When considering plays for production, one of the foremost questions that gets asked is “why this play, why now?” This question helps to anchor every choice– artistic or business– surrounding the play from the top down.
Sometimes the answer to this question is indicative of a current zeitgeist: “this play sparks an interesting conversation about such-and-such current event/social issue.”
Sometimes the answer is reflective of an organizational goal: “this play helps us to develop the voice of so-and-so, who is a playwright we value and respect.”
And, all too often in the American theatre, the answer is sometimes along the lines of: “this play will make our theater a lot of money during the holiday season.”
But the question of justification is not always so simple. Sometimes a theater company or producing organization knows a play to be important and necessary and vital now, but the “why” is harder to articulate.
When I first read Jim Dalglish’s Unsafe, a play centering around characters who have all experienced loss after the terror attacks of September 11th and who are all attempting to grapple with these memories, I instinctively knew the play was important. It struck me in the gut and resonated with me days after I finished it. This alone is enough for me as a dramaturg to enjoy the story and the script– but theatre is meant to be a shared encounter between audiences and actors. So, I found myself coming back to the old production question: “Why?”
“Why now, fifteen years after 9/11, do we need Unsafe?”
An “Unsafe” Distance
According to Dalglish’s notes, Unsafe “begins on the evening of February 5, 2003 – the day that Colin Powell testified before the United Nations about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.” So while Unsafe is indeed a “9/11 play,” it is set a relatively “safe” distance from the widespread panic, disruption, and destruction that occurred on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
It was then, in thinking about this very conscious “distance,” that got me thinking more about Unsafe’s current relevance to an audience today, in 2016. There really have not been many artistic explorations of the events of 9/11. There was Neil LaBute’s 2002 play The Mercy Seat in which a man who works in the World Trade Center contemplates running away with his mistress when he was with her during the attacks. There was also the 2006 Oliver Stone World Trade Center film. But beyond those two works, there are very few notable artistic explorations of this particular event.
So back to “why?” Why have there been so few writers attempt to grapple with these events? Certainly the 9/11 attacks marked a moment in our nation’s history that truly united us– both in the horror and fear we experienced, but in the heroism and solidarity that it demanded.
Playwright Jim Dalglish was in New York on a business trip on September 11th. (His own vivid account of this story can be viewed HERE.) Afterwards, he wrote Professionals, a short play reflecting his experience making a business presentation, despite the fact that the World Trade Center was in flames a few blocks away. It was produced in Provincetown in 2002. Audience members felt that Dalglish was being opportunistic and insensitive to the memory of the events of 9/11. It was clear that audiences were not quite ready to relive and experience the events of September 11th on stage.
A New, Unsafe Normal
So what is enough enough critical and emotional distance? Five years? Ten? Fifteen?
I think that what Dalglish has done in Unsafe is provide audiences with a built-in distance from September 11th: the play is set after the world has returned to “normal.”
But the sad, profound truth is that the world is no longer normal. 9/11 still impacts our lives today. We now stand in long security lines in airports. Our country got embroiled in armed conflicts over the events. The United States is still waging a seemingly endless “war on terror.”
But beyond that– terrorism hit America at home on September 11th, and the results were catastrophic. Over 6,000 people wounded and nearly 3,000 people killed. The events caused a paradigm shift in our nations consciousness– we were no longer invincible.
We were no longer safe.
Unsafe addresses this central concept, with the appropriate distance required for audiences to feel comfortable enough to engage, yet with the absolute right level of ever-present danger to speak of the new world in which we’ve been living for the past 15 years.
This is why we need a play like Unsafe now.