When I graduated from The University of Texas in May of 1966, I flew back to my home state of New York where a successful audition had won me a place in that fall’s incoming class at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I had no way of knowing that within weeks of my departure from the Austin I had come to love, the city and campus would face the unimaginable horror of Charles Whitman’s murderous rampage from the Texas Tower. Similarly, when I attended this month’s Montgomery College premiere production of “96 Minutes,” I had no way of knowing I would be confronted with a brilliant piece of theatre that would vividly capture both the heroism and the horror of that fateful day in Texas history. Readers please note: Unless you are permanently bedridden, don’t miss this riveting tale of bravery overcoming tragedy. You will be in at the beginning of a journey that I feel certain will bring this play to deserved national attention. In fact, it is already selected as a participating entry in the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, with a competition performance scheduled for later this month.
Conceived and directed by Montgomery College Assistant Professor of Drama, Chase Waites, “96 Minutes” is Mr. Waites’ adaptation of the August 2006 story of the same name, published in “Texas Monthly” and written by Pamela Colloff. This production represents a unique collaboration between the college and “Texas Monthly” magazine. The director seems to be aware of Thoreau’s caution to, “Simplify! Simplify!” There are plain, everyday costumes (coordinator, Stephen Blaschke), essentially no sets or physical action, and the play is performed without an intermission. Sounds boring? Not at all!
The whole focus is on the eyewitness accounts of that bloody August 1st as reported in Colloff’s well-researched article. To accomplish this, Waites employs a talented young ensemble cast of seven (Marie Beardslee, Kyle Greeley, Trent Hooker, Jessica Mikolaj, Brittany Miles, Natalie Plaza, and Justyn Reed). The eighth very effective “member” of the cast is a center-stage, large screen projection system that intermittently punctuates the performances with carefully organized film clips of actual newsreel footage, as well as TV newsroom coverage of the event that shook the nation that summer day. The performers drift on and off stage in multiple roles based on Colloff’s actual interviews with witnesses. We recognize each via simultaneous projections of identities on the giant screen (I.E. Shelton Williams — senior, Michael Hall — history professor, etc.) As identities are revealed, a member of the cast is illuminated in the effective and shadowy lighting, and then delivers the chilling report of that particular individual’s recollection of the day. We even hear from some of my fellow students at the time, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Kinky Friedman.
We learn that Whitman was “a good son, a top Boy Scout, an excellent Marine, an honor student, a hard worker, a loving husband, a fine scout master, a handsome man, a wonderful friend to all who knew him.” But regrettably, he was also “an expert sniper.” (His most distant victim was 500 yards away). The tower chaos he caused that day lasted a devastating 96 minutes, with 43 people shot and 15 dead, including his own wife and mother murdered before he came on campus. It was said that, “He introduced the nation to mass murder in a public space.” As the many stories are told, we learn that some students thought at first that the action in the tower was a harmless stunt or prank. Student, Bob Higley recalls, “the campus was smaller then, with a real sense of community.” Claire Wilson tells of being shot while 8 months pregnant. Other students describe being barricaded in classrooms.
One of the assailant’s professors speaks of Whitman’s disturbing anger against his own father. We learn that Whitman had skill as a classical pianist. He had told a friend and one university staff member that he fantasized about a killing spree in the tower. He also left messages urging a brain examination after death. (Amazingly, doctors did find a brain tumor during Whitman’s autopsy.)
Senior, John Economidy was editor of the university newspaper, “The Daily Texan.” He recalls shouting at his cowering staff members, “Get off your butts, and get out there and win the Pulitzer Prize!” At nearby Scholtz’ Beer Garden, one customer was overheard lamenting that “The anti-gun people will go crazy over this!” We learn the Austin police had no tactical weapons with which to respond. Some officers went home to get hunting rifles. Many students did the same in efforts to keep the sniper at bay as we hear that “Time and time again men risked their lives to save others.”
We hear of the shock for a KTBC-TV reporter who hears the name of his own grandson broadcast as one of the murdered victims. We encounter horrified members of the Brackenridge Hospital staff overwhelmed by rows of dead and dying teenagers, and we hear chilling accounts of a city under siege with every ambulance and police car siren screeching.
We also meet several of the persons who were in the tower at the time. Cadet Michael Gabour of the U.S. Air Force Academy was visiting the tower with his family and lost both his brother and his aunt in the bloody melee. Of particular importance is the character of Ramiro Martinez, the heroic police officer who entered the tower with a prayer on his lips and a gun in his hands. He would be a courageous key player in the final moments of this drama that left the gunned-down Whitman, “…looking like a bloody steak tartar.”
It seems fitting, in this 40th anniversary year of the tragedy, that this well-crafted drama offers a new opportunity for Texas and the nation to at last come to grips with what one student called, “…the magnitude of a crime that is practically impossible to comprehend.” As university junior, Gayle Ross recalled, “It was no ordinary day.”
“96 Minutes” will be performed October 19-21, at 7:30 p.m. in the Montgomery College theatre (Building D). Tickets are $10 for general admission, $8 for seniors (55+), and $5 for students and faculty. Group discounts are available by calling 936-273-7021. For more information, call 936-273-7469.
(The Courier 10.20.06)