Allegedly, there's an invisible bubble around the Bay Area. Inside, you'll find peaceniks, pro-choicers, and people who use terms like "European American." Outside, you'll find countless miles of red state until you get to Madison, Wisconsin. Whether it's trying to figure out what happened in the 2004 election or why we're still in Iraq, people here are fond of saying, "Well, you know we live in a bubble."
John Warren is not satisfied with that. The director and playwright wants to look past the bubble, an impulse that sees its logical expression in documentary theater meant to encourage political dialogue. In its first few years, his Unconditional Theatre company presented other people's work: Albee, Brecht, Vogel and created a handful of original pieces.
But Warren's interest in documentary theater blossomed with the company's 1999 West Coast premiere of Emily Mann's Greensboro: A Requiem, about the 1979 murder of anti-KKK protesters. Since then, he and collaborator Kim Fowler have focused on getting audiences more directly involved.
Warren and Fowler are intelligent, even-handed, and peaceable. One marvels that they weren't eaten alive when they visited Crawford, Texas, to interview the noisy crowd of supporters and detractors coalescing around antiwar protester Cindy Sheehan. The idea came from Fowler, a professional life coach and performer who has worked with Warren since he cast her in Greensboro. "Kim called and said, 'We want to explore political activism and we want to talk to people across the political spectrum from one another. Where better on earth to do that right now?'" Warren recalls. "And I said, 'You're crazy. I can't just drop everything and get on a plane.' And then about six or seven hours later I called her and told her to look at airfares. Within four days we were out there."
Recorder in hand, they visited the Quaker-owned Peace House, then the nerve center of Sheehan's protest. They went to a pro-Bush rally in a football stadium. They crossed the grassy triangle that forms a DMZ between the ditch where "Camp Casey" first took root and the pro-war "Camp Reality." One afternoon Warren and Fowler went to the luncheonette and didn't leave until after dinner because so many people wanted to talk to them. There they met a founder of Food Not Bombs, who had driven a failing food-packed van a thousand miles nonstop. The man told them some credulity-straining stories, very loudly. As Warren's wife Ashley Boyd notes, "It's one thing to be talking about this kind of stuff in Berkeley." Warren noticed that a woman nearby was "crawling out of her skin" listening. They later tracked down their eavesdropper at Camp Reality, where she told them that "presidents don't lie."
The collaborators got their own assumptions challenged. Boyd describes a "cross-cultural moment" where a veteran told her that he thought the United States could have won the war in Vietnam. "I just didn't know that there was one person in the country who thought that way," she says. "It's affected how I see people on the other side. The left says, 'See, we did this in Vietnam, why are we even considering staying?' but I can understand how people can think we gave up, and leaving Iraq would be a real travesty."
Warren also was changed by the experience. "One of the biggest things is the notion that you can be totally grounded in the rightness of your position and standing against this war, and simultaneously be deeply interested in understanding and being in dialogue with people who don't share your beliefs," he says. "Sure, I'm invested in people standing up against this war, but long-term it's not just about the hard sell. It's about trying to figure out how we can stop demonizing one another."
Boyd and Warren acknowledge that both sides sometimes engage in counterproductive tactics. "We definitely met people who were very caustic," he says. "If I met them and they were in my face and telling me I was wrong, I wouldn't change my mind."
Barbara Cummings wasn't one of the caustic ones. The San Diegan who dropped her gardening and went inside to pack when she heard about Sheehan is described by Boyd as "an energy tsunami." Upbeat and friendly, Cummings is one of the people whose story Unconditional Theatre tells. Other voices include a Marine who invoked "don't ask, don't tell" to get out of Iraq, Oakland vet Aimee Allison, and "Walking Mary" Adams, who made national headlines by walking cross-country to protest nuclear weapons. All of the text is exactly as the veterans, activists, and townspeople spoke it.
Warren stresses that Voices of Activism: Crawford is not a play, but an arrangement of parts that can be read together or separately. Like their other recent works, Voices is meant to be shared in such venues as political organizing meetings, churches, or anywhere it will be useful. "The impulse of the journey came from wanting to be more relevant or more concrete in the way the performing arts can play a role in inspiring political action or helping people work out where they stand."
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