Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Names Read Aloud

"Tigers die and leave their skins; people die and leave their names."
-Japanese Proverb
Image result for 9/11 lists of names
The list of names on the 9/11 Memorial in New York City

I’m not giving anything away when I tell you that names play a major role in Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post electric play.  

In act one we meet a band of travelers sitting around a campfire.  We come to learn that these people are living in a world after a cataclysmic event that has destroyed the electrical grid. Before too long a stranger enters and, after a few tense moments trying to ascertain whether he is friend or foe, the group pulls out their notebooks and reads lists of names of people that have gone missing.  It is clear early on that some of the names only remain on the lists as a way to remember them rather than out of any hope that they will be found.  

In act three, 75 years have passed and the notebooks have been replaced by a large tome from which the names are read aloud.  For a contemporary audience, this moment is clearly reminiscent of the annual tradition of reading the names of people who died on 9/11.  Washburn includes names that clearly indicate that their owners were from a variety of backgrounds.  The apocalypse didn’t discriminate.  

Street artist writes out the list of the victims
of the Sandy Hook shooting
Unfortunately these lists of names have become commonplace in our culture.  On December 16th, 2012, Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown wrote a song in response to the Sandy Hook school shooting which had taken place just two days earlier.  He entitled the song “Twenty-Six Names” and posted it along with the names and ages of everyone who died in that shooting on his website.  At the top of the page he wrote, “I will remember their names and I will sing them to a safer place.”  It’s a beautiful and haunting piece of music and I try to remember to listen to it every December 14th.  I’m ashamed to say sometimes it’s hard to remember to remember.  

Like many of us, last week I was glued to my TV watching the news about the horrific events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  On Thursday afternoon, just about 24 hours after the shooting, Broward County Sherriff Scott Israel started his press conference by reading the names of the victims of that senseless and still inexplicable act.  He was emphatic that their names be the focus and that their families be respected during this period of immense grief.  

The conversations that I had with my co-workers, my students, and my daughter following the Parkland shooting give me hope that this would not be an event that would fade so easily from our collective memory.  This time, I swore to myself, would be different.  This would be a call to action.  While there is certainly more that can be done, my first instinct was to seek out way to make a financial contribution to help make a difference.  That’s when I came across Sandy Hook Promise and I encourage you all to check them out.  Based in Newtown, Connecticut, Sandy Hook Promise’s intent is to honor all victims of gun violence by turning their tragedy into a moment of transformation by providing programs and practices that protect children from gun violence.  Sandy Hook Promise is absolutely taking the lead in training students and adults to know the signs of gun violence.

I was walking across the Pinkerton Academy campus this afternoon plotting out this blog post and how I was going to discuss the listing of names in Mr. Burns in context of current events when my phone buzzed signaling an incoming email.  The subject of the email was “Honoring Dylan” and it was written by a woman named Nicole Hockley whose six year-old son died in the massacre at Sandy Hook.  Even though I had made my donation last week, I knew that it was an automatically generated email sent from Sandy Hook Promise.  It’s a heartbreaking but inspiring email filled with pictures of Dylan who was just the absolute cutest kid you have ever seen.  Then I came to this passage which I share here in its entirety:

Dylan Hockley
After my precious Dylan was killed in the senseless violence at Sandy Hook Elementary, my other son Jake asked my husband and me not to say Dylan's name aloud. The reminder of how quickly and violently his best friend had been snatched away was too painful and raw.

Now, I sometimes hear Jake talking to Dylan, just chatting to his brother quietly while he plays. I stop, steel myself, allow myself to feel the anger that Jake can no longer play with his brother, and then I remember that this is Jake's way of moving forward, of keeping Dylan's memory alive.

I hate that this woman had to write this, but I love this sentiment.  Even after we are gone, our names will keep us alive in the memories of those we’ve left behind.  

These blog posts almost always end with some kind of pitch to come see our next show.  While I certainly want you all to come take part in the craziness that is Mr. Burns, a post electric play, what I really hope is that, in light of current events, we will all take a moment to remember the names of those lost.  Let’s write them down and read them aloud and, more importantly, let’s work everyday to make the world a better place.  

~Matt Cahoon