Mentors made the difference in the birthing of a play about downwinders. Then something mysterious unfolded: Various artists, performers and nonprofit organizations in the community came forward to plan events around the play’s run this month.
by Mary Dickson
I didn’t intend to write a play. I was writing a book about the human consequences of nuclear testing that blended my personal story as a downwinder with powerful documentation. In summer 2005, I was invited to spend a month as a writer-in-residence at the Mesa Refuge in Point Reyes, California, to work on the manuscript. One day my book would be included on the bookshelf alongside those of previous residents-Terry Tempest Williams, Gray Brechin, Peter Barnes and many other environmental writers I admired. I returned home that summer with a 275-page manuscript.
Then, I met L.A. actress/activist Mimi Kennedy, who was in Salt Lake to speak at a political fundraiser. I told her about my thyroid cancer and my work on behalf of downwinders. It turned out she had family members in New Jersey with thyroid problems. That’s when I showed her part of my manuscript that documented how widespread fallout from nuclear testing was. I showed her how areas in New Jersey and across the country were hot spots, how thyroid problems including cancer like mine were common among people who had been exposed to fallout as children. Later that week she left a message, “I read your piece again and it’s just amazing. So much beauty and heart. I wanted to call you and egg you on to write a play. It would stand for all time. I’ll get my friends in L.A. to do a staged reading.”
I’ve had monologues produced, but a play? She had to be kidding. Her friends in L.A.? Sure. I chalked it up to one of those moments of unbridled enthusiasm that leads people to make big plans they never intend to pursue once the burst subsides. But a few weeks later, she called again.
“How’s the play coming?”
“Oh, just fine,” I lied.
She had a date for a fundraiser that would include a staged reading. All I had to do was to tell my truth, she said.
“Make it personal. Tell your story. Weave in the facts.”
That night I started writing a play.
Amazingly, everything kept falling into place. At a dance concert, Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Aden Ross told me she wanted to get together and pick my brain for a play she wanted to write about downwinders. I told her about Mimi Kennedy and the play I was writing.
“Of course!” she said enthusiastically. “This is your play. I’m so excited you’re doing it.”
We started meeting for coffee at a place we called “The Two Anarchists” because neither of us could ever remember its name. Aden became my mentor, a dear friend and a source of boundless encouragement. Whenever I felt like giving up, she pulled me back in.
“Writing is easy,” she said, quoting a writer-another name we couldn’t remember. “You just cut open your veins and bleed.”
So I cut open my veins and let the play take shape.
As I wrote, rewrote, massaged, took out scenes and added others, Aden cheered me on. Then, she asked if she should could tell Jerry Rapier at Plan B Theatre about the script.
I’ve long admired Jerry for understanding the power of art to tell the stories that shape our lives. Since 1991, Plan B has provided socially and politically conscious theater, explored cultural heritage and diversity and fostered the creation of new works.
When Jerry called to say he was going on a trip and would like to take my script along, I protested, saying it wasn’t finished. Jerry said that didn’t matter, he just wanted to read what I had. So I reluctantly gave him the script. A few days later he left a message on my answering machine. “We must talk post haste.” I called him. “I want to produce your play,” he said.
And so Plan B’s production of “Exposed” began. In many ways I’ve been working on it all my life. I am one of countless Americans who suffered the consequences of nuclear testing, having been diagnosed with thyroid cancer when I was 29. My older sister died of an autoimmune disease. In the Salt Lake City neighborhood where we grew up, I counted more than 54 people who got sick or died from fallout-related illnesses. From 1951 to 1992, the U.S. government exploded 928 nuclear bombs at the Nevada Test Site. Winds blew the fallout from those bombs across the nation while our government assured us, “There is no danger.” We traded our trust for our health and ultimately our lives.
Part memoir, part oral history and part journalistic investigation, “Exposed” puts a needed human face on what happened to unsuspecting populations as a result of nearly 1,000 atomic bombs exploded on our own soil.
“Exposed” follows two sisters- Mary, a writer, and Ann, a stay-at-home mother (beautifully played by accomplished actresses Joyce Cohen and Teri Cowan). Directed by Jerry Rapier, the play begins in 1985 when Mary has been treated with radiation after her cancer surgery. The play follows the sisters through their struggles with their illnesses, their support for each other, their discovery of the government’s betrayal and the source of their diseases, their fight to expose the truth and their determination not to let the mistakes of the past be repeated.
During her investigation, Mary meets and interviews people across the country, including a writer in New York who documented heavy fallout in upstate New York; a doctor in Missouri who linked the high cancer rates in his county with fallout; a former Air Force colonel who tracked fallout as far as Canada; and downwinders and activists such as Preston Truman, Michelle Thomas, Darlene Phillips, and Carole Gallagher who share their stories and expertise. Actors Kirt Bateman and Teresa Sanderson play multiple roles as these characters.
Scenes with the two sisters are juxtaposed with scenes taken from the actual declassified minutes of Atomic Energy Commission meetings, and testimony from government hearings. There’s even a scene with billionaire Howard Hughes, who was determined to “buy nuclear peace.” The play, which uncovers the web of government lies and cover-ups, spans the years through the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, right up to the Bush administration’s push for new nuclear weapons that could lead to renewed nuclear testing, including Divine Strake. Actors Jason Tatum and Mark Fossen play Official #1 and Official #2, who represent an assortment of government officials, including Atomic Energy commissioners and those working within the nuclear industry who deny fallout’s effects. They are, in essence, the everyman of the military-industrial complex.
“Exposed” is more than a retelling of a painful chapter of our nation’s past. It shows how the subject is still relevant today. Our government still lies and covers up the facts about weapons of mass destruction, using fear to carry out a policy that puts Americans at increased risk. And worse, our government still considers renewed testing a viable option.
The play is timely for another reason as well. Because of the lag effect (often decades) between fallout exposure and subsequent illness, we still live with the ongoing suffering from fallout. For downwinders, it’s never over. That why “Exposed” memorializes those who have died. Audience members will be invited to add names of other victims on a mural outside the theatre.
The response to the play has been incredibly heartening. After an early reading, actors started telling their own stories. One said his father had had thyroid cancer and his mother was dying of liver cancer. Another actor showed the scar on her neck from thyroid cancer surgery. The play elicits similar responses on every staged reading – including those on a Nation magazine cruise and at a staged public reading at Playhouse West in Walnut Creek, California. Stories and more stories continue to come forward.
Downwinders have been the forgotten casualties of the Cold War, the people deemed expendable by a government that called us “a low-use segment of the population.” I wrote “Exposed” to tell our story and to shed light on what a New York Times journalist called the “most prodigiously reckless program of human experimentation in U.S. history.”
As a writer, I know the power of words, and while the pen may be mightier than the sword, the eraser is mightier still. By bringing my very personal story to life and combining it with historical facts, I hope to ensure that our stories will not be erased. “Exposed” both bears witness and serves as a warning. If we learned anything from four decades of atomic testing, it is that we all live downwind.
By day, Mary Dickson is the director of Creative Services and host of “Contact” at KUED-TV.