TALKING AMISH: JESSICA DICKEY AND SARAH CAMERON SUNDE WITH TOMMY SMITH
A man enters an Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania. He releases the boys and young teacher, and keeps the girls. After being surrounded by the police, he shoots the girls and then himself.
This happened on October 2, 2006.
The Amish community’s response was beyond belief. Instead of exacting vengeance, they immediately forgave the attacker. They made efforts to comfort the shooter’s family, acknowledging them as fellow victims.
Actress Jessica Dickey, inspired by this story, penned THE AMISH PROJECT, now having its official World Premiere at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater after a hit run in the New York International Fringe Festival and a workshop production at the Cherry Lane. The following is an interview with playwright/performer Jessica Dickey and director Sarah Cameron Sunde.
TOMMY SMITH (RAIL): How are you dealing with our perception of the Amish versus the reality?
JESSICA DICKEY: We’re doing our best to represent the culture authentically, but it is a dramatization. Give ourselves creative license. It’s in the writing itself. This is a true event but these are fictional characters and a fictional exploration of the events. Like “Law & Order” is how I explain it to my hometown.
SARAH CAMERON SUNDE: [laughs] Yeah, yeah.
JD: [laughs] Please put that in the paper.
RAIL: Yeah, totally, yeah. [mimics typing] “It’s like ‘Law & Order’.”
JD: So basically we have made several gestures towards authenticity. The thing is giving yourself license to edit and include information that helps the story forward. So that’s been an interesting negotiation. I think it serves the play without making it feel like the fucking, um…you know like, “The PBS version of Amish culture, narrated by Sean Penn.”
RAIL: When you think of the event, what are moments or images that keep coming back to you?
JD: I think the things that were the central images for me made their way right into the play. When I think of the gunman—and I didn’t know him—but when I think of the gunman inside me, that I wrote, I’m so moved by him. He breaks my heart as much as the girls. And the complicated light and dark of that moment when the Amish are there with the gunman’s widow when she’s understanding—or discovering —for the first time that they are there to be with her, to forgive her, and the physical transaction of something that complex and unknown and amazing and painful entering into her consciousness. That’s a moment I was fascinated with.
RAIL: What kind of understanding have you come to of the situation by working on the play?
SCS: I remember the event but I didn’t latch onto it the same way as Jessie did. I definitely remember hearing about it on the radio. For me the biggest question that always comes up is, what would happen if we forgave the person who hurt us the most deeply in this world? What would happen if our perspective shifted and we were able to do that? I mean, really do that. Because that’s so not the way that our mainstream culture thinks about things. It’s not the way I think about things. But I do feel like, and I guess my perspective has shifted, in a weird way that the play makes me reconsider my actions. In a way it is very personal, because it’s like, Wow, if that could happen, and the Amish response could be that, then what is the ripple effect? What if we do that with our neighbors who hurt us?
JD: But also I don’t think the play champions forgiveness—
JD: —or says that we should be just like the Amish. I think it sets up a complex picture about forgiveness and think it certainly lands on honoring the authenticity of that choice, the singularity of forgiving as opposed to many other ways that don’t involve forgiveness that we culturally have built in. I’m curious about the social contract of forgiveness, what it means to be forgiven. What’s the exchange there? If I forgive you, we are making a pact in some way. There’s a contract there that’s unsaid, and what is it? And doing the play, I was really inside one of the characters and asking myself, what is that moment? And I had this image of a really thick rope, and we’re both standing here on the bloody ground and the rope leads up, and if you accept my forgiveness we both have to climb out, and that’s arduous. Even the forgiver has to take the loss in a way, I have to lose whatever you took from me—my daughter, my job—and we both agree to just climb out and not go deeper down. And that is heavy, that is a heavy thing for both parties. There’s a promise in there to one another that you hold each other to, and I think that’s very interesting that those relationships that were formed around the crime in that reconciliation process have maintained. The Amish don’t just say, “It’s cool and have a good life.” They stay in touch. Have dinner. Check in with each other. See how you’re feeling. You don’t let go of the rope. The forgiveness is that deep. Its that permanent. It’s a promise to each other to reach up.
Performances of THE AMISH PROJECT start June 4th, with the official opening on June 10th. Ends June 28. For tickets and info, see www.test.amishproject.com
Tommy is a playwright. He lives in Manhattan.