On opening night of The Chicago Conspiracy Trial at the Odyssey Theatre, one of the actors was running late from a freeway closure, so actor David Mauer passed the time by delivering impromptu speeches by his character, Yippie defendant Jerry Rubin, one of the “Chicago Eight” indicted in 1969 for conspiracy to incite a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He then asked the audience how many them had participated in an anti–Vietnam War protest. A silver-haired man in the front row said that he had — as an infantryman in the Indiana National Guard. His respect for the protesters was tainted, he said, by having seen them throw feces at his battalion.
“They [the National Guard] were just kids themselves,” the man said. “They had nothing against the protesters. There was no reason for that.”
What might have been intended as a pre-show pep rally quickly turned into a trial, even before the first lighting cue in Ron Sossi and Frank Condon’s play (which was developed from trial transcripts).
An audience of graying baby boomers filling the Odyssey’s seats clearly delight in memories that defined their generation, of which the kangaroo trial of the Chicago Eight (David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Lee Weiner, John Froines and Bobby Seale) is a must-stop on the nostalgia trip.
Beyond the nostalgia, however, emerges the queasy sensation of how the world has changed in 40 years, and of how little it’s changed.
In The Chicago Conspiracy Trial, Bobby Seale (Darius Ever Truly) — an African-American militant — puffs up his chest and shouts, demanding his constitutional right to a lawyer of his choosing. There he is, an early lightning rod for the kind of ethnic politics that, while leading to many new employment opportunities, mostly buttressed the ghettos that they were designed to eradicate. A few scenes later, Seale is bound to a chair and gagged — precisely what happened during that trial and, symbolically, to his movement. The image of the gag and chain resonates with modern attempts to sabotage the Voting Rights Act by jettisoning minority communities from the voting rosters. Post-9/11, the very expression “constitutional rights” now has the ring of claiming as an entitlement what was probably always a mirage.
Judge Julius Hoffman (George Murdock, the one remaining actor from this theater’s production of the same play 30 years ago) eventually severed Seale from the trial and sentenced him to four years in prison for contempt of court, which is how the Chicago Eight became the Chicago Seven. There’s one scene that’s not in the play: In his closing remarks, defense attorney William Kunstler (Kent Minault) said, “I am going to turn back to my seat with the realization that everything I have learned throughout my life has come to naught, that there is no meaning in this court, there is no law in this court.” Kunstler, along with six of his clients, was imprisoned for contempt.
With the wave of anti-war protests during the ’60s, Congress invoked national security to pass a 1968 law making it a federal crime to cross state lines in order to incite riots, but President Johnson’s Justice Department wasn’t particularly interested in prosecuting the anti-war protesters in Chicago, believing the convention debacle to be a matter for local jurisdiction. Attorney General Ramsey Clarke seemed far more interested in prosecuting the police officers who had cracked heads — especially in light of so many documents published by the “co-conspirators” that appealed for nonviolent protests. Outraged by Clarke’s leniency toward the protesters, Mayor Richard Daley (James Manley Green) lobbied furiously for prosecution of the protesters, and found a willing ally in the new attorney general under Nixon, John Mitchell.
The production, directed by Condon, is a massive and largely authentic courtroom drama with three dozen actors, featuring Murdock as the doddering judge who can’t remember anybody’s name (the defendants start writing huge cue cards for him so he can properly identify their attorney), whose transparent bias for the prosecution comes tempered with his wistful amusement at the mocking testimony of clowns-in-residence such as Abbie Hoffman (Andy Hirsch).
DEFENSE ATTORNEY LEONARD WEINGLASS: Will you please identify yourself for the record?
HOFFMAN: My name is Abbie. I am an orphan of America.
WEINGLASS: Where do you reside?
HOFFMAN: I live in Woodstock Nation.
WEINGLASS: Will you tell the court and jury where it is?
HOFFMAN: Yes. It is a nation of alienated young people. We carry it around with us as a state of mind in the same way as the Sioux Indians carried the Sioux nation around with them. It is a nation dedicated to .?.?. the idea that people should have better means of exchange than property or money .?.?. It is a nation dedicated to —
THE COURT: Just where it is, that is all.
HOFFMAN: It is in my mind and in the minds of my brothers and sisters .?.?. We believe in a society —
THE COURT: No, we want the place of residence, if he has one .?.?. Nothing about philosophy or India, sir. Just where you live .?.?. Now you said Woodstock. In what state is Woodstock?
HOFFMAN: It is in the state of mind, in the mind of myself and my brothers and sisters.
WEINGLASS: When were you born?
HOFFMAN: Psychologically, 1960.
WEINGLASS: What is the actual date of your birth?
HOFFMAN: November 30, 1936.
WEINGLASS: Between the date of your birth, November 30, 1936, and May 1, 1960, what if anything occurred in your life?
HOFFMAN: Nothing. I believe it is called an American education.
PROSECUTING ATTORNEY RICHARD SCHULTZ: Objection!
THE COURT: I sustain the objection.
The judge goes on to sustain every objection by the prosecution, and none by the defense. Most of the production’s details are fastidiously authentic: the defendants’ cavalier postures, their gently mocking tone, their feet on the table strewn with papers and books of poetry, and their flashy dress juxtaposed against the prosecutors’ austere haircuts, suits and respect for the solemnity of the occasion.
The prosecution’s circular arguments and the defendants’ haughty ramblings reveal a kind of national insanity that came in the wake of Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist witch hunts, and foreshadow Dick Cheney and Alberto Gonzales’ fetishes for torture and domestic surveillance. The charge of conspiracy against the Chicago Eight derived from unfettered malice. As Abbie Hoffman famously quipped, “Conspiracy? Hell, we couldn’t agree on lunch.”
The left keeps complaining that something has been lost with the Bush administration, when we’ve always hovered on the precipice of a police state. Our national credibility on the world stage is certainly in tatters, not because we used to be more principled but because we used to have more charm. Reagan’s wars in Latin America continued a long, brutal and hypocritical American tradition of propping up dictators who support us economically; but to most of the world, Reagan, like Bill Clinton, was a charmer. Bush’s policies are not so different from those of his predecessors — torture, surveillance, rolling past international agreements — none of this is new. The high crimes of the Bush administration stem from its utter lack of charm and discretion. Reagan proved that you could do almost anything with a wink and a smile. He was an actor. Bush has no mask and, because of it, neither does America.
The Chicago Conspiracy Trial offersa discomfiting if not painful reminder that the toxic brew of paranoia and aggression has a far more constant and forceful place in American history than democracy or anybody’s constitutional rights, especially Bobby Seale’s.
THE CHICAGO CONSPIRACY TRIAL | By RON SOSSI and FRANK CONDON | ODYSSEY THEATRE ENSEMBLE, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A. | Through December 16 | (310) 477-2055