Ten Years After: Remembering Circle Players' ASSASSINS and 9/11


When terrorists struck on American soil in September 2001 - with the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the failed attack on the White House that was foiled by heroic passengers aboard that flight that crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania - the impact was felt around the world. And for days, weeks, months, even years, thereafter life was irrevocably changed.

Nashville's Rhubarb Theater Company, under the leadership of artistic director Trish Crist, is in the middle of technical rehearsals for its upcoming production of Valerie Hart's Rising & Falling, a new play that examines the impact of public art and who determines what can and will be seen. Hart describes her script as "a play about art set against one of the largest tragedies of our time."

"As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, I want Rhubarb to have a voice in the community, acknowledging these pivotal events in our lives, but I didn't want it to be a rehashing of the attacks on our country," says  Crist, who directs the production. "Val's play is challenging, beautiful, and very thought-provoking around a key aspect of 9/11 that has nothing to do with terrorists."

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the impact on the arts was immediate, not the least of which was the controversy that swirled around theater companies nationwide. Should they go on with their planned performances? How should the memories of the dead be honored? Was it appropriate to stage plays with controversial topics at such a time? These were questions few were prepared to answer quickly and effectively, instead theater administrators found themselves struggling to deal with the realities of the post-9/11 world.

Among those theater companies struggling to determine how best to move forward was Nashville's Circle Players, the oldest community theater group in Middle Tennessee, which during the weekend before 9/11 had opened its 2001-2002 season with an enthusiastically received production of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, the musical about U.S. presidential assassins.

In the days that followed the 9/11 attacks, Circle leaders and members of the Assassins production team were forced to consider closing the show (included in Sondheim's musical is the character of Samuel Byck, an unsuccessful presidential assassin who talks vividly about flying an airplane into the White House to kill President Richard Nixon in 1968). As Circle leaders discussed whether to shutter the show for a weekend, or to cancel the remaining three weeks of the production's run, the show's cast members debated whether or not they could justify to themselves, their friends and their families, their own decisions to continue with the show in the days just after the deadliest attacks ever on American soil.

With Rhubarb's production of the 9/11-themed Rising & Falling opening at Darkhorse Theater on Friday, August 12, memories of events from a decade ago have been recalled by Nashville theater artists on many level, though none have proven more provocative than those of the people involved in Circle Players' Assassins - which, it should be noted, was named the community theater's best show of the 2001-2002 season.

Several people involved in that process and the accompanying controversy - including Assassins director Doug Whatley, Circle Players' then-president Cary Street, cast member Jason Vitteri-Lewis and former company executive director Margaret Cheesman Brandon - offered their insights into what went on, recalling the heightened emotions that informed their decisions in 2001. My memories of the events are also included: I was a member of Circle's board of directors at the time and served as board liaison for the production.

How did you find out about what happened on that fateful morning?  

Doug Whatley (director):   We were down on the Florida Panhandle Gulf Coast. I usually liked to leave town after a show I directed had opened. We had planned this vacation for a few months. Assassins opened on Friday, September 7 and we left Sunday morning. Our son called us a little after 9 a.m. on Tuesday, 9/11 and wanted to know what we thought about this horrible attack. That was the first I heard about it. On vacation, especially at the ocean, we generally don't watch television, except The Weather Channel. So, we had no idea what he was talking about.  Our son explained what had happened as I hastily turned on the television. My mind wouldn't register what our son was telling me. As I watched on television, and they replayed the footage of the second plane, it took quite a number of minutes to come to grips. As I'm watching, I saw the first tower collapse to the ground. Once again, I doubted my own eyes. At that point there was just a numbness. Horror and terror took the place of rational thought.


Jason Vitteri-Lewis (actor): Each day, I commuted from my parents' house in Portland, TN all the way to Cool Springs. Fortunately, two bartenders I worked with had asked me to move in with them rather than the Korean coke addict co-worker they were about to be stuck with.  After a stellar opening weekend for Assassins, my new roommates and I were celebrating (i.e. drinking as only 20-somethings can) the night before our move-in date. This was September 10, 2001. Still drunk from the previous evening, I awoke on couch to the incessant noise of my cell phone ringtone. When I failed to answer, Christian's phone mirrored the repetitive back to back ringing. Then the house phone rang.  No one besides our third roommate, Avery, who had already left to open the bar, knew that number. I looked down at Christian, passed out and face down on the carpet, wondering if he would get up and answer it before I was forced to. Then I thought to myself, "Why is he naked?"

The third cycle of rings caused my unclothed roommate to pop up off the floor as though he was back in the military and an air raid had been sounded. He grabbed the house phone and screamed "What? What the fuck do you want? It's like 9 o'clock!" Then there was silence. Now, I hadn't known this man long, this man who would eventually become my best (straight) guy friend. I'd seen him happy, angry, but this look was new. This was the face of disbelief and something more. This was the look of absolute horror. He yelled for me to get up and find the TV remote and turn it on any channel. "It doesn't matter which," he said. "It's on every goddamn one!"

