Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Revisiting May Day & the First Red Scare

Concerned about fair pay, civil liberties, economic inequality and the 1 percent? Explore the epic drama... Inquisitions (and Other Un-American Activities), a play dramatizing the struggle for workers rights. Here are the complete audio podcast version, plus a video clip focusing on the infamous Haymarket bombing of 1886, a key moment in the history of the labor movement, excerpted from the play.

Audio recorded at a live performance in Burlington, Vermont.

Dissent and Its Enemies

Inquisitions (and Other Un-American Activities) uses the interrogation of activist Lucy Parsons during the 1919 Palmer raids as a framework. Available for radio and stasge production, the play — featuring more than 20 speaking roles, drama, comedy, and historical recreations — explores timely themes through dramatic recreations of the movement for an eight-hour workday, the Haymarket bombing, and the show trial of four activists. It is based on more than a decade of research, and includes characters like radical organizer Albert Parsons, tycoons Marshall Field and John D. Rockefeller, muckraker Henry Demarest Lloyd and J. Edgar Hoover at the start of his FBI career.

Since 2003, Inquisitions... has aired on dozens of stations in more than 20 US states. The complete running time is two-hours. It can be abridged, aired in installments, or restaged with permission. The original stage production was written by Greg Guma, directed by Bill Boardman, and co-produced by Toward Freedom and Catalyst Theatre Company

Click here to listen to an audio excerpt in RealAudio (7 min.)
Click here to listen to an audio excerpt in MP3 (7 min.)

Inquisitions... is available as a free download for noncommercial radio stations. Contact Squeaky Wheel Productions to register and download at: or call (203) 268-8446. Print copies of the script: $25; email

Podcast Series 

Listen to "Inquisitions — An Audio Drama — Act 1" on Spreaker.

With the FBI interrogation of activist Lucy Parsons in 1919 at its center, Act 1 of the podcast version takes listeners back to the birth of the movement for an eight-hour workday and the resulting violence in May 1886. 

Act 2  recreates the post-Haymarket show trial of eight German activists. The interrogation of Lucy Parsons continues — by a young J. Edgar Hoover — as she defends her controversial life. 

In Act 3, the trial concludes as capitalist oligarchs celebrate on a surrealistic dream train. Before her interrogation ends Lucy Parsons remembers her fight for clemency and the unjust hanging of her husband and comrades. Written by Greg Guma, directed by Bill Boardman, and produced by Catalyst Theatre. 

Theater Review excerpts

Back in 1963, before Greg Guma made his mark as a Vermont journalist and political activist, he was honing his rhetorical skills in high school, winning dramatic interpretative contests with his delivery of Atticus Finch's closing statement to the jury from To Kill a Mockingbird. Something about the speech "resonated" with the young Guma. "It was about civil rights," he says. "Frankly, in my Catholic high school we didn't learn much about that."

Atticus' eloquent defense of a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman is indeed a resonant piece of writing, one that made an impression first in Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and then, even more indelibly, in the 1962 film version with Gregory Peck, who won an Oscar for his performance as the small-town Alabama lawyer and widowed father of two.

This month, local audiences get the chance to revisit that famous speech and the other charms of Mockingbird in a stage adaptation by Vermont Stage Company. And coincidentally, this past weekend at Burlington City Hall, under the auspices of the Catalyst Theatre Company, Greg Guma premiered a play with its own share of courtroom drama: Inquisitions (and Other Un-American Activities) is an epic examination of labor unrest in late 19th- and early 20th-century America.

VSC's Mockingbird reminds us why Lee's story has remained so beloved, without, however, succeeding completely as a work of theater. Guma's play is clearly a work in progress, but it benefits from an ingenious radio-drama approach that shows how much can be communicated by crafty direction, a versatile cast and a few well-chosen sound effects...

Greg Guma's Inquisitions may send you running back to your history books. Editor of the Burlington-based progressive newsletter Toward Freedom, Guma has spent years researching the events in his historical drama, the Haymarket bombing in 1886 Chicago and the Red Scare of 1919. Not surprisingly, then, one problem with the play in its current stage of development is that there's perhaps too much history and not enough drama, an overload of archival oratory and a multitude of characters and events.

That said, the script has great potential, particularly in its focus on one fascinating character, and director Bill Boardman, known for his work with the Panther Players on radio and CD, found numerous inventive ways to tell the story through the convention of a script-in-hand radio drama.

