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Acting Up for Peace: Activists and Artists Challenge War and Worldwide Militarism
"When... at what point will you say no to this war? We have chosen to say with the gift of our liberty, if necessary our lives: the violence stops here, the death stops here, the suppression of the truth stops here, this war stops here."
Faced with the prospect of a prison sentence for burning draft records in protest against the Vietnam War, Daniel Berrigan, a Catholic priest and pioneering figure in the peace movement, uttered the words above in a Maryland courtroom in 1968.
On Saturday night, nearly 40 years later, the same words spewed passionately from the lips of actor Martin Sheen, who portrayed Berrigan in a benefit performance of "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, California. Proceeds from the event will go to the Actors' Gang, a Culver City-based theater company, and Office of the Americas, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization focused on promoting social justice and peace internationally.
Other prominent actors, including Tim Robbins, Beau Bridges, Keith Carradine, Mike Farrell, Camryn Manheim, and Sandra Oh joined Sheen in a staged reading of the play, which Berrigan wrote based on transcripts from the trial that followed the nationally renowned demonstration. Berrigan, his brother, Philip, also a priest at the time, and seven other Catholics participated in the May 17, 1968 protest at a Selective Service office in Catonsville , Maryland.
With their plea to just "let people live," as defendant John Hogan stated during the trial, the Catonsville activists questioned the morality of the Vietnam War. They burned 378 draft cards with napalm to call attention to the deaths of American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians.
The Catonsville Nine's call to end the Vietnam War echoes the current opposition to US military involvement in Iraq.
"I think it's one of the most relevant pieces of theater I've ever worked on because it's -- unfortunately -- timeless," remarked Gordon Davidson, who directed Saturday's benefit reading of the play, which he staged in 1971 in its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum. "Wars cannot be won. They can only be lost in terms of humanity."
In a July 27 letter to the benefit organizers, explaining that he could not attend because he is recovering from surgery, Berrigan similarly lamented, "Would that the point of the play had been learned -- alas for these dark times!"
Davidson also is disheartened by the cynicism and apathy that characterize current public attitudes towards engagement with political issues.
"It's very unhealthy," he observed. "You have to believe that you do make a difference. You have to feel that."
In contrast to the horrified response to television images of the Vietnam War during the 1960s, Sheen believes the public has become indifferent to the ravages of the conflict in Iraq: "How many thousands we've sacrificed -- young men and women coming home with their brains scrambled, their limbs missing. It's insane. It's horribly evil and vulgar and we tolerate it."
Instead, "nonviolence seems absurd and in some quarters considered insane," remarked Sheen, who knows Berrigan and has been active for many years in the peace movement.
For the participants in Saturday's benefit, "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine" represents a rallying cry for individual action. The performance also highlighted the role of the arts in such activism.
"All art to some degree is a way to reach people's humanity, their hearts, in a way that a politician's speech can't," commented Robbins, artistic director of Actors' Gang. "That's why I feel it is necessary to do work like this."
Robbins, who played the role of Philip Berrigan during the benefit performance, calls "Catonsville " a "dangerous play" because of the provocative questions it raises about civil disobedience and US foreign policy.
When the play was first staged at the Taper in 1971, FBI agents were in the audience looking for Berrigan, who remained a fugitive in hiding after being sentenced to three years in prison in the Catonsville case, said Blase Bonpane, director of Office of the Americas, who attended that opening night.
"As the lights dimmed and the play was about to begin, we heard a voice say, 'Good evening, I'm Dan Berrigan,' " Bonpane recalled. "Several people from the FBI stood up, but he wasn't there. It was a recording." Berrigan later was captured and served 18 months in prison.
Bonpane, a prominent peace activist himself and host of a weekly talk show on Pacifica radio station KPFK (90.7 FM), has crossed paths over the years with some of the Catonsville defendants. In 1966 to 1967, he worked alongside Thomas and Marjorie Melville as part of a group of Catholic clergy helping to organize peasants in Guatemala .
In spring of 1968, Berrigan's brother, Philip, invited Bonpane to be part of the Catonsville action. Though in support of the protest, he declined: "I did not want to risk five years in federal prison," he recalled. "I said in jest, 'I'm Italian. We don't wait for the police to arrive.' ''
Immediately after the Catonsville incident, similar protests took place around the country, Bonpane recalled. "The power of the Catonsville action became clear to us," he said.
Nearly 40 years later, he believes the peace movement requires the same kind of "creativity and imagination" in its challenge to the Iraq war and worldwide militarism.
"We must continue to call for brave and outlandish resistance," he added. "Our efforts for peace are still not proportional to the immorality of this war [the Iraq war]. We must follow the lead of the Catonsville Nine."
Gina Victoria Shaffer formerly worked as a staff writer for the Miami Herald, the Daily News in Los Angeles , and the Orange County Register in Santa Ana, California. Now a member of the UCLA Writing Programs faculty, Shaffer received her Ph.D. in English at the University of California, Irvine. She is also a playwright whose works have been performed off-Broadway and on stages throughout Southern California.