OCU Theatre Students Portray Survivors of OKC Bombing in Verbatim Play

Apr 14, 2015

Everyone remembers exactly where they were when they found out about the Murrah Building bombing on April 19, 1995. It’s a moment frozen in time.

"I was in southeast London, I was directing a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the ICA, and I was in a rehearsal and a friend of mine came in and said ‘you have to watch the television’," says Brian Parsons, the associate dean of Oklahoma City University’s School of Theatre.

But what do you do if you can’t remember? There’s now an entire generation of young 20-somethings who have no recollection of that day or the lessons learned. So, Parsons is using art to help.

"We didn’t want to recreate that day because that day doesn’t need recreating," he says. "We wanted to really show that out of evil and out of tragedy comes beauty and hope."

So, this week, OCU’s School of Theatre is launching a play. It’s a verbatim style play, based on 26 testimonies from survivors, first responders, members of the media and others. And it’s not just about that day, it’s about the grit and resilience of Oklahomans, the pride, the will to survive.

Members of the “20th Anniversary Oklahoma City Bombing Project” cast.
Credit Josh Robinson

The play, entitled “The 20th Anniversary Oklahoma City Bombing Project,” was written by English playwright Steve Gilroy and was commissioned in August. Gilroy has written verbatim plays for other historical events and experiences, including the plight of women in Afghanistan.

Michelle Roselle is a senior at Oklahoma City University and portrays Florence Rogers, a survivor of the bombing, and Jenifer Reynolds, a member of the media. She opens the play with a monologue of Reynolds as she remembers her grandmother, a widow and a pioneer, feeding her kids by washing clothes.

Roselle was two years old in 1995 and doesn’t remember anything about the bombing. During the process of creating this play, she and other actors met the characters they portray. She says this kind of performance --- the real stories with lights, sounds and costumes --- will help the next generation understand the impact of the bombing.

"You can truly bring a story to life on stage, and if it moves someone, then that story will stay with them for a lifetime, they’ll always remember the visual and emotional experience," says Roselle.

The way the actors portray the stories will be unique because it will be in the subject’s own words, including all the 'umms' and 'ahhs' that happen in natural speech. Parsons thinks that’s one of the defining characteristics of verbatim-style plays. He says they tried to dig deeper into the survivors’ experiences during the interview process by asking them questions like what music they were listening to in 1995.

"It completely blindsided all of them," says Parsons. "They had never been asked about what music they had been…and the purpose of that question was to really throw open their sense memory about it. Now, some people had a perfect recollection of music. Some people couldn’t remember any sounds from that period. It’s almost as if the explosion pushed away that part of their life, blew away that part of their life."

For others, when they remembered the music, they remembered images and images brought forth memories they had never talked about. Parsons says many of those memories are heartwarming and some are funny, tying together Oklahoma’s tragic experience with the spirit of resilience and recovery.

OCU Theatre will perform the play free of charge Thursday through Sunday. They will also make the play available to schools.

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Editor's Note: It’s been 20 years since a bomb destroyed the Murrah Building in downtown Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds of others. KOSU and our partners with the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange are marking the anniversary of the historic event with a series of stories about the bombing and its aftermath.