By Bridgette M. Redman
Even after thousands of years, the Greek chorus persists because it lets audiences process events of huge emotional impact with a degree of distance.
In 2003, Playwright Deborah Brevoort tackled the tragedy of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing that took place over Lockerbie, Scotland. The plane flying from Frankfurt to Detroit (with stops in London and New York) on December 21, 1988, was scattered over Lockerbie. All 243 passengers and 16 crew were killed along with 11 people on the ground who were hit by aircraft debris. Twenty-one houses were destroyed.
Her play “Women of Lockerbie” is part of a season-long series of readings at Winding Road Ensemble. This production is being directed by China Young, who joined the ensemble in 2018 after having worked with them on and off since 2012. This is her first time directing a full-length reading for them.
In the show, a woman from New Jersey has arrived at Lockerbie to search for the remains of her son who was among the 190 Americans who died in the deadliest terror attack in the history of the United Kingdom. She meets a group of women from Lockerbie who are trying to collect all the clothing of the victims so they can wash them as a symbolic gesture. Opposing them is a U.S. government official.
While the bombing was 35 years ago, terrorism continues to be a compelling issue and a thorny problem that today’s audiences grapple with. The Winding Road Ensemble production takes place in the shadow of the recent accidental shooting down of an airliner in Iran that killed 176 people on January 8 of this year.
“Today we are living in the shadows of our own 9/11 experience and more recently we’ve had all these other plane incidents which is so identifiable as far as the circumstance,” Young says. “There is a recognition of the theme of grief that is explored in the show that is timeless. People are always going to be grieving over any number of tragedies.”
“Women of Lockerbie” shows how grief ties people from two different cultures together as they try to process their loss and the loss of those around them.
“It brings people together from two different parts of the world—Americans and Scots—in a way that reminds us that grief is a global experience and there are no boundaries,” Young says.
Brevoort uses the device of a Greek chorus to explore the grief—a device that simultaneously takes a step back from the first-hand intensity of the complex emotions and draws the audience closer to it with its incisive analysis of the feelings and the way it lays them bare for exploration.
Young says she has always been attracted to more experimental theater and much of her background is in that kind of work. It is why she has been so eager to do this show ever since the Winding Road Ensemble’s artistic director first approached her and asked her to do it.
“It’s written very poetically,” Young says. “It is written in a way that encourages the creative around the piece to stay away from realism and naturalism and really lean more into the stylization of an ancient Greek chorus.”
The Greek chorus was used extensively in ancient Greek theater, the place where modern theater draws its roots back to. The chorus is a group of performers without name or individual characterization. In ancient times, it would be performed by between 12 and 50 players who dance, sang or spoke in unison.
Modern works inspired by this use a chorus to elevate the language, to take a step back from realism and to offer a variety of background and expository information to the audience. The chorus is an internal audience that comments on the action of the play, usually in a lyrical manner. They also can serve as a commentary on the inner working of character’s minds and emotions.
“One of the author notes mentions that she wanted to explore the story in that way because the Greeks told these massive, awful tragic tales in this choral way as a way to explore the emotions that it contains, but in a little bit of a detached, emotionless way,” Young says. “The impact of the story is so huge, it is important that the structure of the play and the presentation of it isn’t bogged down by the heavy emotions that surround it.”
Winding Road Ensemble alternates full productions with readings throughout their season as a way of fitting more works into their season while remaining within their budget parameters. It is a way to bring many works to their stage that they would not otherwise be able to afford.
“It is one way that Winding Road has chosen to do additional work at minimal cost,” Young says. “We are a very small company and have very minimal resources. The other companies that we compete with in town typically have a four to six to eight shows a season. This was our way of being able to say we have a six-show season, but only three are fully produced. The other three are readings that are minimally produced but still are able to have the creative juices flowing.”
Young points out that the readings also allow the ensemble to give more people opportunities they might not otherwise get. They are, she says, able to integrate other actors who might be brand new to Winding Road. It also gives their ensemble members the opportunity to cultivate new skills.
“I wouldn’t be able to direct a full production, but this is an opportunity for me to get experience I haven’t had,” Young says.
As a staged reading, the actors will have scripts in hand and there will not be full sets, props or costumes. Young says she has asked her actors to commit to a few more rehearsals than staged readings typically have so that they can explore the poetry in the script and how to deliver it. She wants to work with them to create vocal stylizations of the poetry.
“I also have ideas of layering extra voices onto certain pieces of dialog,” Young says. “So without having to physicalize the stylization, we can capture it vocally.”
She also believes that she will be able to use tableaus and stage pictures the way Greek choruses originally did, even with the actors having scripts in hand.
While Young is primarily an actor, she’s had opportunities recently at both Winding Road Ensemble and the Arizona Theater Company to stretch her directorial muscles. Last year, she directed a show in Winding Road’s 10-minute play festival. It was “Love in the Lourve” that featured an after-hours conversation between the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo.
“It was a really great show and I felt really successful in that experiment,” Young says.
Then, more recently, she was the assistant director for “The Royale” at The Arizona Theater Company, a show about the first African American boxing world champion.
“That one was amazing,” Young says. “I mostly sat in the room and took my own notes and occasionally offered them to the director. My mother used to always joke about how I was very bossy and was destined to be a director.”
Young works for the Arizona Theater Company. She was the executive assistant to the managing director and a board liaison, but last November she switched roles and moved into the artistic side of the theater as an artistic manager.
As a young woman in her 30s, Young was not familiar with the historical events of the play before reading the script, as she was only three years old when it happened.
“It is far enough removed that this will actually be a new story to a lot of people and another reminder of how history keeps repeating itself in these strange ways,” Young says. “I hope that it reminds people of our ability to just hold each other up in times of grief. It encourages them to remember that part of themselves and be able to go out and extend that part of themselves because of how the piece moves them.”
As Young has continued to read the script over and over this past year, she has continued to find more parallels to contemporary events. She says this show will always be relevant because grief has no physical boundaries or boundaries of time.
“The reasons I do theater is to remind people of their own humanity and to encourage people to embrace their own humanity and extend it to others. I think this piece has real potential to make that happen.”