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October, Before I Was Born: a New Play Offers a Personal Account of a Public Tragedy

In October of 1960, an explosion ripped through the Tennessee Eastman Company factory in Kingsport, Tennessee. Out of 12,000 men at the factory, 16 people were killed and more than 300 were injured. It threw Kingsport’s largest employer into disarray at the time.

For playwright Lori Matthews, it is a family story as well.  Her parents, her grandfathers, and three of her uncles were on shift when the blast happened. Fortunately they all survived, but it was the tense wait they all endured that struck the family the most.

Matthews lives in Stoughton, Wisconsin now, but was born in Kingsport, and the story of the explosion has been part of her family’s oral history for her entire life.

Her play, “October, Before I Was Born” is a fictionalized account, based on the stories her mother told her about that day.  The three characters Martha, son Houston, and very-pregnant daughter-in-law Anne, are “stranded” together in a room, waiting to hear if six of their loved ones survived the tragedy. For 90-minutes, the audience sits and waits with in angst.

“The play is 90-minutes long and it covers 90 minutes of these characters’ lives,” says Matthews. “So I did away with the idea of episodes or flash forward or backward or play with time. I wanted that trapped feeling.

Throughout this play, the audience will observe the different actions taken in a scary, stressful situation. Matthews observed this during the death of both of her parents within the past fifteen years. She raises the question: how are you supposed to act in a time like this?

Stoughton playwright Lori Matthews’ play is called “October, Before I Was Born.”  It opens this evening at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and runs through March 9th

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.