I live in a city where I am constantly asked to interact with the ghosts of the past.
Simply the act of hearing a train whistle in the background or foreground at any given moment calls me to stories from a hundred years ago or longer. Stories of people being shot on sight for being caught hopping from one train to another. The bloody history of Andrew Jackson and the pain he caused the Cherokee tribes as they were forced to relocate. There are stories of witches that used to rule this territory. There are stories of Native American curses that caused massive tornadoes that followed a path from a Cherokee burial sight to a cemetery where the bodies were relocated. The city is about to embark on an archeological dig under our former baseball stadium as it is likely that there are hundreds of slaves buried under the diamond. The list goes on and on. Most of the new transplants to the city complain about how haunted the city feels. I learned to ignore it when I could and honor it when I couldn't. The soil is bloody and it cries out for recognition in this land.
So, when I was asked to join a production called "Haunted" that abrasiveMedia, FALL, and Actor's Bridge were collaborating on, I was honored. I began to study the inspiration for Nashville's first immersive theater piece: The 1918 Crash at Dutchman's Curve. Two trains left their stations, one departing from Memphis, the other leaving from Union Station in Nashville. There was a "scheduling blunder" and the two trains collided unable to see each other until seconds before the collision at Dutchman's Curve. Most of the casualties were African American as there were Jim Crowe cars that the black passengers were forced to ride on. Their's were wooden train cars positioned at the front of the caravans. The white passengers had metal cars in the back of the caravan. Bigoted planning for the possibility of such a disaster. A massive, human tragedy was born.
I was brought on to collaborate with FALL during one of the main passages of the immersive sequence. I was allowed to play a snippet that I had rewritten of "Now That You're Gone" by Marion Harris and a song that I wrote in response to the Charlottesville protests earlier this year called "The Day Has Come." My hope was to aid in the inspiration of a thoughtful meditation on what it looks like not to back away from tragedy. Especially where disenfranchised voices need to be supported. Especially where it my job to stand with my brothers and sisters and hold them when they need holding, support them when they need supporting, and grieve with them when they need understanding and a caring presence.
It was also my honor to play during the "pre-show." This was a special opportunity to prepare hearts for what they were about to experience. I saw it as a chance to gently rub at wounds that haven't quite healed and give people permission to carry them into the "train cars." Hopefully, so that they could lead these ghosts of their own timeline in the train cars in order to let them find their own place of rest. I walked slowly around the room singing "Without A Sound," "I Can Feel It, You Can Feel It," and finally "Freight Train" by Elizabeth Cotten (in which she miraculously asks to be buried on Chestnut Street so that she can "hear the Number 9 as it goes rolling by." I was asked to learn this song by someone who did not notice that line was hidden in the text. The production was on a train line at the corner of 4th and Chestnut Street). I carefully looked into people's eyes. I made attempts that hopefully were understood of creating meaning and a sense of safety for my audience. And then train conductors came and guided them into Haunted.
I didn't know what to expect and although I went to theater school and launched a theatrical production last year, my experience with theater from the inside is rather limited. The whole production was challenging and stretching. And an absolute gift. I'll be thinking about it for months.
If you'd like to learn more about the train crash at Dutchman's Curve here are some resources for you:
In the meantime. Have a happy Halloween and please be safe.
May we honor the blood of our country by grieving what needs to be grieved and allowing the lost voices the honor that they deserve.