First criterion for a political play: usefulness. When people complain about the theater not being “political” enough, they usually mean that they want it to be rabble-rousing, to get everybody’s temper all riled up over some currently pressing issue. Those who’ve sat (or stood, at protest rallies) through a few thousand examples of this sort of preaching to the choir know exactly how little good it does. It may help believers feel reaffirmed in what they already believe—which is needed every so often, I concede—but you can’t count on it to open opponents’ eyes or shift the undecided into your camp. The play that can make a start on those activities is a very rare specimen indeed.
That distinction is only the first reason to salute The Conscientious Objector, a semi-documentary play that practices a whole string of virtues rarely come across in political theater. Writer Michael Murphy and director Carl Forsman, who previously collaborated on what I might call my favorite piece of politico-religious theater, Sin: A Cardinal Deposed, have carried over many of its admirable tactics in their new piece. Like Sin, The Conscientious Objector is grounded in historical fact, and where possible uses the participants’ actual words. Like Sin, the new work generally hews to a quietly serious tone, facing morally grave issues with a somber sense of the responsibility involved. Not solemn, not pompous, not pedantic; just somber.
Or maybe I mean “sober.” In the hysteria of the perpetual media circus that world politics has become, the act of looking at things calmly now seems as scarce as an endangered species. The condition isn’t new, but the advent of the Internet has accelerated it to something like amphetamine levels. Mediaholicism is our new dependence, for which concerned social scientists are probably developing therapies even as I write. That condition makes sobriety all the more necessary, especially given the deep trough we now find ourselves in of simultaneous economic depression (let’s not kid ourselves by using milder terms), endless war, environmental disaster, and a crumbling social infrastructure that makes all the other miseries seem worse. Yes, America has heard its wake-up call, and (if you except the lunatic fringe who still call themselves Republicans) is ready to face the appalling facts. Finding the strength to do so, and to move on from there, is the next task.
That’s where The Conscientious Objector‘s usefulness comes into play. The theater doesn’t exist to propose practical solutions, nor to preach on the issues. Murphy and Forsman offer, instead, a bracing historical backbone to lean against in facing our present situation: the knowledge that this has happened before, with some sense of how it went wrong then. Far wider than Sin in its reach, The Conscientious Objector deals with Martin Luther King’s struggle, between 1965 and his death, to forge a link between the civil-rights movement and the growing protest against the Vietnam War, placing particular emphasis on his shifting relations with a sometime ally and increasingly more frequent adversary, Lyndon Baines Johnson. As the action of history rolls forward, murdering one man and destroying the other’s political career, you get, in effect, two tragedies for the price of one, eminently justifying both the play’s somberness and its sober quietude.
Drawing much, though not all, of his dialogue from FBI and White House tapes and other historical sources, Murphy depicts Dr. King’s move onto the war-protest scene as a slow, vacillating evolution. Riven by doubts of how much he can accomplish and fears that his new stance will bring either neglect or discredit on his campaign for equal rights, King (DB Woodside) faces an often vociferous conflict among his closest allies that mirrors his inner turmoil. His wife, Coretta (Rachel Leslie), stands firm in the anti-war camp; the impassioned James Bevel (Jimonn Cole) presses for ever more extreme statements; Ralph Abernathy (Bryan Hicks) counsels moderation.
On the White House side, we see LBJ (John Cullum), eager to recruit King as a partner in bringing the black community under the umbrella of the widespread social program he plans, fending off and then caving in to pressure from J. Edgar Hoover (Jonathan Hogan) and other figures on the right, who view the Vietnam War as the first priority and King as a dangerous rabble-rouser with Communist affiliations. Other black leaders lean on King to stop rocking the civil-rights boat; newscasters and commentators beleaguer both MLK and LBJ with the questions both men least want to focus on. In the end, both are broken: The escalating cost of the war kicks aside or minimizes the legislation that would have enabled their shared dream of social progress. The unforgettable last scene between them (based on a transcribed phone conversation) suggests two remorseful Oedipuses finding a moment’s peace together in the sacred grove at Colonus.
Forsman stages this grave material with resolute unshowiness, deliberately eschewing any effort to play up the media iconography of that turbulent era. Woodside, lanky and long-faced, plays King’s questing despair, with minimal attempt to duplicate his legendary fire as a speaker. This was probably the production’s one strategic error; deeply honorable, the performance wants a stronger hint of the magnetism that made King a great leader. We feel the lack more because others’ strength pushes at Woodside from all around: Leslie’s Coretta glows with devotion; Hicks endows Abernathy with a rich blend of passion, perplexity, and cautious concern; Hogan and Geddeth Smith skillfully handle a string of roles each; Cole, though excessively shouty, is vibrant. And Cullum’s Johnson is a masterpiece—not the easily caricaturable Texas manipulator of the news clips, not a mythical, abstract-“presidential” statesman with a twang, but a man in a dilemma, deeply concerned, half believing in and half unsure of what he’s doing, needy, prideful, cunning, aggrieved, and finally desperate. He embodies the humane stature that biographers have claimed for Johnson, making the errors he commits look all the more terrifying in retrospect. Bringing the past to chilling life, he shows us firmly how we came to where we stand.
That’s the opposite of Caryl Churchill’s misguided tactic in Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?, a 45-minute piece (admission, $50), the glib and familiar premise of which would maybe suit a 10-minute revue sketch. Sam (Scott Cohen) is “a country”—ours—for love of which Guy (Samuel West), “a man,” has left his wife, homeland, and job. Aggressive, forceful, and exciting, Sam commits nothing but evil, spreading violence and exploitation throughout the world, with hapless Guy eagerly playing along, except when an occasional moral qualm flickers up to cause a rift in their oh-so-special relationship.
Churchill’s intriguingly choppy language, all disordered images and unfinished thoughts, mitigates the play’s vapidity a little, implying that this dim-witted political cartoon, with its hopelessly inadequate metaphor, is a delirium dream she’s trying to shake off. This doesn’t work because the image, unlike great political cartoons, has no depth; it merely asserts, instead of resonating, and what it asserts is both dumb (all Americans are evil, but only one Englishman) and unhelpful: If all that England can do, as Churchill seems to imply, is lie back and get fucked by America, what’s the use of complaining? Better to close your eyes and recall the British Empire—which, if an American may point out the fact, spent a century serving as a role model for our current global behavior.