On October 10, the Hamner Theater presented its Newtown Project: Boomtown Redux, via YouTube as part of Crozet’s Second Saturday celebration of the arts. This heart-wrenching series of scenes and songs written by John Lawson, Royal Shiree, and Tanya Kae, hosted by Emma Givens, and organized by Boomie Pedersen, dramatized the horror of the 1985 explosion at the Greenwood Chemical Plant, which killed four and injured many others. In the play, we hear corrupt Albemarle County planners in 1948 as they choose Newtown, a Greenwood community settled by freed slaves who had worked the fields at Mirador, as the location of a chemical plant to be built by DuPont chemist F.O. “Neil” Cockerille.
They are fully aware it will pollute the soil and water—a clear case of environmental racism—but agree that “we’re only in business to keep the rich people happy.” In subsequent scenes and songs, we also hear voices of the victims—those who died, were injured, witnessed the ghastly sight of workers’ “clothes melting into their skin” as they fled the explosion engulfed in flames, and Newtown residents who had repeated miscarriages or became sick with rare cancers and lung disease from drinking the well water—into which benzene, arsenic, and cyanide had been leaking for years—and breathing the toxic air after the blast. We meet the opportunists who purchased the plant in 1967 but decided not to address the many code violations of the electrical system, described as a “rat’s nest of wires” and a “firetrap.”
The playwrights and actors interviewed survivors of the blast to create an authentic narrative developed from actual victims’ voices. The area later became an EPA Superfund site that has only recently been declared usable, with limitations. “My mourning for the lungs I lost will never end,” laments Janet Sims, who lost her husband in the blast. For more information on this local history, see Heidi Brown’s “Greenwood Chemical Plant” in the September, 2018 issue of the Gazette.