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Dead of Night: The Execution of Fred Hampton

Pegasus Players
Julius Caesar
ChicSpeare Production Company
at TinFish Theatre

Last week's news stories about Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roland Burris calling his rivals "nonqualified white boys" offered a jolting reminder of the role of race in Chicago politics over the last 30 years. The very insignificance of this momentary media flap led one to recall how ugly black-white political relationships have been in the recent past--and to realize, without denying continuing problems, how much progress has been made over the past generation. Burris's comment was telling, made in response to a situation that would have been unthinkable a few years back--the possibility that this year's Democratic ticket will be dominated by such African-American candidates as Burris, Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, Cook County Board president John Stroger, and secretary of state candidate Jesse White. Equally telling was the reaction of white politicians who shrugged the matter off; not long ago, a white-dominated political establishment would have turned a remark like Burris's into a clarion call, hoping to fan the flames of racist fear.

Two new productions evoke Chicago's history of racially charged politics, focusing on African-American leaders of the recent past--Black Panther Fred Hampton and Mayor Harold Washington. One is a world premiere: New York playwright Robert Myers wrote Dead of Night: The Execution of Fred Hampton for Pegasus Players. The other is a classic text cast in a contemporary light: ChicSpeare Production Company has set Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in Chicago during the mid-1980s--when Washington and a reactionary City Council faction headed by aldermen Ed Vrdolyak and Ed Burke engaged in the power struggle unforgettably dubbed "Council Wars" by comedian Aaron Freeman--and cast blacks in the roles of Caesar and his supporters and whites as his assassins. Dead of Night--by far the better of the two shows--is instructive but dramatically somewhat flat, while Julius Caesar fails to follow through on its interesting premise and suffers from weak lead performances. But in a season that's brought festering racial divisions once again to the fore, these productions raise surprisingly relevant issues. And they remind us that today's climate, which fosters African-American political aspirations and black/white dialogue--though much more work is needed--came about through the blood, sweat, and tears of visionary leaders committed to both black empowerment and progressive multiracial coalitions in a city whose white-run political and judicial establishment fought like hell to keep the people divided.

Already a seasoned activist when he was killed at the age of 21, Hampton was a teenage NAACP organizer from Maywood who became chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party when it was chartered in 1968. Under Hampton's guidance, the group sought to improve both the material and intellectual lives of the residents of Chicago's impoverished west- and south-side ghettos: the Panthers ran a health clinic and free-breakfast programs for kids, while Hampton preached a Marxist gospel of proletarian revolution. The group quickly attracted the attention of local law-enforcement authorities, including Cook County state's attorney Edward V. (for "Vicious," some said) Hanrahan and the local office of the FBI, which sought through the COINTELPRO program to infiltrate and disrupt radical organizations.

FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover was particularly concerned that a "black messiah" might emerge to take the place of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.--and the charismatic, educated Hampton fit the bill. But this Jesus had his Judas: William O'Neal, a car thief turned informer who joined the Panthers as an FBI plant, passing on information to his overseers that helped them harass the Panthers and fueled the paranoia leading to increased violence on both sides. O'Neal provided the floor plan for the policemen who burst into Hampton's west-side apartment in the predawn hours of December 4, 1969, and fired nearly 100 rounds of ammunition, killing Hampton as he slept next to his pregnant girlfriend.

In the week following the assault--which also claimed the life of Panther Mark Clark--Hanrahan and his troops mounted a cover-up campaign of astounding clumsiness. Their claim of self-defense, broadcast in a video "reenactment" for local TV news shows and published by the Chicago Tribune in a front-page "exclusive," pointed to "bullet holes" in the walls as proof that the Panthers had fired first; the holes were in fact made by nails, as became obvious when the Panthers turned the apartment/slaughterhouse into a makeshift museum for the press and public to inspect. Rather than putting the matter to rest, the cover-up produced exactly the effect the assassination was intended to prevent: mainstream African-American political, religious, and financial leaders who'd been skeptical about or hostile to the Panthers saw the need to forge common ground with more radical blacks, in defiance of the white-run establishment. (Though Mayor Richard J. Daley backed Hanrahan in the next election, Republican challenger Bernard Carey won--with black support, including that of state legislator Harold Washington, whose defiance of the Democratic machine launched his career as a spokesman for black independence.) A series of investigations and criminal and civil trials throughout the 70s exposed the holes in the authorities' accounts of the 1969 incident, and in 1983 the city settled the lawsuit brought by Hampton's and Clark's survivors for nearly $2 million.

