The Komisar Scoop Reports & Analysis by Investigative Journalist Lucy Komisar

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Year the War Came Home

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 10:20 am

By Lucy Komisar
Inter Press Service (IPS), May 14, 2008

On this 40th anniversary of 1968, the year that for the United States was the apogee of opposition to the war in Vietnam, two new Off Broadway plays explore divergent ways that U.S. citizens protested — and ponder the best way to contest a senseless war.

“The Conscientious Objector” by Michael Murphy describes the personal and political conflict faced by civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. over his decision to speak out publicly against the war. “Something You Did” by Willy Holtzman examines the decision of a stand-in for Kathy Boudin, a member of the Weather Underground, to “bring the war home” by participating in a violent action that left a bystander dead.

“The Conscientious Objector”

The gripping play about King, almost a docudrama as intensely directed by Carl Forsman, is more fascinating for bringing to light facts about the time that most people may not know — for example, that King’s wife Coretta urged him to oppose the war. And that he met with then President Lyndon Johnson, who proposed to negotiate civil rights legislation in return 'The Conscientiouis Objector,' DB Woodside & John Cullum, photo Theresa Squirefor King’s support.

The play begins in 1965, after King (D.B. Woodside) in his Nobel Peace Prize speech condemns Western nations for being “sick with militarism” and driven by racism, greed and reckless disregard for the misery that war produces. He continued to insist: “We’re not gonna defeat Communism ‘with bombs’.”

Johnson (John Cullum) has gotten the civil rights act passed and is moving on voting rights. When King meets with him, Johnson declares, “You and me, we got pots boilin’ on every burner, and I’m just, I gotta wonder why you’re wantin’ to divert attention to matters ‘a foreign policy and kick up a lotta dust and dirt that’s just gonna get in our way?”

Johnson wants to trade an open housing bill for King’s support of Gen. William Westmoreland’s move into South Vietnam. King won’t make the deal. Whitney Young (Harold Surratt), head of the cautious National Urban League, attacks him: “We cannot more strongly state our opposition to Dr. King’s activities. Our major drive is for the enjoyment of civil rights by the Negro citizens of this country… We in the movement can’t be dividing our energies… Not with the Vietnam we’re fightin’ right here in Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama!”

King’s southern colleague Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Bryan Hicks) is sympathetic to Johnson: “Now you wanna make things even more difficult for him on an issue that’s got nothin’ to do with civil rights? That’s how you’re gonna repay him?”

Andrew Young (James Miles), then King’s aide, later President Jimmy Carter’s U.N. ambassador and mayor of Atlanta, speaks against anti-war declarations: “President Kennedy made speeches, but couldn’t get anything through Congress. Johnson can.”

On the other side are Coretta King (Rachel Leslie) and the radical anti-war minister, James Bevel (Jimonn Cole), who helps organise the “Spring Mobe”, a mobilisation against the U.S. invasion.

Bevel says, “You like to talk about justice, Martin Luther King… but you can’t talk about justice and not talk about this immoral war!” He reads him gruesome words: “Napalm has proven so effective against the Vietnamese that it has given rise to a popular marchin’ song among our soldiers… ‘Napalm, son, is lots of fun/Dropped in a bomb or shot from a gun/It gets the gooks when on the run/Napalm sticks to kids.’ God, that’s disgusting!”

King decides to send appeals to the Vietcong, the Saigon government, the leaders of Communist China and the Soviet Union, and President Johnson to end the war. He declares, “We’ll have to stop proppin’ up dictators who abuse their people. We’ll have to stop exploitin’ poor countries for their natural resources and never puttin’ anything back.”

“How can I be demandin’ non-violence from Negroes in our cities here at home, then be standin’ by while this country unleashes the forces of hell on the rest’a the world. Here’s what I’m plannin’ to do. I plan to ask every young man in this country who believes as I do that this war is wrong and immoral to go down to his Selective Service office and register as a conscientious objector.”

That call, at New York’s Riverside Church, evokes attacks from the mainstream media and politicians.

The New York Times: “Dr. King’s outrageous characterisations do not justify what must be seen as slander against this nation.”

The Washington Post: “Dr. King’s Vietnam speech was not a sober or responsible comment on the war. He has done grave injury to his people and diminished his usefulness to his cause. It is a great tragedy.”

Congressman John Ashbrook of Ohio accuses him of treason.

