When I catch up with playwright and DG member EM LEWIS on her family farm in Monitor, Oregon, it’s nearing the end of the growing season. Veggies are picked and preserved. Wood’s chopped and stacked. And this particular Tuesday—November 3, 2020—becomes an apt backdrop for a chat about her new play, The Great Divide.
Lewis (please call her Ellen) has been commissioned to write The Great Divide as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle, a multi-decade program of developing 37 new plays sprung from moments of change in United States history.
The Great Divide explores a big one: “On January 2, 2016, an armed militia group seized control of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon. They were protesting the harsh sentencing of two ranchers who’d set fires on federal lands,” Lewis says. “They believed in states’ rights, individual freedom, and held a distrust of the federal government. And for 41 days, Harney County was a microcosm, where age old arguments about the Constitution and state and federal governments played out—With mortal stakes.”
“The variety of players included in this crazy time included ranchers, birders, FBI agents, county sheriffs, fundamentalist Mormons, evangelists, Paiute tribal chiefs, local business owners, gun rights activists,” Lewis says. “By the time it was over, there was a zoo of people there, in the sparsely populated area of Eastern Oregon, surrounding this occupied National Wildlife bird refuge. This is all happening in a remote area, where cattle outnumber people, fourteen to one.”
The Great Divide focuses on what’s happening in America, that the events at Malheur Wildlife Refuge are set against.
“During that time, we were having the lead up to the 2016 election, and so we were watching large forces and small forces fight for what it meant to be America and American,” Lewis says.
Since 2016, our political landscape has endured near-daily seismic shifts, complexities that Lewis doesn’t shy from in The Great Divide. Lewis credits the dynamic collaboration between OSF and Artists Repertory Theatre (ART), for supporting her creative ambitions in tackling this narrative, as robust and dramatic as the rugged mountains and austere, open land it’s set in.
“The Great Divide is the kind of play that we are very excited by,” says Luan Schooler, ART’s Director of New Works. “It’s theatrical, chewy, and highly relevant with a probing intelligence.”
“This subject is huge, thorny and complex, and through partnering with OSF to co-commission and support the play’s development, we are able to give Ellen time and resources for the deep work necessary,” Schooler continues. “Because Ellen is ART’s Mellon Foundation Playwright in Residence, [ART Artistic Director] Dámaso Rodríguez and I are able to regularly meet with her as she crafts her story – and happily, Alison Carey [Director, American Revolutions the United States History Cycle] from OSF is able to join our conversations at key intervals.”
Adds Lewis: “The story is about not just what happened inside the walls of the occupation, but outside: What was happening in the community, what was happening in our state, what was happening in our country. It’s about America in this divided moment.”
In 2020, we are still a nation divided.
“Like any history play, it better be just as much about now as it is about then,” Lewis says.