Like Myers's earlier play Fixin' to Die: A Visit to the Mind of Lee Atwater, seen at Pegasus in 1996, Dead of Night is not so much written as compiled from the public record, including speeches, newspaper and TV coverage, FBI correspondence, and trial transcripts. The story this docudrama tells might strike some as incredible--indeed, even at the ACLU benefit matinee I attended last week, there were audience members who admitted shock at the abuse of police and prosecutorial power the case represents. Myers has resolutely resisted any urge to fictionalize for effect. This choice makes for reliable but less than compelling educational theater: Dead of Night tells its tale rather than dramatizing it. The script's heavy reliance on exposition--recounting names and events--makes it seem a radio play that director Jonathan Wilson has rather stodgily forced onstage, despite the visual power of set designer Dan Osling's towering two-level highway--representing the Eisenhower Expressway, where O'Neal committed suicide in 1990.

O'Neal is the play's narrator, replaying the tale in flashback as he dodges cars until guilt drives him to his death. As played to the hilt by David Barr, he's a flamboyant, pathetic manic-depressive torn between growing admiration for Hampton and a father-figure fixation on his FBI control (agent Roy Mitchell, played by Robert Nowak). Because O'Neal's emotional crisis is so vividly acted and his role as storyteller so central, Dead of Night is almost as much--or more--about him as it is about Hampton, who comes off as an icon rather than a man, despite the committed performance of strapping young actor Anthony Fleming III. Hampton is never less than admirable as he steers his followers away from hate and toward hope, offering lessons in international socialism and vetoing O'Neal's efforts to prod the group into vindictive violence. Unfortunately, it's hard to warm up to a guy who spends most of his time talking about "the international proletarian revolutionary struggle," and Myers's reluctance or inability to humanize Hampton leaves us with little more than rhetoric. A scene in which Hampton and his lover Deborah Johnson discuss her pregnancy is jarringly out of sync with the rest of the play: "There's more than one way to increase our membership," Hampton jokes stiffly, leaving one to wonder whether the line reflects Hampton's lame sense of humor or Myers's. Later, talking about Hampton's other girlfriends, Deborah insists that "jealousy is a bourgeois notion"--a potentially telling comment whose implications about the couple's emotional life are never probed.

The few striking theatrical moments in this two-and-a-half-hour evening include a scene in which Panther members hawk the party newspaper, their cries coalescing into choral counterpoint, and a simultaneously laughable and enraging scene in which policemen restage the shooting for a TV camera under Hanrahan's bully-boy coaching. (Far less successful is a satiric set piece depicting J. Edgar Hoover and his companion-colleague Clyde Tolson in their D.C. abode: "Whittaker Chambers used to turn in his friends for free," says Hoover, complaining about the salary the agency pays O'Neal. "That was 20 years ago," sighs Tolson.)

But Wilson's relatively simple staging generally fails to communicate the heated atmosphere of Chicago in the late 60s: the Hampton case was part of a much larger tapestry that also included the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots that followed, as well as the Democratic National Convention riots and the Chicago Seven trial. Nor does it capture the way the Hampton affair galvanized black resistance to the local machine. Also missing is any mention of the Panthers' minister of defense, Bobby Rush--now a congressman and probable mayoral candidate next year. Rush was also visited by Hanrahan's squad the same night, but he was tipped off by a source inside the Police Department and escaped his comrade's fate.

Most disappointing, this production fails to bring to life the potentially compelling story of Hampton's evolution from a high school athletic and academic star to a revolutionary who'd come to terms with the probability of his own early, violent death. Dead of Night does disclose the details of a relatively little known event whose importance is generally underappreciated, but it leaves its audience wanting to be moved as well as informed.

