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9-11 Attacks Inspire New Theater Works - 2002-09-07

As the one-year anniversary of the terror attacks approaches, a number of theaters are presenting new works inspired by the tragedy. A three-day marathon of performances - Brave New World: American Theater Responds to 9/11 - begins Monday in New York and will feature Sam Waterston, Meredith Monk, Edie Falco and other actors.

Here in Washington, two new theater works drawing on the events of 9/11 and their aftermath have already premiered, including one by the critically acclaimed LA-based performance troupe, Culture Clash. Susan Logue has more on Anthems: Culture Clash in the District, the fifth site-specific theater piece created by the company.

"Was I scared? You're darn right I was scared! Was I angry? You're darn right I was angry! They're evacuating Capitol Hill and the Senate buildings, and we're told to go back to work, that everything would be fine. Everything was not fine!"

Although they're said by an actor, those are the actual words of a government employee commenting on what it was like to be working in Washington on September 11 last year. Like other community-based theater works by Culture Clash, about one third of Anthems is taken word for word from real people. Richard Montoya, Culture Clash's primary writer says he began the process he calls "urban excavation" about two years ago, interviewing Washingtonians and just keeping his eyes and ears open as he rode the metro and visited Washington neighborhoods.

"You kind of have to have a steel trap mind, because things kind of hit you when there are no recording devices," he said. "You have to make fast notes and record things in your mind's eye. You also try to fan out with video and tape recorder in hand and interview as many people as you can. You don't want to just talk to movers and shakers and you don't want to just talk to people on the street. You want a mix of everybody, so you can attempt to get a portrait of this place."

Midway through the process of doing the preliminary work on the play, terrorists struck the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon here in the nation's capital. Although he was in Los Angeles on September 11, Richard Montoya returned to Washington six days later.

Montoya: "So I was here. That's different from sitting on your couch in LA and watching it on CNN. You're here, so that brought immediate impact. And at the airports I was meeting grief counselors and it didn't make any sense to ignore it."

Counselor: "Let me ask you a question. What would you say to a small child who runs up to every fireman she sees thinking that that fireman is her father? You now have a glimpse into the complex world of this grief counselor from Arlington, Texas. I don't care if you are as dumb as three rocks. That's going to hit you right there."

Montoya: "Not every moment in this piece deals with 9/11 at all. It just tends to rear up at striking times. You have to pick and choose."

Those moments are woven throughout the theater performance and include not only the grief counselor at the airport, but also an emotional visit to the Pentagon by parents who lost their son in the terrorist strike, the government worker whose words you heard earlier, and a Muslim cab driver:

Cab Driver: "I will not be an apologist for my people. I do not speak officially for my people, okay my friend. Who are my people? I am American. For 18 years I have been US citizen. I speak only for my heart. My family originally from Jordan, some family Palestinian. I have respect for freedom. That's why I'm here."

Logue: "I imagine you envisioned a completely different play when you began this two years ago."

Montoya: "We were envisioning a different piece, but 9/11 brings up themes that have been percolating beneath the surface for a long time in a place like Washington. I think for two weeks we were united; color didn't matter. But within a week or two we were back to our old selves." That is back to a city divided by race, culture and power. There are plenty of scenes in Anthems that explore those divisions without making reference to the terrorist strikes. Playwright Richard Montoya says Anthems allows Washington audiences to re-evaluate the city. The events of September 11, he adds, require that we do so.