, but by local actor T. Ryder Smith. Sharing the stage with him were fellow actors Louis Cancelmi and Chinasa Ogbuagu, playing various roles in the ancient story.
As many among both the faithful and secular know, Job was an honest, prosperous man whom God decided to put to the test, unleashing great tragedy upon him and leaving him desolate and broken. His friends (portrayed by Cancelmi) initially joined him in mourning, but angrily turned on him when he unleashed his anger at the Lord. God (played by Ogbuagu) finally answers his cries, and sternly tells him that he is only a man, and not in a position to question his Creator’s judgment. A chastened Job repents, and is rewarded with a life even more prosperous than his old one.
After the story concluded and the applause subsided, producer/director Bryan Doerries stepped down from the stage and ventured into the audience. “What did you recognize as you were listening?” he asked the 130 men, women and children in attendance. “What did you hear that struck you as true to your own experiences, despite it being written thousands of years ago in another land?”
Job in Canarsie is one of many interactive presentations produced by Outside The Wire, a Fort Greene-based outfit that uses theater to address serious issues. Doerries, who founded the company in 2008, travels all over the United States putting together performances for audiences of veterans, prisoners, medical patients and regular citizens.
An expert on ancient Greek literature and other classical works, Doerries chooses the plays for the relevance of their themes to the issues currently being faced by people today, such as violence, psychological trauma, domestic abuse, addiction and loss.
Doerries was formerly the “number two guy” at the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, a national nonprofit teen scholarship. But in 2008, initially as a side project, he began using his knowledge of ancient literature to put together performances of ancient works at various locations.
It was last year when Doerries first chose Stephen Miller’s famous 1976 translation of Book of Job to perform for the people of Joplin, Missouri, which suffered one of the most devastating tornadoes in recent history in May 2011. One year after the storm killed 161 people and caused nearly $3 billion in damage, Doerries and several Missouri actors performed the story in a giant church for an audience that saw friends and family die, and either lost their homes or saw neighbors lose theirs.
Turning closer to home, he saw the neighborhoods ravaged by Hurricane Sandy as another community where residents would recognize the relevance of the ancient poem.
Whichever play is chosen for an event, Doerries’ format is the same. After each performance, whether in Missouri, Brooklyn or Europe, he engages the audience and invites them to reflect on what they have just seen, leaving them free to share thoughts that they might not have been able to express before.
“The questions I ask are about the play, but they’re designed to tease out people’s personal feelings,” Doerries told the Canarsie Courier. “I want to have a conversation that’s framed by empathy.”
To help stimulate that conversation, Doerries enlisted the Canarsie Recovery Coalition – a collaborative effort by the Brooklyn Borough President’s office to help the community rebuild – for help in finding three guest panelists to fill three key roles: someone who lost everything they had in the storm, someone who had seen someone else lose everything, and a first responder who spent time helping others rebuild. “The purpose is to have the audience see themselves reflected in the story,” Doerries said.
A disaster case manager, who currently has 35 cases in Canarsie, was the first to speak. “Having to hear the pain of someone who wants to know why, and not having the answers,” she said, “I can empathize most with the friends of Job who came and listened to him.” Reflecting that Job’s friends had been unable, ultimately, to understand his plight, she felt that the story “raised more questions than answers.”
Another guest, a Canarsie resident of almost 20 years, previously lost her home to a fire on Christmas in 2008, and had acquired a new home by 2012. “I’d spoken to God and asked him for a new roof,” she said with a touch of humor. “Well, be careful what you wish for.”
Then along came Sandy, and she lost her home all over again. But she did not allow herself to be consumed by despair. “I just understood that this was something I was supposed to deal with, and it made me stronger,” she said. “I wondered if I was supposed to leave Canarsie, but no. That’s not what God wanted.”
It was then that Doerries turned to the audience and opened the floor, asking if anything in the story struck a chord.
A woman resident answered. “One line really reasonated with me,” she said. “‘Life is a breath.’ The universal feeling that we are all just a breath away from not being here…that’s what unifies us.”
Another woman related to Job’s shaken faith. “I think we all question our faith at the time of a disaster,” she said. But she was philosophical about the issue. “People ask ‘why me,’ but really…why not me?”
