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Stagestruck: Gobsmacked by History

A new play dissects game-changing assassinations.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Conspiracy theory is a volatile beast. It stirs strong passions, pitting true believers against equally pious defenders of the official line. On one side are those who find plots and cover-ups in contradictions, murky doings and can’t-be-coincidences. On the other are those who use holes in the theorists’ arguments, facts they ignore and their presumed anti-establishment bias to dismiss the nagging doubts and questions.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination this Friday, the persistent questions about what actually happened on that day in Dallas are resurfacing. One such revisiting is Project Unspeakable, a piece of documentary theater born of a grassroots effort here in the Valley, but which hopes to “go viral” and worldwide in the way of other docudramas such as The Laramie Project and spontaneous movements like Occupy.

The title comes from the social-activist monk Thomas Merton, who defined “the Unspeakable” as a “void” in which official pronouncements stifle public inquiry “even before the words are said” and make us all accessories by our silence. The play, written by Court Dorsey, is inspired by James Douglass’ 2010 book JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters, an exhaustively argued dissection of the Kennedy assassination and its muddled aftermath.

Douglass pins the murder on powerful federal agencies, primarily the CIA, but involving the FBI and the Pentagon as well. In his account, these forces were outraged at Kennedy’s “appeasement” of the Russians in the Cuban Missile Crisis, panicked by his personal overtures to both Khrushchev and Castro, and fearful of his doubts about U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Dorsey’s play goes beyond JFK to implicate these dark powers in the 60s’ three other game-changing assassinations—those of Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, all of whom challenged the social and political status quo. Project Unspeakable imagines a Joe Public figure, skeptical of conspiracy theories but increasingly disturbed as he’s introduced to parts of the narrative left out of the official histories.

Indeed some of the testimony—mostly verbatim quotes from witnesses and highly placed government figures—is gobsmacking. Like the doctors at JFK’s autopsy who were ordered to change their reports. Or the eyewitness and forensic evidence that puts another shooter besides Sirhan Sirhan at the scene of Robert Kennedy’s death.

Or JFK’s rumination on the probability that a U.S. president could be executed for defying the military-industrial complex Eisenhower had warned of. Or the retired Marine Corps general who realized he was simply “a high-class muscle man for big business … a racketeer for capitalism.” Or Barack Obama, challenged by a supporter to live up to his promise of “change we can believe in,” replying, “Don’t you remember what happened to Dr. King?”

The production’s goal is not simply to resurface old theories, but to apply “a lens through which we can better understand what is happening in this country today.” In an age when drones are commonplace, wiretaps are pandemic, Senate seats are free-market commodities, blood is cheaper than oil and collateral damage is just another oops—whether or not it happened then, it’s all too easy to believe it could happen now.

Local readings of Project Unspeakable will be held in Northampton, Leverett and Shelburne Falls on Friday. See projectunspeakable.com for details.•

Chris Rohmann is at StageStruck@crocker.com and his StageStruck blog is at valleyadvocate.com/blogs/stagestruck.

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I was a H.S. sophomore, just starting to come out of a deep haze of grief from my father's death 9 months earlier. In gym class, the announcement came; school was closing early. In the locker room, our teacher gathered us around, and in a large, hard voice, said, "GIRLS: you’re going home. YOUR PRESIDENT IS DEAD". Not OURS. YOUR President, she said. I felt hit in the stomach, and I bent over. Others cried too. We shuffled home slowly, heads down.

I remember campaigning for JFK at 12, handing out flyers at the subway entrance. I told my mother that when I was older, I would change my Russian Jewish name to Kennedy. I was ready to help Africa, but Mom said I was too young for the Peace Corps.

It was incongruous to walk home early that Friday afternoon, to see that everything appeared the same - the shops and signs, traffic lights, buses, cars, wind moving the trees, the grass growing between the cracks in the pavement - when in fact, nothing could ever be the same. It was as awful and unthinkable as losing my father, again. Mom was sitting on the couch, crying, TV on. My sister Helen, Mom, and I sat on that couch for those four days, impaled by fresh images that are now history: Mrs. Kennedy's stone face and bloodied suit, the rifle held high for the press, "Oswald's been shot!", the riderless horse, the muffled sound of funereal drums, the little boy salute.

Of course, time passed, and the grief lessened. The coming of the Beatles re-lit my pilot light, and life went forward. But on a soul level, we knew the truth of it, that some element of our United States ran its terrible, REAL business on an invisible track. And I think we learned that soul lesson over and over again, with the murders of Martin and Bobby and others. The presentation of "Project Unspeakable" elucidates the story of America's broken heart, and makes it manifestly clear. In hindsight, when I think of these murders (by lone gunmen, they told us), I now feel the double-pain: we were robbed of great or would-be great, inspiring, beloved leaders, and America could not ever be seen again without its dark and terrifying Shadow.

Posted by Dinah Kudatsky on 11.23.13 at 17:13
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