That riveting script eerily foretells the lack of vision and courage by politicians and the press who decades later confronted the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

“Something You Did”

The other play, “Something You Did”, directed by Carolyn Cantor, deals with activists whose 'Something You Did,' Joanna Gleason, photo James Laynsephilosophy was quite opposite from King’s, who sought to “bring the war home” by bringing home its violence. It is, however, of less interest, because it focuses too little on the issues that led to the killing for which Alison Mouton (Joanna Gleason) is imprisoned, and largely on her attempt to get paroled.

The rough model for Alison is Kathy Boudin, of the Weather Underground, which called itself a “fifth column” of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. It bombed the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol, the New York Police Benevolent Association, the New York Board of Corrections, and offices of multinational companies. Boudin went to prison in 1984 for involvement in a Brinks armoured car robbery that left three workers dead. She was paroled, after 22 years, in 2003; her cohorts are still in prison.

Like King, the character Alison’s political education was honed in the civil rights movement. A white woman, she says, “I took a Greyhound to McComb, Mississippi. In 1964… By the time I got off, three workers had already gone missing…I was threatened, taunted, spat on. And then I went out to register voters even after those workers turned up dead.”

But she didn’t stay with nonviolence. Alison explains, “We turned to armed struggle as a last resort…Our military was using cluster bombs…We wanted to show what a cluster bomb can do.” She and others of the group set off a nail-filled bomb in Grand Central Station that killed a policeman who happened on the scene.

Alison tells the parole board that her group had been plastering walls with posters of the results of a 500-pound cluster bomb on a village in Cambodia. “And in this picture is a woman — the torso of a woman. Her right arm is missing below the elbow and I want to think of her as Venus, the Cambodian goddess of love. I love her, just as I love the soldiers who are suffering needlessly in the jungles of Vietnam…And the poster is a failure. It reaches no one…And so, out of love for this woman, for mankind, we bring the war home.”

For all her dedication to civil rights, Alison’s bomb ironically kills a black policeman struggling to raise a daughter alone.

In the movement against the latest U.S. war, King’s model has won.

Review on IPS site

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Houswife’s Lament

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 9:58 am

By Lucy Komisar
Inter Press Service (IPS) April 22, 2008

'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,' Phylicia Rashad, James Earl Jones, photo Joan Marcus
Since the 1950s, views in the United States have changed a lot about whether marriage is good for women — or at least about the nature of its serious disadvantages.

Four Broadway plays spanning those decades show one prominent downside: marriage as a smoldering cauldron of unfulfilled sexual desire or betrayal.

The U.S. works are about small-town Middle America: the Midwest, Mississippi, Oklahoma. They are William Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba”, Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, and Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County”. The British revival is Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming”, about working class London.

“Come Back Little Sheba”, the melodramatic 1950 play written by Inge at the height of the post-war “women back to the home” propaganda, presages the second feminist wave’s warning about what happens to women who have no lives of their own.'Come Back Little Sheba,' Kevin Anderson, S. Epatha Merkerson, photo Joan Marcus

Doc (Kevin Anderson) and Lola (S. Epatha Merkerson) live in a Midwestern city where they were sweethearts 25 years ago; she got pregnant and they married. “Doc”, ironically nicknamed, gave up medical school and became a chiropractor. She lost the baby, but as if being parents was the only purpose of their relationship, she calls him “Daddy”.

Doc drowned his career disappointment in alcohol. He has joined Alcoholics Anonymous and has been sober for almost a year. Lola was once beautiful; now she is overweight. Doc calls her a “two-ton heifer”. They don’t sleep together. Anderson and Merkerson play the characters as if they were in a bit of a daze, not confronting their lives or each other.

Lola is isolated, staying at home because Doc didn’t want her to work. Even Sheeba, the dog she loved, disappeared, leaving her forlorn. Desperately lonesome, she invites the postman and milkman in for subliminally flirty moments of a glass of water or a chat.

We see the deadly housewife pattern eerily repeated in the lithe, sultry young art student, Marie (Zoe Kazan) who is a boarder at the couple’s house. She has a local boyfriend with whom she sleeps, outraging Doc who is maybe hiding his own desire, or envy. Then Marie’s rich fiancé, Bruce (Chad Hoeppner), arrives from out of town to interrupt her college education and carry her off to marriage. You can see the pattern about to repeat.