A young man nearby picked up on her words. “Even as Sandy was coming, many of us probably thought ‘it couldn’t be me,’” he said gravely. He related this denial to Job’s friends, who proved unable to empathize with his anger and told him he must have deserved the tragedies that destroyed his life, never considering that the same misfortunes could possibly befall them. “Are we prepared for the ‘maybe?’” the man mused.
“Vulnerabilty is humanity,” agreed a mother with three young daughters.
Doerries then asked the audience if there were moments where a stranger performed some generous act that perhaps had reaffirmed their faith. One grateful woman recalled how a person she had never met brought her some desperately needed paper towels, after all of hers were ruined in the basement flood.
“Sometimes we don’t know how to receive from someone else,” another woman said. “We’re too proud. We have to learn how to open up our hearts and receive the help from others.” For her part, after the storm, she had gone to church to help out with the relief efforts, but to her surprise she found herself the recipient of some of those very efforts. “So my situation is that I have to learn how to say thank you.”
Continuing to relate the topic to Job’s friends, Doerries asked if there were times when anyone felt judged or accused for what they were going through.
Amarachi Henry, a mother of three who works with the mentally challenged, was required to be at work when the storm hit, and because of the aftermath, she ended up stuck there for three days. “When I came back, my children asked me, ‘Mommy, where were you?’” she remembered. “I had to cry.”
“I’ve heard many instances in natural disasters where people had to make ethical decisions that didn’t seem right either way,” Doerries agreed.
“I did judge myself,” Ms. Henry continued. “I asked myself, ‘What kind of mother are you?’ But now I’m feeling proud of myself for what I did.”
Richard Peters, an auxillary lieutenant from the 69th Precincnt who made a point of attending the event, thought both the story and the hurricane could be seen as a message to remain steadfast. “Sometimes, when we go through life, God likes to show us off,” he said, referring to trials that test people’s will. “In life, difficulties have to come up.”
Those difficulties are hard, Doerries told the Courier, for many people to talk about, and his goal is to empower people to do things they wouldn’t have done otherwise, such as repairing relationships, moving on from grief, getting help they might need, and even forgiving themselves. “There are many things lacking in the way we currently deal with trauma,” he said of the silence that too often characterizes how people deal with pain. “How do I give audiences permission to have these conversations?”
He did not always see classical theater as a tool for social change, even as he first began to organize performances at hospitals and shelters. It was during the first 2008 performance of Ajax, the tale of the famed Greek warrior, that he first realized the impact they could have. A woman in the audience, the mother of a Marine, related to Ajax bringing “invisible bodies” home with him when he came back from battle. “Our home,” she had said, echoing a line from the play, “is a slaughterhouse.”
“My background was in ancient Greek plays,” Doerries said, “and I thought I knew what they were about, but when I started hearing how people reacted, that changed my whole perspective on what theater was.”
The key to everything, according to Doerries, is interaction. “The power of theater is the power to engage audiences in an exchange,” he said. “Theater is completely about the audience.”
He saw in particular how the approach could break down barriers when he performed Prometheus Bound for guards, intelligence officers, lawyers and Marines at Guantanemo Bay, Cuba.
“There’s something about theater that destabilizes hierarchies,” he said, pointing out that both the highest and the lowest ranking people in the audience were equally likely to open up. “People are able to say things that they’d normally never say. And it’s being done in a way that’s completely honest.
“My favorite audience members are the skeptics,” he added, noting that “more people than I’d like to admit” are opposed to the idea of working problems out by talking openly about them, viewing it as displaying weakness. “Forty-five minutes in,” he said of some of these critics, “they’re completely turned around.”
Outside The Wire continues to organize performances of all kinds wherever Doerries sees a need or receives a request. Reflecting the company’s growing reach, Doerries has three major international projects planned – a performance for survivors of the earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima, Japan, comprised of local Japanese folktales; an event for Monserrate, where the population recently had to deal with a major volcanic eruption, and—perhaps most poignantly—in Rwanda, for the 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide. Doerries, already used to various audiences having different kinds of reactions, anticipates the challenge of working in vastly different cultures with very different expectations of how trauma should be dealt with. But it’s a challenge he is happy to face. “It’s very rare in this profession to be given the opportunity to do something with your craft that feels meaningful,” he said. Outside The Wire is based in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. You can read more about their work and upcoming projects at www.outsidethewirellc.com, and contact director Bryan Doerries at email@example.com.