A Eulogy for the Passenger Pigeon

A Eulogy for the Passenger Pigeon
Passenger pigeons once numbered in the billions in the United States. By 1914, they were all gone.

Imagine for a second that you’re asked to deliver a eulogy for an animal species perched on the brink of extinction. What on earth would you say? What could you say?  

That’s the situation the actor Junius Brutus Booth found himself facing in the 1830s. As he toured the United States, Booth was a near-constant witness to the wanton slaughter of the passenger pigeon, once the most prolific bird species in the Great Lakes region. By 1914, humans had obliterated them all.

This Saturday, as part of the Passenger Pigeon Symposium, an event the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters is holding to mark the centenary of the death of the last passenger pigeon, Madison-based Bricks Theatre is producing a staged reading of The Savage Passengers, a work by Chicago-based playwright Bret Angelos. Angelos’s play weaves Booth’s affecting pigeon funeral into a historical tapestry that includes frank discussions of slavery, animal rights and the nature of human compassion, as Booth encounters figures both historical and invented in his travels.  

If the protagonist’s last name sounds a little familiar, it should: Booth’s the father of the infamous John Wilkes Booth, the man who’s murder Abraham Lincoln some three decades later.

Jessica Jane Witham, who’s directing the reading as a break from her usual work with Encore Studio for the Performing Arts, says she was shocked to discover the pigeons’ horrible fate.

“There are eyewitness accounts of what the sky looked like when a flock of these birds flew over a town,” she says. “They speak of the sun being blocked out by the flock, trees crumbling under the weight of the birds and bird poop falling like snowflakes. Humans would shoot into the flocks and beat them out of trees then sell them at market.”

For a play about events more than a century old, The Savage Passengers still feels contemporary, says Witham.

“What I like most about the piece is that the themes are based in the time period, 1832, but are transcendent of time and are still very important today. I have mixed feelings about the fact that we are still having the conversations about racial equality and the conservation of animals and our planet. On the one hand it’s great that people are still talking and still interested in making a difference. On the other…my god! When will we learn? When will we be able to see that the only way to fix what is broken is through compassion?”

The free reading of Savage Passengers runs from 7 –9 p.m. Saturday, November 1, in the UW Biotechnology Center Auditorium on Henry Mall. For more information and to register to attend, click here.

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