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, set on a plantation in Mississippi cotton country, is more explicit about sexual desire, but it shows the same theme of women trapped by their men and by their inability to have a life without men. First performed on Broadway in 1955, the play, directed by Debbie Allen, has an all-black cast, demonstrating, if that were necessary, that it is about couples, not about rich Southern whites.

'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,' Terrence Howard, Anika Noni Rose, photo Joan MarcusBrick (Terrence Howard), the favourite son of the dominating and wealthy “Big Daddy” (the brilliant James Earl Jones), is not sleeping with wife Maggie (Anika Noni Rose). We don’t know whether that’s because he’s homosexual (as was author Williams) or if this former college football player is just consumed by guilt about the death of his jock friend with whom he had an unnamed close connection. And whose phone call he hung up on before the friend took his life.

So, we get to see Maggie, played with grossly unseductive sensuality by Rose, fail in her attempts to seduce the terminally bored Brick. We also see Big Daddy express loathing for the wife (Phylicia Rashad) he’s bedded for 40 years. No reason is proffered: Big Mama seems a kind enough lady, even likeable as portrayed by the very expressive Rashad, sincere in her concern for his welfare, and almost pathetic in her efforts to please him.

But the decay of this family is represented by the cancer eating at Big Daddy’s body. And with or without sex, bad male-female connections cause desperate unhappiness for two women trapped in relationships, because they have no independent lives of their own.

Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming”, staged in London and on Broadway in 1965, shifts the marriage paradigm. Here, curiously, the woman takes charge, and uses sex as a way of asserting power and perhaps as a weapon against her husband. Under director Daniel Sullivan, the poisonous interaction between the sexes is, if anything, more virulent.

The moral and physical decay of the family and its members is reflected in the shabby North London house, with holes in the wallboard and the destruction of even the patina of familiar niceties. Max (Ian McShane), the father, a violent, nasty, retired butcher, recalls his wife: “It made me sick to look at her rotten face.” His son Lenny (Raul Esparza), the horse player, ridicules him. Another son, Joey (Gareth Saxe), a boxer in training, is punch drunk.

Into that decaying home comes the third son, Teddy (James Frain), who left nine years ago to be a professor of philosophy in the U.S., and Ruth (Eve Best), his wife. Teddy’s self-important remarks to Ruth seem to be attempts to assert his authority: “I took you there [to Italy]. I can speak Italian.”

'The Homecoming,' Eve Best, Raul Esparza, photo Scott LandisBut she’s about to ditch him and stay in London. She tells Lenny she was “a photographic model for the body” before she went away. Translation: she posed for a porn magazine. He proposes to set her up as a prostitute on Greek Street. Max warns, “She’ll use us, she’ll make use of us. I can smell it.”

Pinter appears to be saying that she will turn the tables on these men by using sex as power, her power. It’s certainly a change from the fifties, though not much more a brief for marriage than the plays of the sex-starved women of Inge and Williams.

We come now to the present, to “August: Osage County” by Tracy Letts, in a steaming-hot small-town Oklahoma summer. Set in a peaked roof clapboard house that represents the Main Street fantasy image of marriage, it tracks a family’s corrosive meanness that leaves bodies, souls and marriages all withering.

A spiteful, foul-mouthed woman in her seventies (Deanna Dunagan) pops pills; her husband (Dennis Letts) drinks. She has cancer of the mouth, but there’s a cancer in the family, lack of caring; the couples are consumed by hostility. A Native American (Kimberly Guerrero) who is hired as a servant carries an amulet to protect her soul from this poisonous ambience.

One of three sisters, Barbara Fordham (Amy Morton) is separated from Bill, a professor (Jeff Perry), who was her husband for 23 years. Daughter Jean (Madeleine Martin) is a pot-smoking 14-year-old. Dad is sleeping with his students.

Barbara’s overweight sister Mattie (Rondi Reed) spends her time heckling her laconic'August: Osage County,' Francis Guinan, Rondi Reed, photo Joan Marcus husband Charlie (Francis Guinan), who retreats behind a beer can. The only relationship in the family that appears to be based on real affection turns out to be incestuous.

Under the direction of Anna D. Shapiro, the play comes perilously near to daytime TV melodrama in piling one disastrous personal relationship on another. Why don’t the wives get free and get out? More than a half a century after Lola’s travails, Letts’ Middle American women are not very liberated.

Story on IPS site

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