A “Flash Community” at Lookingglass Theatre

Have you heard of flash mobs? It’s when a few people agree to meet somewhere and start singing a familiar song hoping that others will join in, and mostly they do. Strangers share a moment together and then go their separate ways. I’ve never experienced a flash mob, but this weekend at the Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago, after a performance of Eastland: A New Musical I experienced something I’ll call a “flash community” – here’s what happened.

Eastland is a show by Lookingglass ensemble member Andy White based on the tragic capsizing of the passenger ship, the Eastland, in the Chicago River in 1915. 844 people died, most of them employees of Western Electric. They were with their families headed across the lake for a company picnic that sadly never happened. So many young people orphaned, parents bereft of children, 22 whole families gone in minutes. Why the boat capsized was never officially determined, no one was held responsible and no insurance payments were ever made to the survivors. The musical tells the stories of two women who were actually on the boat that day, one died, the other survived. Andy White imagined what their lives must have been like, how they ended up on the Eastland that day, what hopes and disappointments they brought on board – well, here’s a snippet of a song from near the end of the show:

Wasn’t no one rich or famous

On that boat when it went down

Only dusty men with dusty books

Know or care who drowned

But stories and secrets were lost just the same

And glorious details of triumphs and shames

And when in the end the final river is crossed

What does it mean if all that is lost?

Raven had invited Alberta Adamson, President & CEO of the Eastland Fellowship Authority and the Center for History in Wheaton, IL to make a pre-show presentation (Alberta’s essay is in the study guide for the show). As we worked together to prepare for the program, Alberta told me how important it has been to preserve the stories of the victims for their families. The people who suffered losses that day rarely talked about the tragedy with the next generation. Alberta told me of one son who didn’t know his father was orphaned by the disaster till his father died. In a trunk in the attic that his father had told him contained nothing important, the son found memorabilia from the Eastland connecting his father to that day. By her dedication to the Eastland exhibit, Alberta is making sure the “stories and secrets” don’t get lost.

Alberta invited two men to join us for the show whose grandfathers were part of the rescue efforts that day. Frank Jeffers’ grandfather was a bridge tender who rescued 25 people and Dave Nelson’s grandfather, Elmer, was an iron worker who cut holes in the ship as it sat on its side in the river so that survivors could escape and victims be recovered. After the performance, Alberta and I were onstage with the entire cast for a post-show conversation and I invited Dave and Frank to share any thoughts they might have. Dave got up first and with tears in his eyes and a catch in his throat, thanked the cast for bringing the stories of the Eastland victims to life. He was especially gratefully that a welder, with sparks flying, was part of the show. Frank spoke too, full of tears and gratitude for this tribute to the people on the boat and those who worked fearlessly and tirelessly to help them.

After these two men spoke, there was a moment of silence. It seemed that all of us, cast and audience alike, were no longer outsiders to the tragedy. By telling and listening to the stories, we gave Frank and Dave a gift we did not anticipate, the gift of being remembered, of being embraced rather than forgotten.

The next day was Sunday and so I went to church. Adam Ericksen was preaching, always a treat, and the day’s text was Jesus calming the stormy sea, the disciples panicky in the boat. The coincidence struck me – here was another story of fear on the water – and when Adam asked us to think about where was God when storms overtake us, I listened carefully to his answer:

“God is in our boat, traveling through the mayhem with us. And that has implications for us as a church. The best way to be faithful to the God who calms the sea is not primarily to have intellectual belief in some doctrine. No. The best way to be faithful to this God is to be faithful to one another. To stay in the boat with one another. We don’t abandon one another. Because God is faithful to us, we can remain faithful to one another in the midst of the mayhem of the chaotic seas.”

The Lookingglass Theatre is not a church, but on Saturday we became a community that stayed in the boat with Frank and Dave. By listening to the stories, we stayed faithful to the victims and all the families struck by sorrow. Just as their grandfathers did not abandon the Eastland, we did not abandon Frank and Dave and I’ll tell you, even though it was temporary, a flash community that existed for a brief moment in time, all of us were enlarged by the experience. Maybe at their best, theater is like church and church is like theater – an experience that fuses an assortment of people together as they take responsibility for each other’s stories. Whether it’s a flash community or a church community, I do believe we can approach the Divine when we stay in the boat with one another. Andy White expresses this possibility with the closing lyrics of the show:

So all we can do

Beneath these poor stars

Is sit and tell each other

These stories of ours

Sing them aloud

In pitiful chorus

The stories of all those

Who’ve gone along before us

Tell me, is there any better way to pass the time?

Is there any better way to pass the time?
I don’t think there is.

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