Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

Honoring A Region: Interview with Playwright Lori Matthews

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

by Marcella Kearns

1960. Senator John F. Kennedy runs against Vice President Richard Nixon for the office of POTUS. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee is published, and Lori MatthewsHitchcock's PSYCHO is released. Arnold Palmer wins the U.S. Open golf championship. Students protesting segregation in the United States hold sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters at Woolworth. Wisconsin faces Washington in the Rose Bowl and loses 44-8. The first weather satellite to broadcast television images of cloud cover is launched by the United States…

Events most significant to us tend to etch such minute detail into our memory and senses that we can place ourselves in those circumstances again effortlessly (whether we wish to or not). For the residents of Kingsport, Tennessee and surrounds, the events of October 4, 1960 have that dread weight. Lori Matthews, playwright of OCTOBER, BEFORE I WAS BORN, hails originally from Kingsport, though she now makes her home in Stoughton, Wisconsin. She was born, as the title of this semi-autobiographical piece implies, less than a year after tragedy struck her hometown. Just before the first rehearsal and read-through of the play for MCT's production, she sits with me in MCT's conference room to discuss her connection to the story and what drew her to explore it as the background for her family drama.

"I imagine it's similar to people who were in Hawaii for Pearl Harbor, people who were in Dallas when JFK was shot," she says. "There's something that happens in your backyard that changes the way the world looks the next day. In our area, for a long time, it was this accident. People knew where they were when they heard the explosion or what they did after. It was rural folklore." The memory extends far beyond the boundaries of the region, as we'll discover. In less than half an hour, Ken Lukow, an MCT Friend and retired engineer attending the read-through, will recall for Lori how his company at the time worked with Tennessee Eastman-how he still recalls hearing the news.

Tennessee Eastman Company, a chemical manufacturing corporation, was and remains (as Eastman Chemical Company) the largest employer in the region around Kingsport, Tennessee. In 1960, over 12,000 employees worked at the complex-"To see it, it looks like a city in itself," Lori shares. Around 4:45 PM on October 4, Building 207 of the aniline division of the plant exploded, sending a mushroom cloud into the sky and shattering glass in buildings up to four miles away. Containment of the subsequent fire and retrieval or rescue of victims of the explosion took the efforts of emergency responders and residents from several neighboring towns and cities. Lori continues, recalling her research and stories from relatives: "Even though it was a huge company, there was still a sense of community-it left the people in charge broken-hearted that it happened. Communities gathered to give blood, Boy Scout troops to pick up trash and aid in repairs…At that time, it was everyone's plight." A community tragedy, in other words, also became a community response.

For those who experienced October 4 and even for those who were born after, the event was indelible. Lori herself grew up a child of Tennessee Eastman employees. She recalls going to Horsekrickers on Saturday mornings, where children of employees could see movies, roller skate, and socialize, and seeing a piece of shrapnel from the explosion across the street. She recalls a more pivotal moment in the history of the play's inception, then: years later, when her mother was in the hospital and Lori was visiting, a nurse came to take some vitals. Her mother noticed that the nurse had the same last name as one of the victims of the explosion, and she wondered if the two were related. Then her mother uttered a phrase which would stick: "In October, before you were born…"

For Lori, her mother's recall of the event, her hometown's experience, and Lori's personal circumstances-culminating in being with and waiting for news of her mother in the hospital-ultimately provided seeds for the fundamental questions of the play itself. The notion of any period of suspense in one's life, whether due to illness, emergency, or opportunity, led her to explore the situation in which audiences will see characters in OCTOBER-three family members waiting to hear about news of loved ones who were at the plant at the time of the emergency. "How do you fill that time? What do you do with yourself? How does that shape how you think about life [in the interim, or after]? In writing I tried to stay true to what I did know about waiting, filling the time, the worry; the questions of do you think hopefully? Do you prepare for the worst? And what do you do when you're stuck in a room with someone you don't normally get along with, besides?" Though the characters involved are rooted squarely in fiction, Lori explains that she wished to take great care in handling the history in which they're placed with gentleness and respect. Ultimately, she hopes asking those questions against the backdrop of an intimate part of family and community history honors all those involved in or affected by the event in Kingsport-and, in wider scope, to anyone who has endured a period of waiting, whether the end result is loss, disappointment, relief, or triumph.

Our conversation detours, then, to end in affectionate reflection for the geography in which OCTOBER is set. Lori mentions that about 60 members of her family attended the world premiere at the Barter Theatre in Virginia and confesses that much of her inspiration in writing stems from the Appalachian region of her birth. I ask her if for that reason she considers herself a regional writer, despite adopting Wisconsin as her home. She concurs. "When I was in graduate school, I had a movement teacher who asked me how I had adjusted to indoor plumbing when he found out I had come from eastern Tennessee… The stereotype of Appalachia is really different from what I know. Part of the driving force in many of the pieces I write is to honor the truth of the situation and to correct the stereotype." She's thrilled with the care in the acting and design work already in progress at MCT-from scenic designer Jen Trieloff's wallpaper choices to Raeleen McMillion's dialect.

We're thrilled to have her with us.

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