‘Call This Number,’ a play about what murder leaves behind, opens this week

The very first day Lemuel “Ed” Day, Ph.D., began a research project interviewing people who had lost loved ones to murder, the Chapman University sociologist decided he had to do more than just share his findings with fellow academics.

The scholarly textbook would still happen, but he also felt that another outlet was needed for the mother whose daughter was raped and murdered, the woman whose husband was killed by a drunk driver and the couple whose son was slain in a restaurant robbery.

“What they wanted most was to have their suffering acknowledged,” Lemuel recalls from that first round of interviews. “I walked out thinking that I would find a way to make sure their stories were told. It just took me awhile to figure out how.”

He figured out how. Those stories compiled by Day, chairman of the Department of Sociology and director of the Earl Babbie Research Center, are the heart and soul of a new play titled Call This Number, written in partnership with Day’s wife Michelle Miller-Day, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Communications Studies, and student Noreen Raja ’14.

The play will premiere in Memorial Hall on Thursday, Jan. 30, and run through Saturday, Feb. 1, at 8 p.m., with an additional Saturday matinee performance at 2 p.m. Thanks to assistance from Wilkinson College of Humanities and Sciences, South Coast Repertory, the departments of Sociology, Communication Studies and Chapman Auditorium staff, admission is free.

Audiences will see what Day discovered in his interviews with more than 50 people coping with grief in the wake of a loved one’s violent death — a complicated grief process protracted by criminal justice proceedings. While victim’s rights movements have improved services and programs for survivors of violent crime, less has been done for grieving families of fatal victims, Day says.

“We don’t want these stories buried in academic journals and papers. We want to bring them out to the public because the public should hear them,” he says.

Miller-Day encouraged him to write an ethnodrama, a genre of realistic theater that dramatizes research findings. But time was always at a premium, so the professors decided to enlist a student. They found an ideal candidate in Naja, an honors student majoring in communication studies.

“Noreen is a passionate student and I wanted to teach someone how to do this type of social justice writing,” Miller-Day says.

A notable example of ethnodrama is The Laramie Project, a play about community response to the 1998 murder of a young gay man living in Laramie, Wyo., which served as inspiration for Raja. Call This Number takes place in a church basement during a support group meeting for grieving families.

“I thought the dynamic could be very fascinating to see,” the Grafton, Mass. native says.

With the exception of one composite character, the characters, stories and much of the dialogue are drawn directly from Day’s research interviews. The play takes its name from the gloomy instruction often delivered to grieving family members; call this number for help. But support is often lacking.

“There are times when the treatment they receive makes then victims in a new way,” Day says.

Each performance will be followed by a discussion involving audience members and the cast, typical in ethnodrama productions. Miller-Day calls it the “So what then?” stage of addressing issues raised in such plays.

Just as its creators hope it will stir audiences to new thinking, Raja says the experience just might influence her post-graduate plans. Next year she’ll work with Teach for America and study educational and social policy at the University of Miami.

“But with this play, my mind has been more open to law school,” she says. “Now I need to investigate that.”

For more details, visit the Call This Number website.

Dawn Bonker

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