As the audience files into Abrons Arts Center on Grand Street in New York’s Lower East Side, they’re confronted by the unexpected: a small space, looking like an unused warehouse, and a cluster of half a dozen old, beaten up metal desks shoved together in a large rectangle, center stage. Under a low-hanging bank of lights, it’s quickly apparent that the desks are completely covered with photographs, magazine tear sheets, documents and files. A host suggests that patrons wander around the desks for a closer look. And splayed across every inch of available surface is the full horror of the war in Vietnam: corpses, gruesome napalm wounds, women and children cowering in marshes, and a few of the more famous images of the era. Here’s the naked girl fleeing down a dirt road after a napalm attack. Here is the famous Eddie Adams photo of the pointblank execution of an alleged Viet Cong fighter. And, here’s a trench filled with hundreds of bones, the aftermath of a My Lai-style massacre.
Then, as the set in bathed in red light, and as the sound of helicopter rotors reaches a crescendo, three actors – each, Asian American – enter the stage and stare at the tables, as if stunned by what they see before them.
Set to begin is a creative new staging of the 1971 play, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, by Daniel Berrigan and Saul Levitt, which had twenty-nine performances on Broadway and whose director, Gordon Davidson, was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Director. But Transport Group, in alliance with the National Asian American Theatre Company, have put together a complete reimagining of the play, which recounts the trial of nine Vietnam War activists arrested for pouring their own homebrewed version of napalm onto hundreds of draft records seized from a Catonsville, Maryland, office of the Selective Service System in 1968.
In the 1971 version, the dozen or so characters – including the Nine, the judge, the prosecutor, the defense attorney, and witnesses – were each played by individual actors, including Sam Waterston and James Woods. The brilliant conceit of Transport Group’s production is that a trio of fine performers interchangeably play everyone in the cast. Under the absorbing direction of Jack Cummings III, who is also Transport Group’s artistic director, the actors – David Huynh, Mia Katigbak, and Eunice Wong – create a swirl of argument, moving nimbly around the desks, alternately playing accuser and accused.
CONSCIENCE VS. THE STATE
In its essence, the play presents the stark divide between the authorities, who argue the plain fact that Daniel Berrigan, his brother Philip Berrigan – both Roman Catholic priests – and the seven others committed a federal offense, punishable by prison time, by destroying the draft records, and the Nine, who argue that their consciences, and simple human justice, required extraordinary acts of defiance such as theirs when faced with the terrible consequences of America’s war. Drawn largely from the actual trial transcript – though updated and with a coda about the eventual fate of each of nine accused – it’s a moral confrontation as old as the trial of Socrates in 399 BC. But this is no legal brief: thanks to powerful performances by Huynh, Katigbak, and Wong, the heartfelt passion and dedication to justice that animated the Catonsville Nine rivets the audience to their seats, with some in tears or biting their lip as the play unfolds. “I think of the women and children in Vietnam burned alive with the napalm our government has rained down upon them. To be a Christian means you have to act on what you say you believe,” declares Wong, in the voice of Mary Moylan, one of the accused. “I believe to pour napalm on pieces of paper is certainly preferable to pouring napalm on human beings.”
Transport Group Makes Powerful Casting Choices
There’s no question that producing the play with three actors of Asian descent adds enormously to the impact of events that, after all, affected Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians and other Asians far more than those living in the United States. (While upwards of fifty thousand American troops were killed in Vietnam, between two and three million died in Vietnam alone.) The impact of the casting choice was especially evident when Huynh, in fluent, musical Vietnamese, speaks Ho Chi Minh’s word-for-word repetition of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the part that begins “all men are created equal,” as part of Vietnam’s independence declaration in 1945.
The climax of the play develops as the actors replay the closing arguments of the prosecution and the defense. As they begin, repeating the stock phrase of trials – “ladies and gentlemen of the jury” – it’s suddenly apparent that we, the audience, are the real jury, and it is we who are asked to judge the guilt or innocence of the Catonsville Nine. To reinforce the point, as the closing arguments get underway, gates and curtains around the stage abruptly close, hemming in the few dozen audience members seated in the round, and the bank of lights – under the design of R. Lee Kennedy – is turned up full blast, creating an almost blinding brightness in the small space and giving off an intense heat that quickly becomes uncomfortable.
Of course, the real jury, in 1968 – composed of military veterans, Defense Department employees, military contractors, and so forth, as the play makes clear – found the Berrigans, and others – David Darst, John Hogan, Tom Lewis, Marjorie Melville, Thomas Melville, George Mische, and Mary Moylan – guilty on all charges, and they were sentenced to between two and three and one half years in prison. That might be a different result were the audience at the Abrons Arts Center to get a vote. As Daniel Berrigan says to the judge, near the conclusion of the play: “It is as though we were subjects of an autopsy, dismembered by people who wondered whether or not we had a soul. Your Honor, we are certain that we have a soul. It is our soul that brought us here.”
Berrigan, at the time of the Catonsville events, had already emerged as a leading force in the movement for peace and justice in the 1960s, as an ally of Martin Luther King, and as a paragon of the antiwar movement. He would remain so for the next half century, until his death in 2016 at age 94. His closing words as quoted in the play were: “I want America to get reborn into gentleness.” That, truly, might make America great again.
Jack Cummings III
Kristina Corcoran Williams
Scenic & Costume Designer
R. Lee Kennedy
Sound Designer, Original Music
Thru February 23
Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30 pm
Sunday at 3:00 pm
The Playhouse at Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street
New York City
Bob Dreyfuss is an independent journalist based in New York City and Cape May, New Jersey, who has written extensively for Rolling Stone, The Nation, The New Republic, Mother Jones, and many other magazines. He has served as a member of the board of directors for Cape May Stage, an equity theatre in New Jersey, where he profiled dozen of actors for the company’s weekly newsletter. He currently serves on the board of The Upstart Creatures, a New York theatre company. Onstage, he has appeared as Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and as Delivery Man in Barefoot in the Park, and he is currently writing a full-length play about the late Senator John McCain. He has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, including the PBS Newshour, Fox News, Democracy Now!, and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” and has traveled widely, including reporting from Iran, Vietnam, China, and Tanzania.