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Historical Plays Highlight Abuse of Power
JFK assassination, Shakespeare's Richard II on stage in New York
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2006-09-18 17:46 (KST)   
Two plays which recently opened in New York focus on the use and abuse of power in politics.

The play "Why We Shot John" opened Sept. 9, 2006. It is a play exploring the assassination of U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) in Dallas, Texas in November, 1963. The playwright, Walt Stepp, in a program note explains,
"My interest in the assassination began on Nov. 22, 1963. For me as well as for many other Americans, it was a recognizable turning point in our lives --in our view of ourselves and of the America we thought we lived in... As in the assassination, no one knew why the war in Vietnam was happening... Now another president shanghais us into yet another foreign war of domestic expedience, no exit in sight. It's either a monstrous coincidence or conspiracy."
For the playwright, current events like the U.S. invasion of Iraq underlie the importance of reconsidering the motive for the assassination of JFK. As the play unfolds, it suggests an intriguing parallel between the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 over the issue of the abolition of slavery, and the assassination of JFK in 1963 over the abolition of segregation.

The play focuses on the struggle against segregation by the growing Civil Rights movement in the U.S. in the early 1960s. Various indications of support for the movement by JFK evoked the wrath of the Southern power structure that benefited from segregation.

This is represented in the play by five characters who were then in the U.S. Congress. They explain their frustration with the activities of JFK which they believe encourage the civil rights struggle. These activities include telephoning Martin Luther King in the Birmingham jail and a speech by JFK on television condemning the moral harm of a segregated society.

Other events of the early 1960s stirred up this animosity against JFK and his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Foremost were the Congressional hearings investigating Bobby Baker, on the staff of Vice President Lyndon Johnson. The play presents the Kennedys considering whether to drop Lyndon Johnson from the ticket for the next Presidential election.

A special scene in the play is a chess match between JFK and Nikita Khrushchev. Both agree to pretend enmity to appease critics at home.

The five actors skillfully play multiple roles while weaving between historical and fictitious events. Bill Dante does an especially fine job portraying JFK, as but one of his roles in the play. The other four actors are Scott Glascock, Charlotte Hampden, Bizz Roddy, and Scott Van Tuyl. The director is B. Peter Westerhoff.

One of the few weaknesses I found with the play was the opening scene between JFK and J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI. The scene trivializes the role that Hoover plays there. Hoover is later portrayed as arranging the assassination.

The questions raised by the play are intriguing, as they remind the audience that JFK had defeated Richard Nixon in an extremely close race in the 1960 Presidential election. JFK was President during a period when the civil rights movement of the 1960s was just gaining momentum.

I spent almost a year in the South in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1966-67, a little while after the time period covered in the play. That was the first year there were to be integrated public schools in Tuscaloosa, as one of the institutions of segregation was dismantled. Such changes in the segregated South were being demanded by the civil rights movement in the early 1960s and JFK, in the portrayal of the play, was killed as part of an effort to stop this transformation of American society.

Whether or not one agrees with this view of the Kennedy assassination, the play provides valuable food for thought toward understanding this important period in America's history.

Another play being presented off Broadway in New York City this fall is Shakespeare's "Richard II." Michael Chumpsty plays Richard II and the play is directed by Brian Kulick.

The play is performed in modern dress, and a note in the program indicates that the actor playing Richard II hopes the production will help to provide perspective to view how both those in the White House and other Americans involved in the Middle East conflict are abusing power in an arrogant way.

In the play, King Richard II abuses his power in various ways, which leads to a successful rebellion against his reign. He is deposed and eventually murdered. Before he dies, however, he realizes the arrogance with which he used the power of the throne when he had it, and the fragility of such power. The play raises important questions about political power and how those holding such power are prone to abuse it.

Graham Winton plays Henry Bolingbroke, who leads the rebellion against Richard and takes the throne as King Henry IV. The roles played by Cumpsty as Richard II and Winston as Bolingbroke are skillfully done. The use of one actress for four different minor female roles, however, was a distraction. The director would have done better to have cast each role separately and worked to perfect the different characters.

These two productions in New York this Fall demonstrate that the problem of political leadership and how such leadership is replaced is on the minds of many Americans.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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