Some of the tributes are to fathers, grandmothers and friends. Some are to strangers found in the obituary pages. And some are composites melded into fanciful characters.
And they all exist inside a theatrical presentation available on YouTube titled “The COVID Monologes.”
Diana Burbano, literary director for Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble, stitched together the virtual play from a patchwork of pandemic-themed offerings from writers and actors around the country.
The idea was to capture the bigger, underlying story — of grief and remembrance — that’s often left out in the avalanche of data and arid reporting about the most lethal event in modern American history.
“Every day we hear another huge number of American deaths,” Burbano said. “That can become numbing. It’s important to remember that those numbers are people.”
“The Covid Monologues” premiered Jan. 26, but it’s not a completed work. As of now, the production consists of two dozen eulogies – each about five minutes long. The line-up will grow as more monologues are created.
“They are bite-sized pieces not meant to be watched all in one sitting,” Burbano said. “We will keep adding new submissions, at least until March or so.”
San Clemente resident Eloise Coopersmith paid tribute to her longtime friend, Una Martin, who died in a Santa Monica residential facility. During World War II, Martin was sent with her family to an internment camp for Japanese-Americans. She and her late husband Harry Martin later traveled the world as backup singers for major acts including Elvis Presley:
“The last time I visited her, she was reading Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming,’ ” Coopersmith shares in her soliloquy. “I asked her how it was and she said she didn’t know because she keeps forgetting and has to go back to the beginning And she laughed her huge laugh.Then, the pandemic hit and none of us were allowed to visit her.”
Participants are submitting their work without pay. Donations from viewers benefit the humanitarian medical group Doctors Without Borders.
The Latino population has been disproportionately ravaged by coronavirus, Burbano observed.
“I talk to people outside our community who still don’t personally know anybody who has passed from coronavirus,” she said. “That doesn’t happen in Santa Ana. I know many people who have died or whose loved ones have died.”
In addition to her writing classes on college campuses and at South Coast Repertory, Burbano teaches a now-online theater program at Santa Ana High. Several of her students, she said, have lost grandparents to the epidemic.
Still, “The COVID Monologues” production was never meant to be just for Latinos and locals. The people who are remembered also are Black, Asian, white; they lived on the East Coast, in the South, in Florida. One, the universal school “lunch lady,” is a familiar face in every U.S. town.
Another, Dr. Lorna Breen, director of the emergency room at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital in Upper Manhattan, didn’t die of the disease directly. She contracted coronavirus last spring and, according to family members, the illness and stress somehow changed her. She died by suicide at age 49 on April 26.
Melinda Hall, who lives five blocks from Breen’s hospital, has struggled for months with long-term effects of her own COVID illness. She commemorated Breen with images shot in their shared neighbor. Breen played the cello and famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma granted Hall permission to feature his performance of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in the story.
Hall presents parts of her monologue through Breen’s eyes:
“Outside my window, the sirens blast every few minutes and I think about those who are not going to make it. There are still bodies waiting outside in the early spring chill. Death runs through the corridors and takes and takes and takes. No visitors, no hand-holding last moments, no goodbyes, no I love yous, no it’s OKs.”
Most but not all of the honorees were elderly. The Tennessee man who designed customized suits was only 30. Orange County sports columnist Mark Whicker, a playwright student under Burbano’s tutelage, discovered the designer, Darius Settles, in a New York Times obituary.
Whicker portrays Settles, son of a church organist and son of a Pentecostal minister, in first-person prose:
“You know what? God gave me 30 years. Some people don’t get 30 years… Preachers all over Nashville are wearing my suits. I can’t sell them fast enough. If I couldn’t preach the Gospel myself, I could at least add some dignity. If you look good, you preach good.”
Serving a dual purpose, the play gives artists a chance to practice their craft at a time theaters are dark. “You can still make movies but you can’t do theater,” Burbano noted. “All of my theater buddies are frustrated. This helps in a small way.”
La Palma resident Margo Rofé shares tidbits about Haitian-born entrepreneur, Bernard Fils-Aimé, through the eyes of a fictional employee still harboring a girlish crush on her handsome boss. Rofé chose him because her daughter’s husband is Haitian.
“It’s a bittersweet experience to get to use our talents to keep these people alive,” Rofé said. “This little theater in Santa Ana has pulled together beautiful monologues from every corner of the country.”
Artistic director Sara Guerrero, who founded Breath of Fire’ in 2005, credits Burbano as the driving force behind “COVID Monologues.” Guerrero composed a script for it, but has “yet to work up the courage” to commit it to video, she said.
“I’m baby-stepping my way,” Guerrero said. “Watching other people’s monologues is giving me inspiration. Mine is about my brother-in-law’s mom – a wonderful woman I have know for years. She died alone in a senior facility.”
In her own contribution, Burbano wrote and performed a piece about Noé Montoya – a Hollister musician, farm workers’ advocate and member of the Chicano theater company El Teatro Campesino.
In imagined dialogue, Montoya implores Montoya’s audience to “remember each person” who died of COVID:
“Say their names out loud every day. Maybe just the ones you know of, and see how long it takes.”