“Sweetheart, I’m fine, and I’m running for my life, I cannot talk to you right now,” Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif) recalls telling her son, when he telephoned her while she was scrambling down the Capitol staircase escaping the mob on January 6, 2021.
Exactly a year after the storming of the US Capitol, Torres and 22 other female members of Congress who were endangered on that day will become characters tonight in “Running for My Life,” a work of documentary theater that’s being given a free staged reading online by the Contra Costa Civic Theater, a community theater located about five miles north of Berkeley, California.
I talked to Marilyn Langbehn, the artistic director of the theater, about the origins of the play, and the dramatization of history. The conversation is edited.
Jonathan Mandell: How did this play “Running For My Life” come about?
Marilyn Langbehn: Last year, right after the events took place, I found out about this article from the publication The 19th where they had contacted all 143 female members of Congress, and asked them to talk about their experiences on that day. And 23 of the representatives, all of them Democrats, agreed to go on the record. I looked at the article and thought, this is a perfect opportunity to let people know what it felt like from the inside. And so I got together a group of actors, and we read it on Zoom. And it was so well received, that we decided to do it again about two weeks later. And at that time, at the end of the second reading, we said, we will do this again on the anniversary.
-Is there any difference between the script of “Running for My Life” and the original article, which is put together as a kind of oral history?
No. I let the ladies speak for themselves. The only changes are at the beginning to provide context, and some way to wrap it up at the end. The ending is still sort of free floating depending on what happens in the next day — if there’s some sort of public statement that makes good sense for us to use
So I take it from what you just said that it’s a live staged reading on Zoom
What made you think that the article would make a good play?
I think because the descriptions of what happened are so vivid. It’s very much in the same vein as the Living Newspapers in the 1930s. It has all of the moving pieces of really good drama built right into it.
-Do any particular lines stick out for you?
When Abigail Spanberger texted back to her husband: “Don’t worry, my hair’s back in a ponytail,” which to her meant she was ready to fight. She’s a former CIA officer,
Pramila Jayapal was not interviewed, but a couple of the other representatives talk about how concerned they were for her because she just had had knee surgery, and they were worried about how to get her out of the Chamber on crutches.
Barbara Lee talks about how she decided to wear tennis shoes that day, because “I knew that something was going to go down.” She didn’t want to repeat what she remembered had happened on September 11th, when she had had to leave the Capitol in high heels and run up Pennsylvania Avenue.
They all have little moments, where they talk about being in their offices, they talk about getting conflicting information about how to put on a gas mask. These are the things that we didn’t see because the cameras were all focused on what was going on outside. The imagery is indelible. One of the things that I loved — well, “loved” is the wrong word obviously – but I was struck by the theater of it, the imagery. All you have to do is listen to them and you immediately begin to conjure it up yourself.
-Did all these real-life characters being women help draw you in?
Absolutely. The reading falls under a series in our theater called Reading Stage, which is dedicated to presenting the work of women and playwrights of color.
–How common is it for a community theater to engage in new work that deals with the pressing issues of the day?
I think that that depends on a number of factors — the interest level of the producing organization to do the work and the interest level of the community to support it and see it. We’re really lucky where I am. We have a very engaged, very savvy audience and they love this kind of work.
–Have there been other works of theater about the January 6th attack on the Capitol, or the events surrounding it?
I haven’t heard of anything. It doesn’t mean they’re not out there. I’m certainly not plugged in everywhere, but I’ve been kind of looking to see and I haven’t seen anything else.
–Does that surprise you?
Yes and no. The history of this thing is obviously still being written. There’s going to be so much coming out especially once we start hearing the testimony and findings from the January 6th Commission.
If you think about it, we’re still waiting for the great 9/11 play, whatever that looks like. Some parts of our history are harder to capture theatrically. It’s a queston of what story wants to be told. I’m not sure that we know that yet.
“Running for My Life” is a snapshot in time of one very specific group of people, with a very specific reaction to events. There’s a lot more to tell about what we experienced. We’ll have to wait to see who the artists are that want to take on that challenge.
The free Zoom reading starts at 7pm PST/10 p.m. EST. Sign up here to receive the link.