I was terrified. It would have to be pretty bad for him to behave do erratically and scared. There, on the screen, was one of the World Trade Center towers, black smoke billowing from its top. The lower right hand corner of the TV screen said 'LIVE.' "What the fuck is that? Is it on fire?" I asked. Before Christian could respond, we saw first-hand what had caused the smoke to spew from Tower One. An airplane crashed into Tower Two right before our very eyes. We stood there, stunned, unable to speak until Christian broke the silence with, "We're under attack."

Cary Street (Circle Players board president):  I actually watched it as it happened on the news.  I was running late to work, turned on the TV and watched it all.  Needless to say, I didn't make it into work. 


Margaret Brandon (Circle Players executive director): I was talking to you from my office at Circle. It was just before 9 a.m. You were at home, watching TV, and you told me you thought somebody (an "idiot," was your exact word) in a plane had hit the WTC. We sat there as you described, live, what you were seeing on TV, and it became clear after a while that this was bad. I left the office about 10 and was on my way home to watch TV when I heard on the radio that the first tower had fallen.

From your perspective, what then began to transpire in regard to the production of Assassins that Circle was doing at TPAC's Andrew Johnson Theatre?  

Brandon: I remember there were great misgivings about the show's topic and its timing. One scene I remember people worrying about particularly is the guy who planned to hijack a plane and fly it into the White House. There was initial talk about cancelling the play, deleting scenes, etc. 

Whatley: I didn't hear anything, or even think anything until Wednesday. Then I began to wonder what was going on back home, and with the show. About that time I heard from Sue Stinemetz, the producer, who told me that it looked like TPAC was going dark for the coming weekend.  I later heard that all Nashville stages were going dark the coming Friday, but that TPAC would be back in operation by that Saturday, September 15. I knew that Sue and the stage manager, Melissa Williams, had everything under control. But then... I got a call from Melissa.  Some of the cast members were having some concerns about going on with a show about Presidential assassins.  I spoke with one cast member in particular, and that person elected to withdraw. I said I understood, but, hackneyed cliché or not, "the show must go on..."

Street: I was president of the Board at that time, and I began to receive phone calls at home from the cast and crew concerning the cancellation of the show.  It was very split, but ultimately the decision ended up being the Board's and mine.

Vitteri-Lewis: None of us in the cast knew what to do, or what would be decided for us. Our director, Doug Whatley, was out of town but wanted us to continue. Some of us were unsure, considering that one Assassins character jokingly threatens to fly an airplane directly into the White House, which was where the plane that went down in Pennsylvania was headed.

Ultimately, what happened?  

Brandon: The show went on, and I think we decided to do a little chat-up about the topic with the audience prior to curtain to make everyone feel better.


Street: I wanted to know that the rest of the theatre community was going to do. I made several phone calls to other local and regional companies, as well as to NYC (when I could get through). Many companies were cancelling their shows, but I put the decision to a vote of the Board with my recommendation that we go on. Yes, the show was about assassins throughout history, but it was also theatre. If there was ever a time to escape and reflect, the tragedy that was 9/11 was it. Broadway took a moment of silence and everyone sang "God Bless America," and Circle Players followed suit. Several of the cast threatened to walk out, but the majority understood what their job was and performed it flawlessly. I was asked to stay away from the theatre for the show because the decision to open was so unpopular; but I was never more proud to be a part of that organization then at that time. When word reached New York that we had followed the tradition of "the show must go on!" I received a phone call from one of the original producers of Assassins in NYC thanking me. I also received thank you messages and notes for providing an escape. It was extremely gratifying on a personal level.

Whatley: Friday was dark, as arranged. An understudy took over the role that had a cast member withdraw. Saturday night, the show went on. I was still in Florida. Sue and Melissa handled it all, very well. I understand the audience was small, but responded positively. As I returned to Nashville and went back to TPAC for the next weekend, my concerns for the show shifted to audience reaction in light of the events of 9/11. Many months earlier, one of my sisters-in-law had questioned me about Assassins. As she put it, "This is a show about murderers... who sing... while murdering... the President." And then she gave me this look. Actually, the focus of my still traumatized mind was the one character of Sam Byck. In the show, Byck describes his "plan" to kill Richard Nixon by hijacking a jetliner and crashing it into the White House. I was concerned that this was a little close to the events of 9/11. But, it was what we had and I am always loathe to edit a book at any time, but especially after a show is running. The third Friday of the run, September 21, I watched a fairly full audience watch the show. As we got to Byck's big scene describing hijacking a plane and crashing it into the White House, the audience roared with laughter.  I don't know if this was cathartic relief, or if they were all big anti-Nixon people, or some combination. As that September ended, we closed the show, struck and loaded out.

Vitteri-Lewis: The cast came to the decision that we would cancel the Friday performance in honor of the Day of Remembrance. For one emotionally conflicted cast member, that was not enough. She was beyond distraught, caught up in the moment, even saying that we would be insulting the magnitude of what had happened were we to continue on with the run. I met with her personally to try to coax her back in, saying that her actions brought credibility to the terrorists' desires, but the decision had already been made. She was leaving the show midway through our run.