As Dead of Night pointedly notes, the lawsuit filed by Fred Hampton's survivors was settled one week before Harold Washington beat incumbent Jane Byrne in the Democratic primary, setting the stage for his election as Chicago's first African-American mayor. There was something telling in the timing--Washington's movement, which brought together mainstream political hacks with idealistic leftist activists, was a natural outgrowth of the Panthers' efforts. And though Washington--who died of a heart attack in 1987--wasn't assassinated (despite rumors to the contrary), he was systematically hounded by opponents whose pressure tactics helped drive him into an early grave, making him almost as much a martyr as Hampton.

The program for ChicSpeare's Julius Caesar notes that "no faction deliberately introduced violence into the political process, as had been done with the murder of...Fred Hampton" and asks, "What might have happened if they had?" With that provocative question on the table, director Ann James sets out to enact Shakespeare's study of the clash of ideals and ambition in the setting of mid-1980s Chicago, using the blues recording "Sweet Home Chicago" to establish the sense of time and place that her plain black-box set fails to convey.

The idea is promising: certainly Washington was a political Colossus, as the assassin Cassius calls Caesar--a leader whose enormous popularity threatened the ambitions of his rivals. And the often senseless bloodletting that followed Caesar's assassination, building to the establishment of the very imperial system Caesar's killers hoped to prevent, could be seen as comparable to the splintering of Washington's progressive movement after his death, as acting mayor Eugene Sawyer and Alderman Tim Evans laid competing claims to his mantle, paving Richard M. Daley's way into the mayor's office.

But James never really explores the implications of her analogy. Instead she settles for simplistic racial casting: Caesar, Antony, and most of their allies are black, while their enemies--including Caesar's friend turned killer Brutus--are white. The idea makes no sense: there was no secret treacherous white supporter in Washington's city council. His white foes were well-known, while his few white allies were extraordinarily loyal. A more accurate approach would have had Brutus played by a black actor, representing Washington's unreliable black "friends" who conspired with their white colleagues to undermine the mayor and seize more power for themselves.

But matters of black and white are made irrelevant by the pervasive colorlessness of the ChicSpeare performances. The real problem with this Julius Caesar is the actors' tendency to rush their lines in an unsuccessful attempt to make the verse conversational. Almost no one has a sense of the language's rhythms, shadings, or imagery--and the worst offenders play two of the most important roles, Greg Hollimon as Marc Antony and Tony Stovall as Caesar. While Stovall has something of Washington's portly physique, he utterly lacks the man's expansive personality, his larger-than-life speaking style, his mix of serious purposefulness and ribald humor. Surely unintentionally, Stovall's weak line readings and fussy gestures reduce the mayor to a mincing, smug, slightly paranoid glad-hander. Hollimon, meanwhile, has a rich voice and commanding physical presence, but his mush-mouth articulation and monotonous inflections entirely miss the possibilities of Antony's dialogue--especially the justly famous speeches over the bodies of Caesar and Brutus. Shakespeare's rhetorical style, with its brilliant use of parallel structure and repetition for alternately impassioned and ironic effect, is tailor-made for a black politician in the Washington or Jesse Jackson mold. But Hollimon's flat, routine delivery turns Antony into a lawyer, not a leader.

The only actor who conveys the electricity of Shakespeare's language while remaining true to the production's contemporary setting is David Mersault as a crafty Ed Vrdolyak of a Cassius--a driven schemer with intense eyes that register the character's words as if Mersault were thinking of them as he says them. His magnetic performance gives this earnest but generally tedious effort a welcome jolt of energy. You know there's something wrong, however, when the most exciting character in Julius Caesar is Cassius, just as David Barr's dramatic vitality as William O'Neal means that the emphasis in Dead of Night is somewhat askew. One applauds the intention to honor Fred Hampton and Harold Washington--but these important figures remain elusive in both companies' well-meaning but imperfect productions.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dead of Night: the Execution of Fred Hampton uncredited photo; Julius Caesar photo by Suzanne Plunkett.

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