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Toward a Dramaturgy of Divergence: Remembering 9/11, Fostering Dialogue, and Embracing Dissent

Elliot Leffler and Michael Mellas

Introduction: Narrating 9/11

Citizens of the United States currently face a political climate characterized by extreme divisiveness and antagonism. For over a year we have witnessed and participated in a presidential campaign saturated with name-calling, xenophobia, and violent provocations. Mexican immigrants have been deemed rapists and criminals, and Muslims have been called an inherent threat. And while Donald Trump may be the worst offender, he is not the only one. At the Nevada State Democratic Convention, factions aligned with the two major candidates grew particularly polarized, with supporters of Bernie Sanders shouting down the speakers who were aligned with Hillary Clinton and phoning state chairwoman Roberta Lange with threats (Raju). After months of Trump supporters assaulting protesters at rallies, anti-Trump protesters stalked and attacked rally-goers after a Trump campaign event in San Jose (Mathis-Lilley). Meanwhile, many of us cluster together with like-minded people on social media, creating echo chambers of political tirades. The Supreme Court remains stuck with four progressive justices pitted against four conservative justices, reflecting the polarized country that it serves. We stumble our way from one mass shooting to the next, listening to the same well-rehearsed narratives about the Second Amendment.

In the midst of this political climate, we experienced the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. Memorials like this one offer the potential to soften the political antagonism as citizens come together to mourn, reflect, and question. At times like these, how can theatre-makers use the anniversary of 9/11 to help shift the political discourse?

Five years ago, when Americans commemorated the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the political climate was not much more congenial. Tea Party protests had already sprung up throughout the country and Occupy Wall Street would soon begin its Zuccotti Park encampment. At that time, we (the coauthors of this essay) co-directed a devised performance at the University of Minnesota that led into an hour-long community dialogue. In this free performance, our purpose was to convene a space for questioning how, when, and why we remember 9/11—to leverage the unique power of this day in order to promote a reflective, inclusive political discourse. In this essay we offer our critical reflections on the process and the performance in order to investigate how theatre can be an important part of fostering a sphere for inquisitive, disparate reactions to 9/11. We hope that our readers will join us in thinking about how, to what extent, and with what limitations the devising process we used can provide spaces for such open reflection at the theatre.

Continue reading this article on the Theatre Topics web page, or contact Elliot directly for more information about this research.