With the director gone and our stage manager, Melissa Williams, unable to leave work, I gave up my Saturday afternoon lunch shift at Macaroni Grille and met with Kay Ayers (who was playing Emma Goldman in the production) at the Johnson Theatre of TPAC for a crunch time coaching session. She had literally six hours to learn the entire part, dialogue and music, in order to go on as Squeaky Fromme that very evening. And, she pulled it off beautifully. That, to date, is the most exquisite and professional act I'd ever witnessed.

What's your most vivid memory of 9/11? and of Assassins?  

Whatley: I suppose everyone has the image of the burning towers permanently fixed in their minds.  Those horrible images of people leaping from the top of the towers to certain death. The towers collapsing. It is almost as if those images are apart from all others for me. The most vivid memory, for me however, occurs later that day and the next. The news reporters standing on street corners near the area doing their stand-ups. Behind them, people holding hand-made posters with pictures of loved-ones. Posters with messages hastily written extorting anyone who had seen that loved one to call a phone number. It was the looks on the faces of those people holding those posters.  The desperate, haunted look. Their eyes that had just a small worthless hope and all that overwhelming fear. That is my most vivid memory of 9/11. 

As for Assassins, my most vivid memory is of the final scene, where the assassins "convince" Lee Harvey Oswald not to commit suicide and to kill President John Kennedy instead. Each night, I watched the audience as the show unfolded. They laughed, they watched raptly, but as the minutes passed I noticed audience members looking at their programs and beginning to look uneasy. It finally dawned on me that these audience members were feeling dread. Not all of them, mind you, but some. They were dreading the one assassination left to be portrayed. And, I began to feel it, too. 

The cast did such a wonderful job. They were so immersed in their roles. The texture and richness were enveloping.

Vitteri-Lewis: We worried that our houses would be small, that we wouldn't sell many tickets for the rest of the run. We couldn't have been more wrong. Audiences came in droves. We sold out every remaining performance. People were engrossed, emotionally connected to the show in a way I couldn't even describe. Finally, during the last performance while I was in the middle of my monologue, I saw an audience member crying and it hit me. They were here to heal. And for those of us that remained in the show, so were we.

Street: I will remember the panic of not knowing where friends, family and family of friends were and the despair that I felt that this surreal event would forever change our lives. As for Assassins, I am most sorry for the friendships that I lost over the decision to open the show. But the bigger picture was that Nashville needed that at the time, and Circle Players proved that community theatre was just that - a theatre for the community.     

Brandon: When I was in the car on the way home that morning, I heard on the radio that the first tower had fallen and I started to cry. I was driving, crying, and wondering if people in the cars around me were aware of what was going on. For me, Assassins is memorable for happening during 9/11, and for my son's stage debut.


Jeffrey Ellis (board liaison): For me - and many others of my generation - life has been full of such events. From the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, to the 1968 killing in Memphis of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., from the death of John Lennon in 1980 to memories more personal, but just as important, in later years.

Yet the memories of 9/11 are framed in my mind in such a way that I dion't think they'll ever dim in my memory. On that morning, I was up at 7 a.m. I turned on my iMac and sat down to read the email that had accumulated in my mailbox overnight and, somewhat surprisingly (because it was never a part of my morning ritual) I turned on the TV, to the Today show. As I sat reading emails, there was nothng special happening on TV. Katie Couric was being perky, Matt Lauer was being vapid in that peculiar to TV morning host way that he has. Then I heard the familiar "ring" of an instant message being sent to me - it was my friend and sometime stage manager/actor Curtis in Murfreesboro, asking me what I was up to and telling me about the classes he was taking at MTSU that semester.

As Curtis and I chatted, we both continued to keep an eye on the Today show - and so, in a way, we were together when the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

"Did you just hear what they said about the commuter plane that hit the WTC?" he asked.

"Yes, I just saw the footage," I replied.

Then, over the next hour as we both, transfixed, watched the horror unfold on our TV screens, we shared thoughts and speculation about what was happening. As the intervening hours passed, Curtis left for class, I continued to watch coverage of the events in New York City and I started calling people I loved - to make sure they were alright, I guess, but more probably to the point, to make sure I was alright. I called my mother in West Tennessee, I called my friend Margaret Cheesman Brandon at the Circle Players office in the basement of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, I called my niece Laura at her office in a state office building, and I called other friends and family.

I tried calling my friend's office in New York City - in lower Manhattan, to be exact, not that far really from Ground Zero - and kept getting voice mail that wouldn't allow me to leave a message. He had been scheduled to fly from New York to San Francisco that fateful morning and I had no idea which flight he was supposed to be on. As it turns out, he was on the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania as courageous passengers wrestled their hijackers and, in giving up their lives so heroically, quite possibly saved so many more.

Later that afternoon, the phone calls began to come in about Assassins and what were we to do? Cast members were justifiably upset and uncertain about how to move ahead with the production. Board members, production team members, cast members...we were all involved in making the decision and it was so unbelievably difficult. None of us were prepared for this - how could we possibly have been?

Coming to the decision that the show must go on was probably a foregone conclusion, but we finally arrived at that through a lot of effort, tears and hurt feelings. But, clearly, it bonded the people who were involved in that production of Assassins in such a way that they will always be a part of one another's lives.

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