A brief historical refresher: On May 4, 1886, during a labor protest in Chicago's Haymarket area, someone in the crowd threw a bomb which killed seven police officers. Political radicals were arrested by the dozens as a result, and eight of the most visible were brought to trial and convicted of murder even though there was virtually no evidence of their involvement. Four of those men were hung, and one killed himself in prison.

Bombings alleged to be the work of anarchists were also a key factor in the Red Scare of 1919 and the raids led by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Fanning the flames of xenophobia already stirred by WWI, Palmer used the bombings as an excuse to go after "reds" of all stripes, particularly if they were foreign-born, and he deported 249 resident aliens. Palmer's recruitment of a young John Edgar Hoover from the Library of Congress to help with the investigations laid the groundwork for Hoover's FBI.

These summaries don't begin to name all the colorful characters involved, but most of them show up in the Haymarket sections of Guma's play -- everyone from department store mogul Marshall Field to muckraking journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd to the accused anarchists. Guma makes one character the focus of the action, and luckily she's the most interesting: Lucy Parsons, the African-American wife of firebrand anarchist orator Albert Parsons, one of the four men executed. An equal partner of Albert's both in marriage and in activism, Lucy led the unsuccessful fight to free her husband and continued speaking out after his death.

The play begins with a 66-year-old Lucy under interrogation by a federal agent on Nov. 11, 1919, the anniversary of her husband's death. She's been picked up as part of the Palmer Raids. Guma has no hard evidence that she was interrogated at that time, but it's a fair assumption. And the device of the interview allows for segues into Haymarket flashbacks while also providing, in the older Lucy, an enjoyable protagonist.

Two actresses, Sandra Gartner and Sheila Collins, did excellent work portraying Lucy in her older and younger years, respectively, with Gartner particularly effective in capturing both the sass and the sadness of the character.

However, the play returns too often to the interrogation motif, and when J. Edgar himself steps in to harangue Lucy, he's so broadly written that it's like watching two opposing mouthpieces, not an interaction between real human beings. Only when he takes the questioning to uncomfortably personal places -- asking about Lucy's son, a Spanish-American War vet whom she committed to a mental institution -- do we get into more interesting territory. There are still-untapped possibilities to explore in the character of Lucy, and Guma would do well to pull back on some of the political rhetoric and go deeper into the personal details.

A number of other characters capture our attention because of their particular quirks or multiple dimensions. Socialist newspaper editor and Haymarket defendant August Spies is equally contemptuous of Marxism and capitalism; Ruth Wallman, in a nice example of gender-blind casting, was humorously flinty in the role. Roger Dodge made the most of his moments as the grandstanding prosecutor. Wayne Martens underplayed nicely as both uber-detective Alan Pinkerton and defense attorney "Captain" Black.

Throughout, the ensemble was effective in establishing context, whether as cheering crowds or carousing barflies, and Boardman consistently made astute staging choices. Special credit to light and sound designers Brad Butler and Steve Osterlund, whose contributions made a real case for the potential of the script as a radio drama.

Whatever happens to Inquisitions, it's inarguably timely now, as the contradictory demands of national security and civil liberties are once more at odds. Toward the end of the play Lucy says, "We're all so fragile. How can we make a government that isn't?" I asked Guma the same question in an interview after the performance. His response: "We can try." In recasting historical events in a form that can illuminate these questions, he's making an effort that's worthy of further attention.

—David Warner, May 7, 2003, Seven Days


Unions are often portrayed as just another corrupt special interest group. But the true, largely ignored history of the labor movement tells a very different story: a long and dedicated effort, despite ruthless opposition, to shorten working hours, obtain a living wage, and win reforms like Social Security. Here is a six part series that puts labor’s historic struggles and contemporary challenges into context.

