A look at a Vietnam War-era act of civil disobedience in response to American foreign policy should be the kind of subject matter that spurs an immediate connection to today. Activists asking an audience to consider the racist, imperialist system they tacitly accept and showing us how actions, even small bold ones, might change history. But the stiff text and distancing production choices in The Trial of the Catonsville Nine make it hard to fully engage in those issues or with the voices of the people involved.
If you don’t come in with some knowledge about the real-life activists known as the Catonsville Nine you will get a small history lesson. But the history presented feels somehow both starkly black and white and murky all at once.
This is a revival of a play from 1971 written by one of the original activists, Father Daniel Berrigan, and now adapted by director Jack Cummings III. The events involve a group of protesters, some whom had previously been involved in pouring blood on draft records in Baltimore, who chose Catonsville, Maryland as their next target. They forcibly removed 1-A draft records (these were the men who were to be called up first as able to serve) and set fire to the documents with homemade napalm—symbolic because of its use by the U.S. government in Vietnam. They called the media to photograph the actions and never once denied doing it. They hoped to spark others to action and provide a court path to litigate the legitimacy of the war.
Of the nine, they all participated for their own personal reasons. Some had seen American foreign policy be destructive abroad, others saw the horrors of poverty and civil rights injustice in America itself.
Using the trial transcript with some archival memories from the activists, we are almost wholly dependent on the activists themselves to explain or elucidate what happened and why. The audience is seated on wooden benches like a jury on the stage of the old Playhouse. In the center is a circle of vintage tanker desks covered in piles of period photos, magazines, and documents. This also hammers the dusty, archival nature of the play.
Unfortunately in this staging, the characters blend together. The three actors (Mia Katigbak, David Huynh, Eunice Wong) play all the different people involved–activists, lawyers, judge, draft office employee. They are constantly changing identity during the play, handing off characters to each other in tag team fashion. For instance, at some point all three actors have voiced the trial judge. At other times, one actor may play the protester who is testifying while another actor speaks that same person’s internal thoughts. But later someone else may voice that same activist.
By trying to disentangle age, gender, and identity from the voices, we are a little adrift. This choice lets their voices fill the room in a swirling array of outrage and courtroom conflict. But opting for an overall “voice” of protest rather than individual personalities it undermines our emotional engagement. They end up as less unique people (despite the actors efforts) and more mouthpieces for a cause. There are moments which reveal some of their biographies and the unique reasons for their activism. But the confusing squall of the production prevents us from making those connections.
The production is directed with a heavy-hand. Lines are spoken with pronouncement. The play itself bears a self-important quality (as to be expected from an activist making a case for the critical nature of the work they were doing). It becomes lecturing documentary theater. Each time the script says “Catonsville” it assumes a certain level of power in the word. And maybe in 1971 it had such weight. But now it does not have the same visceral impact of somewhere like “Selma” does.
In 1971, the outrage in the storytelling might have been a given. The war was still happening. But this production does not find a way to bring that meaning into the room for a contemporary audience.
While American imperialism, intervention, and destabilization of other countries remains, so does the average citizen’s lack of activism. All the more reason this play should in this moment feel imperative. America’s recent intervention into Venezuela, the ongoing issues with police brutality, a racist justice system, a racist bail system, all should resonate. But this production makes no effort to make those connections and leaves us to find our own way to that point, if at all. An impassioned plea for jury nullification (asking the jury to ignore the law and vote their moral conscience) is squished in for good measure. As an attorney, I found that a complexity glossed over too readily.
When the actors first enter the space they have no names, no characters, and no identities. From their clothing they are people from today (I think) who appear to be stumbling upon this treasure trove of the past. After they’ve taken off their coats and turn on the record player, they embody these historic voices. But we never know who our are guides are, or why they are there, or why they are telling us this story. A dramatic final tableaux with them using the larger theater space is devoid of meaning since they remain enigmas.
The activists feared they would be forgotten and end up a footnote to history. This production may bring them back to our attention but contextualizing their work would have made their efforts shine greater.