Jessica Dickey, who wrote and stars in The Amish Project
A good, tough, poetic fictional take on traumatic slaughter
Playwright mines insight from the unknown
By Jerry Tallmer
Jessica Dickey was on a treadmill and watching television when word of the Amish murders broke on the screen; right in front of her nose and across the nation.
The TV was attached to the Brooklyn YMCAs treadmill. It went like choong! right in front of me, she vividly remembers.
A gunman had invaded a one-room school in the tiny community of Nickel Mines in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and there shot to death five children all girls ages 6 to 13 (having first ordered all the boys out of the premises).
This was on October 2, 2006. Treadmills and television, two of the irregularities in my life, says the seriously beautiful golden-blonde Jessica Dickey with a good-humored shrug; but there had been nothing at all good-humored or funny about her reaction to the traumatic slaughter at Nickel Mines, or the way the TV commentators on every channel chewed the whole thing over and over and over, extracting the last drop of sensational juice dissecting everything, adding detail after detail for the next 24 hours.
I usually find it very easy to look away, but with this one I couldnt look away. I guess you could say I was grabbed and held by it, says actress-cum-playwright Dickey, who is performing all seven of the interlocking roles of The Amish Project, her own good tough poetic fictional take on what happened that day in 2006 in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania the state where she herself had been born and bred and what perhaps lay, sexually and otherwise, behind the those killings.
But the sexual questions are very obliquely put.
Thats right, she says and then, with a laugh: What am I talking about? In rehearsals, thats all we talk about.
Not laughing: Something about the Nickel Mines crime deeply disturbed and saddened me. Before Nickel Mines Id been writing a play personally, for myself. The Amish Project was the first piece of writing I really put out into the world.
Wrote the first draft from December 2007 to January 2008, submitted it to The Fringe [New York International Fringe Festival] in February 2008, and it was accepted in May. Went very fast, actually; I didnt think anything in theater could go fast.
ANNA, age 14, to the gunman: Sir, please shoot me first.
VELDA, age 6, sister of Anna: Please shoot me second.
And he did, and he did.
You create those imagined children amazingly, said an admiring journalist.
Thank you, said the young woman who, so to speak, brought them into the world, and portrays them little Velda with just a hint of a lithp and their killer and the killers wife and everyone else.
The Nickel Mines bloodbath of October 2, 2006, would not have been quite so disturbing if it had not been perpetrated against a peaceful self-sealed community like the Amish about whom the rest of us know very little.
Playwright Dickey invents a character an Our Town-type historian named Bill North to tell us something about the Amish:
Okay, first of all, you need to understand
most people think that Amish is just Amish,
that theyre all alike.
But see, thats not exactly true.
Some Amish use a computer for business (battery powered), some dont
So while on this side of the cultural fence the Amish appear
(via their common symbols,
such as bonnets and buggies),
the truth is there are infinite varieties in how
each district negotiates being Amish
in a modern world.
The Amish Project was workshopped at the Cherry Lane Theater. The play touched writer Dickeys literary agent, Morgan Jenness, who moved it along. Its director then and since is Sarah Cameron Sunde. About a week before the opening of last years Fringe production, playwright and director went together to Nickel Mines to see what they could see.
As opposed to Moisés Kaufmans Laramie Project, which had a team interviewing dozens of residents of the town where college student Matthew Shepard had been crucified on a Wyoming fence by two drunken homophobes, Dickey and Sunde didnt try to talk to anyone. We just looked.
There was a logical reason for such limitation. Or a logical barrier: The dichotomy between something that happened i.e., reality and then the play [i.e., something imagined]. I didnt want to bring them together.
But just looking had its own messages. That one-room schoolhouse, for instance, was no longer there.
The Amish had torn it down one week after the killings, and would presently build a New Hope schoolhouse elsewhere.
As if saying: We dont want to remember this. Theres now just a little field, hard to find, where the old school was. And three maple trees left standing to mark the spot.
Like the clump of trees at the Bloody Angle the High Water Mark at Gettysburg?
Yes, like that.
Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, just above the Mason-Dixon Line and next door to Gettysburg, is Jessica Dickeys hometown. She was born there to a social worker mother, a gym teacher father on a September 19th, she says, stopping short of giving the year.
I mean I already admitted I was on a treadmill, she ventures, handing over any further defense of the matter to a pair of astonishingly blue-on-blue eyes.
She earned her BFA from Boston University, alongside a year at LAMDA, Londons Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
She lives in Brooklyn with her fiancé, actor Jerry Richardson, and is at work on a new play, Yellow, inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilmans The Yellow Wallpaper (1891) brought up to date and to an unlikely relationship between an American woman and a Bosnian man who survived the concentration camp at Omarska.A good, tough, poetic fictional take on traumatic slaughter
Playwright mines insight from the unknown
I dont know if there are any children in it. If there are, they will be worth a look and listen.