Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Fringe 2011 Review: The Day the Sky Turned Black

Posted by metaphorical on 20 August 2011

The Day the Sky Turned Black

0h 55m
VENUE #10: IATI Theater
Performance seen: Fri 19 @ 3:30
Remaining performances: Wed 24 @ 9:15 Sat 27 @ 2 Sun 28 @ 4:45

Rating: 3
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

When tragedy strikes, we seek news; afterward, we crave narrative. Journalists have been late to the story party, at least compared to playwrights, who have been explaining tragedies with stories at least since Sophocles.

So it’s odd that “The Day the Sky Turned Black” manages to convey almost as much information, but not nearly as much affect, as a newspaper or magazine feature article that would take half the time to read.

“The Day” tries to tell the story of the 2009 Australian “Black Saturday” bushfires through five voices: a 6-year-old boy; a mother whose son was one of several arsonists responsible for the severity of the tragedy, which killed 173 people; an older woman widowed by the fire; a schoolteacher who survived, though her home and neighbors did not; and a journalist.

According to a program note, the representation of the journalist is taken “verbatim” from interviews, while the other characters are fictional. This seems a bit odd as well, because the journalist’s speeches are completely banal, while the others are all reasonably affecting.

The stories are told sequentially in monologue, generally in the order given above, in four rounds: before, during, after, and one year later. Except for the journalist’s, they eventually evoke our interest and concern, but for me this didn’t happen until round 3. Given the show’s structure, the earlier rounds are necessary, but the halfway mark is a long time to wait to start caring. That’s why we have narrative structures—single protagonists around whom we fashion a story, or some other point of connection. (It will turn out that the family of the older woman lives down the street from the 6-year-old boy, but we don’t learn that until round 4 and it has no importance to the play.)

If we’re going to ask ourselves why the playwright chose a structure that sucked half the life out of the 55 minutes she alloted herself, we might as well consider some other uncomfortable questions as well.

Why these five stories? If playwright Ali Kennedy Scott wanted to tell “an inspiring story of courage” why are all the characters in the play survivors? And why are there no firefighting stories, the logical place to look for acts of courage?

Perhaps it’s because rather than focus on stories of courage, much of the Australian media has dwelt on how the authorities fell down on the job on Black Saturday. Six months after the tragedy, for example, the Sydney News Herald reported,

As evidence before the Bushfires Royal Commission has spelt out in excruciating detail, failure was everywhere. Command, control and effective communication are the pillars of any military operation. The Country Fire Authority, with its brigades, captains and lieutenants, fits neatly into that mould. Yet none of it worked.

Scott briefly takes to task Victoria state officials for, of all things, failed to monitor potential arsonists, but she has otherwise chosen to tell us, at least by omission, a children’s tale that’s either poorly researched or deliberately propagandistic.

It takes but a minute’s googling to learn that, but that brings us back to those pesky journalists. If they’ve finally learned how to tell a story, have dramaturges forgotten?

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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