Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Lively, Emotional Blacklist Panel.

Picture yourself in a big, wooden church house filled with people all gathered together to discuss the important issues of our day. Not advocacy, but illumination.

When the Zero Hour producing team decided to put together the panel discussion, Survivors of the Blacklist, as an adjunct to the run of Zero Hour here, I thought it was a good idea. What I could not prepare for was how it would feel to actually do it.

There we were, packed shoulder to shoulder in a big, historic, wooden church building.

We were looking a stage filled with living witnesses and survivors of a time when people gathered together in big wooden church buildings in order to talk about how to survive the depression over which they had little or no power.

And it's not unintentional that Jim plays this show without a mic. It's almost a depression-era production suited to the times. (And how interesting that this Orson Welles movie is coming out right now, another artist of the WPA).

For the event night, however, for all our old ears, we set up a PA system.

Dan Wackerman, of the Peccadillo Theatre Company, which is hosting Zero Hour, stepped to the mic and encouraged everyone to see Zero Hour. Then, he introduced Rep. Jerrold Nadler.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler began the proceedings by mentioning that he chairs, the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, and that his subcomittee is the descendant of HUAC. He warned that the forces that would blacklist are ever-present in congress and in the media.

This was followed by Jim doing a brief section of Zero Hour. Jim recreating, in a more compact form, Mostel's testimony in front of congress, with Bob Osborne (the TV film historian who introduces films on Turner Classic Movies) guesting as the interrogator.

Then, introduced the panel.

Right from the beginning, without prompting, one of the panelists insisted that the blacklist was, in part, another extension of the antisemitism expressed during the Holocaust, thus justifying Jim's inclusion of this issue, reflecting Zero's opinion, in Zero Hour -- something one of the reviewers pooh-pooh in his review of the show.

Another, actor Cliff Carpenter, 94 years old, barely able to hear, broke down sobbing, as he recalled the fear and how his, and so many of his friends', lives were destroyed.

Kate Lardner and Christopher Trumbo (children of writers Ring Lardner Jr. and Dalton Trumbo) remembered having to grow up in Mexico, and then in various cities across the country.

The panel recalled that most of the "unamerican activities" these creators were engaged in was mostly union organizing, and that few of them knew anything, or even cared, about communism itself. So much of the blacklist was about trying to kill off the Writers union, for instance.

Victor Navasky reminded the audience that it wasn't just the House Unamerican Activities Committee that spread the fear, but that there were little HUACs all over the country, in every state, and in cities, police formed Red Squads, hunting down wherever there might be a communist, and that families were chased from town to town.

Cartoonist and writer, Jules Feiffer said, "Everyone in the country had the benefit of the first amendment except us. We were not allowed freedom of speech."

Jean Rouverol, a writer, also in her 90s, said she and her husband, screenwriter Hugo Butler, were told to testify against each other, so they self-exiled themselves to Mexico. "We had small children at the time," she said in a very emotional moment, "we couldn't go to jail."

Lee Grant, whose career had just started, was blacklisted for 12 years. She insisted that her activism and opposition to the blacklist was never about communism, but about the freedom to speak. She said, "For me, it was never about communism. I didn't even know what communism was. I still don't. And it wasn't important to me. I was just exposed to these extraordinary people. I wanted to be a part of them. But the war that we fought, that Cliff and Jean feel so passionately about, that war has never stopped for me. It's the best group of people that I could find in the world to be with, and I wouldn't exchange it for anything."

Grant chose these people to associate with, and that got her blacklisted. In the play, Zero talks about how his friends would cross the street to not be seen with him.

So, for these people, none of it was about communism, per se. It was about the freedom to speak and to associate with whomever you wish. There was no intention to "violently overthrow the government," as was being claimed by Joe McCarthy. He and his followers would use tearful, passionate, angry speeches to intentionally stir up fear.

Zero says, with his usual comic twist, "Socialists weren't trying to overthrow America, but we thought the government could help out a little. And so did Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the greatest Jewish mind of the 20th century."

Joe Gilford, son of Jack Gilford and Madeline Lee (a fierce union leader who gave the committee scornful hell during her testimony), said he considered his parents patriots and heroes because they refused to name names. He considers the blacklist a witch hunt against comedy, because the jester in the court is the one who tells the truth.

A very dramatic moment happened when an audience member stood to defend her husband, saying that he only named names in order to work, and that he only gave them names that had already been named and that now his legacy would be left to "people like Victor Navasky."

This point was refuted by Jules Feiffer, who said her husband had named at least one new name. Lee Grant, praising the woman for having the courage to speak, said they all had the same chance, but that they refused to turn on their friends. What was clear was that war has collateral damage.

Bob Osborne handled the evening beautifully, asking pointed questions about the era, and taking questions from the audience.

And I was there with my handy camera, getting it all down. I will be uploading the entirety to YouTube, of course. But what a night. It was like hearing Zero Hour all over again, as every point made by Zero in the play came roaring back to flesh and blood life.

One point they continued to stress is that it can all so easily happen again. That they never presume it's over.


Bev Sykes said...

Chilling. I wish we could have stayed long enough to attend.

NG said...

Wish I had known too; this topic fascinates me in more ways than one.

Anonymous said...

There is no way to describe the timber of the voices and clarity of the eyes that were telling the anecdotes that made up the evening. And the most vital point conveyed was that the same fight _is_ going on now with the obscenely named "Patriot Act" and the this decades "ISM" terrorism.

The sight of Jim Brochu turning into Zero Mostel before our eyes, a moment of magic-but that is theater.

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