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'Back Cover' brings 9/11 to new generations

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“Back Cover” is a coming of age story about several teens who live in Manhattan, trying to figure out the world around them. It’s the story of 9/11 and how an event that consumed a nation can be forgotten and pass into history. It’s a story of remembering and how remembering the past, remembering a person, keeps them alive.

A core group of Ashland High School drama students will perform Emily Hageman’s play “Back Cover” in the high school’s Rose Studio at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 23 and 24. The play is directed by drama teacher Betsy Bishop.

“Kids in my generation, we were really young when 9/11 happened, so we know about it but we didn’t experience it and don’t know the horror of it,” said Kate Jaques Prentice, who produced the play as her high school senior project. “This show brings the experience to our generation.”

“Back Cover” is powerful and intense, but you don’t know that at first. The play relates the daily lives of young people who live in the city in apartments filled with divorce and disruption, finding friendship and companionship. Really everything seems predictable at first — the kids get up, go to school, meet up with friends and hang out. Teenage angst, OK, sure.

But there are some odd notes that telegraph an increasing tension in the play. The set is bare, only a few actors on stage at any one time and these spotlighted, a harsh brilliance in the dark. Fathers are gone, so single mothers struggle to keep their family together. There’s a man who phones and phones, calls that go unanswered. A young woman named Madison finds a catch of letters hidden in a closet, the writings of someone who signs herself “Jessica.” Madison learns that through a freak of fate, Jessica was in the Twin Towers on 9/11. Jessica was lost and Madison is troubled, confounded.

“Back Cover” is the reckoning of an everyday life, when a teenager is faced with the inexplicable tragedy and reality of 9/11, an event that happened before she was even born.

For most everyone of a certain age, 9/11 is burned into their brain. The endless repeats of plane into building, flames and smoke, and then collapse are indelibly etched in memory. Everyone who lived in the New York/New Jersey Metropolitan area lost friends, family members and colleagues. Anyone living away was consumed with fear and worry for the missing, not knowing, helpless, fraught with guilt and impotence.

“Back Cover” brings it all back, that terror and disbelief.

For those born after 2001, 9/11 may be a dry fact in a history book, a question on an exam or an essay to be written — 800 words by Friday, typed and double spaced. The talented Ashland High School students who perform “Back Cover” transform that dry fact into an authentic, singular experience with shifts of time and space, with emotions, memory and an outpouring of grief and compassion.

The student actors, Leila Kenner as Madison Now, Grace Schroeder as Madison’s earlier self, Kate Jaques Prentice as Jessica, Gwyn Murphy-Cunningham as Mom, Henry Alexander as Matt, Nicky Clary as Madison’s teacher, Mr. Lee and others, are superb. These students are only at the beginning of their careers, but you wouldn’t know it thanks to their AHS theater program training and the mentorship of Oregon Shakespeare Festival professionals. Their delivery is smooth, their movements graceful or awkward as called for by the moment. The entire production is student driven: Ethan Bennet is stage manager, Risso Mulolland handles lighting, Jake Mossiah sound and Marley Jones, costume.

The week of Martin Luther King Jr. Day may be an odd time to perform a play about 9/11, but the timing is accidental. Jaques Prentice says that they decided to perform “Back Cover” in September, and mid-January puts the play half way between two main-stage productions. The students plan to take “Back Cover” to the Oregon State Thespian Competition in Salem later this year.

“Back Cover” evokes powerful emotions and terrible memories, so talk backs facilitated by Ashlander Rick Bleiweiss will be held after each performance. Bleiweiss was at work at 45th and Broadway in mid-town Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.

“Back Cover” has a two-night run, on Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 23 and 24, in the Rose Studio of Ashland High School, 201 South Mountain Ave. The 45-minute, one-act play begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are not required for the performances but contributions towards the students’ state theater competitions are suggested. For more information about “Back Cover” or about the Ashland High School Theater Program, contact drama teacher Betsy Bishop at 541-482-8771.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

From left, Leila Kenner (senior), Kate Jaques-Prentice (senior) and Grace Schroeder (senior) in rehearsal for “Back Cover” by Emily Hageman at Ashland High School. Photo by Maureen Flanagan Battistella
From left, Grace Schroeder (senior), Nicky Clary (senior), Leila Kenner (senior) at rehearsal for “Back Cover.” Photo by Maureen Flanagan BattistellaSchool. Photo by Maureen Flanagan Battistella