Friday, April 3, 2015

SOS - Burlington: From Secrets to Partnership

Remarks for Save Open Space Summit, Jan. 21, City Hall. 
Reimagine Burlington

   How did we get here? These days I often ask myself that kind of thing, looking back, thinking about the past. But 40 years ago, when I was new to Burlington, I thought mostly about the future, how it could be different and better.
   About that time I joined the faculty of Burlington College. It had another name then. Vermont Institute of Community Involvement, or just VICI. And one of the ideas of founder Steward LaCasce was to get away from "bricks and mortar" -- the big, expensive, campus-based model of higher education -- and, as much as possible, develop a community-based alternative, using existing resources and spaces around town. It was a practical form of involvement and interdependence.
   Eventually, the College did buy a building. But the idea of staying small and connected to the community persisted.
   At the time, the land we are here to save was owned by Vermont's Roman Catholic Diocese. The church purchased most of it from Burlington Free Press Publisher Henry Stacy in the 1870s. Before that it was farmland, and the city grew around it. A rolling meadow led to a bluff overlooking Lake Champlain, with a beach below, a forest of oak, red maple and pine at the southern edge, and a railroad tunnel under North Avenue. All in all, it is a special, irreplaceable piece of land.
   The church erected an imposing Victorian building, which housed orphans for a century. After World War II, the local diocese bought adjacent land and converted a cottage into a school for delinquents. After the St. Joseph Orphan Asylum and the Don Bosco School for Delinquent Boys closed, it became diocese headquarters and home for projects like Camp Holy Cross.
    So, the "school without walls" and the cloistered catholic campus near the lake. How did they get entangled? The answer begins with secrets, the first about what went on in the church -- and on that property.
   In the end dozens of former residents came forward, and revealed a dark, sordid history of physical and sexual abuse by nuns, priests and staff. Like other parts of the church, the diocese ultimately found itself under attack and in serious financial trouble. By May 2010, it had paid almost $20 million to settle 26 lawsuits. More were to follow. Selling the land was urgent to help cover up to $30 million in legal settlements for the abused.
    Developers expressed some interest, but disagreed about what the property was worth. There were also zoning restrictions, and some claimed the city was overvaluing the land. In any case, it went on the market in April 2010 for $12.5 million. The sale to BC for $10 million was announced on May 24, 2010, only a month later -- ten days after the diocese paid out $17. 65 million.  Based on about 200 housing units, a plan initially considered, a more reasonable price was probably $7 million or less.
   Why did the college pay that much? And what did its leaders expect? Like many decisions by private boards, it's mostly confidential, a shared secret. But we know the deal was promoted and brokered by Antonio Pomerleau, once known as the "godfather of Vermont shopping center development." Owner of Pomerleau Real Estate, a prominent, devoted Catholic who wanted to help the church, and a powerful, persuasive developer who for years chaired the Burlington Police Commission.
    In the early 1980s Pomerleau became an obvious target for Bernie Sanders, a capitalist mogul who wanted to rebuild the waterfront and controlled the Police Department. His $30 million waterfront redevelopment plan was derailed after Sanders' election as mayor. But the relationship changed. By the time College President Jane Sanders announced the purchase, Pomerleau was considered a family friend. In then-President Sanders' words, Pomerleau was the only man who could have made it happen. Someone to trust, who understood relationships. But it didn't hurt that he loaned the school $500,000 to close the deal. Yves Bradley, who subsequently became chair of the College's Board of Trustee, handled the 2010 transaction details for Pomerleau Real Estate.
   According to local sources, the school's leaders believed that, with connected friends like Sanders and Pomerleau, plus a Treasurer like Jonathan Leopold, handling the $10 million debt and $3 million for renovations was a reasonable expectation for a school with 200 students and revenues around $4 million a year. Big donors would come -- but they didn't. The Board also embraced another notion: that enrollment could double in five years, a goal well beyond the national average. It didn't.
    In retrospect, it sounds like magical thinking. Or just bad judgement. But somehow it made sense -- at least until September 2011, when Jane Sanders was forced to resign, mainly for not raising enough money. So began a three-year, silent slide toward insolvency.
    Exactly how many students attend BC today? Just how bad are its finances, and how did that happen? Why did one president resign suddenly in the parking lot? We don't know for sure. We also don't know whether the school will continue to exist as an independent college a year from now. 
    We could know more. We should. But it's a political hot potato. And the mayor has made it known that, although he's open to preserving a few "key attributes" for public use -- some forest, a garden, a path to the shore and Texaco beach -- he won't risk city funds or political capital. Instead, he's likely to wait until the deal is closed, then try to negotiate concessions during the zoning and permitting process. 
Many people in a position to make things happen, one way or another, appear to be on board with developer Eric Farrell's plan and the mayor's free market stance. But they are reluctant to say much.
    I'll conclude with a question and a vision. This land has seen more than enough secrets, loss and pain. Can't we find a better approach, a more open path? Can't we move from secrecy to partnership, a partnership in the public interest -- between conservation groups, local colleges, government and private capital -- brokered by engaged officials, combining sufficient housing with a modest campus, compatible projects, and as much open space as possible. With persistence, courage and political will, it can happen. 
    I still believe the future can be different -- and better. And that's why I think we're here.