Two dozen ghosts stand on a platform, their voices ringing out more and more urgently, cascading over one another until there is only silence.
“I wanted to fly,” one cries out
“I wanted to sing," says another.
A hundred more dreams that will never come true wash over the audience.
“On March 18, 1937, at 3:17 p.m., I died,” they call out in one voice.
The story of one of the greatest tragedies in the history of East Texas is being brought to the stage.
The Robert E. Lee High School Theater Department will take the stage to tell the story of the New London school explosion, which took the lives of more than 290 people, mostly children.
Theater director Amy Clemens said she saw the script in a social media group of theater directors, and the story was so moving that she knew they needed to tell the story of a tragedy that happened so close to home.
For more than a year Clemens has worked on bringing “The Girl in the White Pinafore” to East Texas audiences. She has stayed in correspondence with the playwright, Jiggs Burgess, and the London Museum and Cafe.
The play is told in flashbacks of dual narratives from the point of view of two nursing home residents — a superintendent wracked with grief and guilt over the tragedy and a mother who blames him for her daughter’s death.
“I wanted to use this as a teaching moment,” Clemens said. “I realized the kids of this generation had no idea it happened just 30 miles from here or that Mother Frances opened a day early to help the victims.”
Clemens said the response from the community has been positive and some relatives of victims have told her they plan to come see the play.
The department is trying something new with the Feb. 16 performance — the London Museum and Cafe will host a coffee and pie reception before curtain call. The proceeds from that night’s performance also will be donated to the museum.
“The play is about hope and forgiveness,” Clemens said. “I can’t change the history, but I think it’s very important to remember. “
During rehearsal, Clemens and the students practiced scenes over and over, adjusting delivery and their motions to ensure they tell the story with reverence.
Senior Ethan Barton, 18, said in his role as the school’s superintendent, William Chesley Shaw, he tries to convey the pain Shaw felt after losing the children, including his own son. He also wrote the music, which will be used in the performance.
In the years after the explosion, Shaw is haunted by the memory of Amelia, played by Hope Rhoads, 14.
It is her mother who shares a nursing home with Shaw and believes he was to blame.
“Ultimately I wanted to keep the memory of these children alive and the sacrifices present,” Clemens said.
“The Girl in the White Pinafore opens on Thursday and runs through Feb. 17. Curtains open at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Coffee and pie will be available for purchase before the Saturday show starting at 6 p.m.
Tickets cost $5 for students and $10 for adults. For more information, visit Tyler Lee Theatre on Facebook.