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  • Toward a Dramaturgy of Divergence:Remembering 9/11, Fostering Dialogue, and Embracing Dissent
  • Elliot Leffler (bio) and Michael Mellas (bio)

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 9/11.1 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.

In the current political moment, sustaining diverse and complex narratives around 9/11 feels both particularly important and uniquely difficult. Throughout this campaign season, when the conversation has turned to 9/11, it has presented an opportunity to double down on the simplistic storytelling of “good guys” and “bad guys.” As early as last November, when the candidates entered their final few months of campaigning before the Iowa caucuses, Trump began telling stories about 9/11 at a political rally. Thousands of Arab Americans, he said, were cheering the fall of the twin [End Page 273] towers on the streets of New Jersey; he saw it from his personal television (Haberman). Meanwhile, he sat in his midtown apartment with a window toward downtown, personally watching people desperately jumping to their deaths (Diamond). The stories have all been debunked as fiction (Balsamo and Benac). Yet, these narratives, which depicted an isolated United States staring down a massive, unrelenting enemy, had resonance. Trump’s polling numbers immediately rose, and he eventually surged to capture more votes in a Republican primary than any other candidate in history (Bump; “Poll Chart”).

Storytellers of 9/11 come in all political stripes. At roughly the same time in the campaign, Democratic front-runner Clinton also invoked 9/11 in the midst of a debate with Sanders. When challenged to explain why she received campaign contributions from Wall Street, she shifted the conversation by invoking 9/11: “I represented New York on 9...


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pp. 273-282
Launched on MUSE
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