FARGO — Tracy Frank wasn’t born when a tornado ripped through north Fargo on June 20, 1957, killing 12 people and damaging more than 1,000 homes, but she’s lived with the disaster for over a decade.
Frank was on a team of reporters assigned to cover the 50th anniversary of the historic storm in 2007 for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and wrote about the chaos, damage and ultimate recovery from the devastating twister.
She was so taken with people’s accounts of the events that she held onto the stories, thinking someday they could be used to tell another tale.
That tale has become “Weather the Storm,” a musical the former reporter wrote with composer Topher Williams for their troupe, Cass Act Players. The show opens a two-week run on Wednesday, June 12, in Dawson Hall at Bonanzaville, Cass County Historical Society's museum in West Fargo.
“It’s the story of community, a fractured community brought together by a disaster,” Frank says.
The title and theme of the musical also reflect her approach to some of the trials she has been dealt since she started on the work in 2014.
A month after the first staged reading in 2016, doctors found a mass on her pancreas and she was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer. She put the project on the shelf for two years, but last fall she was determined to get back to work on it.
“This has helped me focus on something else,” she says.
'Can't do it alone'
In her research for the 50th anniversary of the tornado, one of the stories in particular from The Forum's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage in 1957 stuck with her. It was the account of Jon Davenport, who, as a 7-month-old, was ripped from his mother’s arms by the winds. The toddler was found a block away with head injuries, but fully recovered to share his tale with Frank.
“That showed that miracles can happen in devastation,” she says.
She incorporated that story into “Weather the Storm,” but the rest of the play is fictional. By making up the characters, she gained flexibility to form the narrative.
There are couples facing hardships, a pastor who must answer tough questions from parishioners about how a deadly storm could be God’s will, socioeconomic tensions in the community and a strain between genders in light of women’s societal roles in the late 1950s.
“It really could be about how any community comes together after a disaster,” Frank says.
“It’s about figuring out who we are and learning how to work together in the face of adversity,” says composer Williams. “The people in the musical, they are stoic people who think they don’t need help, but they can’t do it alone.”
He points to more recent emergencies the city has faced.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, every time it floods, we all come together to sandbag and help out. That’s what Fargo is. That’s an aspect of the community that hasn’t changed in 62 years,” he says.
Director Drea Greenawalt echoes that.
“It’s how we all have to learn to get along,” she says.
Frank thought about the current contentious climate in the country while writing the play.
“Sometimes it seems so frustrating as a culture that we need a disaster to bring us together,” she says. “But a disaster can really show us what matters.”
To that point, the cast and crew have taken an interest in the 1957 tornado and visited the Golden Ridge neighborhood in north Fargo that the storm hit so hard.
“It’s been a huge learning experience for all of us,” Greenawalt says.
The twister damaged about 100 blocks in north Fargo, taking out more than 300 homes and damaging 1,000 more. The storm caused what today would be $231 million in damages.
Most notably it claimed the lives of 12 people, including Betty Lou and Don Titgen, the aunt and uncle of Rick Olson, an ensemble member in “Weather the Storm.”
He was only 2 when the twister hit, but he was raised under its cloud. He grew up in the Golden Ridge neighborhood and remembers relatives would not talk openly about the deaths of Betty and Don.
“When June came around, they were hush-hush,” he says.
Olson has been in productions before, but this one is more of an emotional experience.
“It’s kind of hard to relive that, even in a play,” he says.
'Do this for Tracy'
Frank says the show is fine for families, but may not be appropriate for everyone, particularly young children as it includes a couple of swear words and it deals with death — something the author has been thinking about a lot over the past few years.
“None of us know how much time we have,” she says, adding that her cancer is not curable, but is slow-growing and treatable.
She put the work on the back burner when she first got the diagnosis followed by surgery a few months later.
“At first, nothing else mattered,” she says, “For those first months it felt like I was fighting for my life, so that’s what I focused on.”
As she regained her strength, she returned to the play, and in the fall of 2018, she finished the final draft.
“I got as excited as the first time we started working on it,” she says. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could write something like this with cancer."
The cast and crew have even become like a family and have rallied behind Frank. The cast actually includes her husband and their two children, as well as two other married couples.
“The cast and crew is so passionate about wanting this to be done so well for Tracy. That’s my one hope, to do this justice for Tracy,” says Greenawalt, who previously worked with Frank in versions of “Godspell” and “Oliver.”
While Frank physically feels well, she is a little anxious about presenting something that’s been a big part of her life for so long.
“Any time you share your art with people, there’s a vulnerability,” Frank says. “This show already means so much to the cast and crew, that helps quell the fear.”
“I feel, if we can elicit emotion from someone, I’ll be happy,” Williams says.
“Oh, my mom will cry,” Frank says with a laugh.
“I want people to get a sense of hope. No matter how hard life is, those moments are temporary,” she adds. “I want people to feel the importance of connection.”
If you go
What: "Weather the Storm"
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 12, through Friday, June 14, and again June 20 and 21 and 2 p.m. June 22
Where: Dawson Hall at Bonanzaville, 1351 Main Ave., West Fargo
Info: Tickets are $12 for general admission or $10 for seniors, veterans and students; https://cassactplayers.org/