Volume 79, Number 01 | June 10 - 16, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Theater

THE AMISH PROJECT
Through June 28
Written and performed by Jessica Dickey
Directed by Sarah Cameron Sunde
At Rattlesnake Playwrights Theater
224 Waverly Place (between W. 10th & Perry Streets)
(212) 868-4444 or www.rattlestick.org

Photo by Chia Messina

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 YMCA’s 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 couldn’t 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.

“That’s right,” she says — and then, with a laugh: “What am I talking about? In rehearsals, that’s all we talk about.”

Not laughing: “Something about the Nickel Mines crime deeply disturbed and saddened me. Before Nickel Mines I’d 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 didn’t 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 killer’s 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 they’re all alike.      
But see, that’s not exactly true.
Some Amish use a computer for business (battery powered), some don’t…
So while on this side of the cultural fence the Amish appear      
“all alike”      
(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 Dickey’s 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 year’s Fringe production, playwright and director went together to Nickel Mines to see what they could see.

As opposed to Moisés Kaufman’s “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 “didn’t 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 didn’t 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 don’t want to remember this.’ There’s 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 Dickey’s 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, London’s 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 Gilman’s “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 don’t know if there are any children in it. If there are, they will be worth a look and listen.

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