"There is a steel framework underneath every mother I know," believes playwright and Kingsport native, Lori Tate Matthews. Barter Theatre is proud to present this world premiere. Set against the backdrop of the 1960 Eastman explosion, Matthews' story focuses on the strength and courage of a family in Kingsport, Tennessee, as they desperately await word on the fate of their loved ones after the accident.
With limited access to information, Mother Martha waits with her pregnant daughter-in-law and her unmarried son while praying for strength and courage to face what comes. Can this family support one another and cope with the unknown or will the anxiety of not knowing lead to a different kind of explosion?
"October, Before I Was Born" stars Barter Theatre Resident Actors, Ashley Campos (Judy Bernly in "9 to 5: The Musical"), Tricia Matthews (Fräulein Schneider in "Cabaret") and Nicholas Piper (Beau Weeks in "The Road to Appomattox") and is directed by Barter favorite Mary Lucy Bivins.
Special 360° panels will be held on October 2 at 7:15pm (performance at 7:45) and October 3 at 1:30pm (performance at 2pm) at Barter's Main Stage. Attendees can hear Playwright Lori Tate Matthews, Eastman executives, Director Mary Lucy Bivins, and actors Ashley Campos, Tricia Matthews and Nicholas Piper talk about details surrounding the production and give testimony to the overall impact and importance of the play. The 360° panels are free with ticket purchase and are designed to enhance the play going experience. Panels are held before and after the performance.
"October, Before I Was Born" is a close-to-home story for playwright Lori Tate Matthews, who believes the story of the actual accident at Eastman should be told to honor all of the people that went through this event.
“Both my parents were working on October 4, 1960. Like many other people who lived through the experience, my mother considered that afternoon to be a defining moment in her life. Over the years she often mentioned the details of her day, including her admiration for the people who stayed to help, managers who ran to the fire, townspeople who stepped up to lend a hand.”
Eastman was a big part of growing up for Matthews. “When I was little I thought everyone worked at Eastman. Everyone I knew did. My mother was always proud of the career she had at TEC before she had children, and we were grateful for my dad's job. The income he made at Eastman put a roof over our heads and food on our table. In large part, I was able to go to college because my dad had a steady job at Eastman. And Eastman wasn't just a job, it was a culture. My sister and brother and I went to Horsekrickers on Saturdays. We picnicked at Eastman Cabins and went to the carnival on TEC day," said Matthews.
Matthews understands the strength and the courage of everyone who experienced that day. "At this point in my life, I know what it is to wait. I know how crazy things become when you're waiting for news that could change your life. That's the story I felt prepared to tell. What do you do when you don’t know what news will come? How do you prepare? How do you cope?” said Matthews.
Now a mother herself, Matthews has come to understand and appreciate what it takes to be a mother and what mothers must experience in these moments that test their faith. “I feel that it is important for theatre to honor how much goes into creating a family and holding it together,” said Matthews.
“October, Before I Was Born” was developed through Barter’s Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights, where it was awarded the winning prize in 2011. Barter Theatre presents the world premiere production on its Main Stage more than 50 years after the occurrence of the event surrounding this story.
“Developing new plays has long been an important mission to Barter Theatre, particularly those that tell stories of people in our region,” said Lori Hester, director of patron services. “The play has had a profound effect on me, and I think it will connect with anyone who sees it. This is a story of strength, courage and faith in the face of adversity, and, most important, about the need for family to look out for each other."
On October 4, 1960, the Aniline Building of the Tennessee Eastman Company in Kingsport, TN, blew up at approximately 4:45 pm. The physical effects of the explosion covered a three-mile radius. Surrounding areas, including Abingdon, VA, rushed to the aid of the injured in this accident. Hundreds were injured, sixteen were killed and thousands of lives were changed. Twelve thousand were Eastman employees. The personal consequences were widespread.
Television and radio crews also rushed to the scene. Network television covered what one local reporter sensationalized as "the holocaust."
It had been an otherwise quiet Tuesday in October, when many, no doubt, were planning to tune into the second Kennedy/Nixon debate that evening. But, instead, families, friends and employees of the massive chemical plant gathered near the sight or at Holston Valley Hospital to wait; to anxiously wait for some word of their loved ones.
Author, Lori Tate Matthews, pays tribute to the many affected by this incident through the fictional journey of one family's "strength and courage" during their excruciating wait. She allows us to experience the "dramatic tension, catharsis, the joy of the unexpected laugh" that she experienced in watching plays when her mother brought her to Barter Theatre as a child.
While this story and its characters are from the playwright's imagination, she draws from a very personal perspective. Ms. Matthews is a native of Kingsport. Her mother worked for Eastman until Lori was born.
Mary Lucy Bivins
Notes from the Playwright
Dramatic tension, catharsis, the joy of an unexpected laugh—everything I love about live performance I experienced for the first time at Barter Theatre. Tickets to Barter were my mother’s way of celebrating birthdays and graduations and breaks from school. I began to think about writing plays while watching them here. Not surprisingly, when I write for the stage, the stage I envision is Barter—which is not to say I actually believed my work would be produced here. For that extraordinary opportunity I offer many thanks to Richard Rose, Nick Piper and the staff and company members of The Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights.
Barter’s AFPP program nurtures new works by native playwrights, an important process for promoting our distinctive regional identity. Though I was born and raised in Kingsport, I’ve lived in Wisconsin for the last 14 years. During my northern exile, I’ve become keenly aware of the Appalachian stereotypes that appear on stage and screen, and they make me bristle. I believe the Appalachians are full of artists and fine stories. If you believe that, too, please support Barter’s ongoing efforts to highlight regional work.
The characters in October, Before I was Born are fictional, but their lives are set against a real disaster, the Aniline Building explosion at Tennessee Eastman Company. The larger story of that day belongs to the family members of the victims, the employees who were frightened and injured, and the rescue workers who braved the chaos. My parents were both at work at 4:45 p.m. on October 4, 1960, and my initial interest in the incident was fed by my mother’s stories of that day. October, Before I was Born is dedicated to Mae Taylor Tate, who worked at Eastman until I was born and took me to the theatre as a child.
Lori Tate Matthews, playwright