LOS ANGELES – On March 6, 1970 a home-made bomb, built by a small revolutionary group called the Weathermen, accidentally exploded in a Greenwich Village townhouse, an event which unleashed a national manhunt for the perpetrators. Home/Sick, a newly restaged play in its West Coast premiere production, examines the turbulent political era during and after the Vietnam War through the eyes of this radical group dedicated to “propaganda by the deed” that in the end attracted no followers.
South Africa in the 1960s and ’70s may have been the world’s most visible example of the principle enunciated by JFK that when peaceful revolution is blocked, violent revolution will surely ensue. Many other examples could be cited from Latin America, and Africa. In Asia, of course, Vietnam might have emerged after World War II as a unified nation under anti-Japanese occupation forces led by Ho Chi Minh, but that land was stymied by the reintroduction of French colonialism and then U.S. imperialist war.
In the U.S., nonviolent movements for change were met with vicious dogs, water hoses, police riots, vigilante guns, HUAC hearings, the electric chair, long prison sentences, and assassinations of key leaders.
In 1962 the “New Left” was born with the founding of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). At Port Huron, Mich., a few dozen student activists endorsed a manifesto for participatory democracy and a larger voice in government. SDS chapters sprang up at university campuses all across the country. By 1968, with the Vietnam War at its height and thousands of men being drafted into the military every month to carry death to people of color halfway across the world, SDS had over 100,000 members in more than 300 autonomous chapters, and many times more supporters.
Huge nationwide demonstrations against war, and abroad as well, seemed to have no impact, as both Democrats and Republicans in Washington relentlessly pursued their dream of rolling back the “dominoes” of socialist progress across the globe.
Increasing frustration with the lack of success at ending the brutal war led many in the student movement to question whether or not legal measures such as protest demonstrations and electoral politics were ever going to work. Democracy itself seemed to have ground to a halt. Dissension arose within the anti-war movement over what was the tactical way forward – and whether armed struggle should be part of it.
This gets personal
I was present at the 1969 SDS national convention where these issues came to a head. By all accounts, events there marked the end of what we had known as SDS. The organization split between the Revolutionary Youth Faction (I and II) – RYM II evolved into the Weathermen – and the Worker-Student Alliance promoted by Progressive Labor Party (PL), with which I identified. Both sides were intensely caught up in the Maoist phenomenon that divided the socialist world at the time.
RYM maintained that the old class analysis had broken down. “Hardhats” – what they termed the American labor movement – had thrown in their lot with the capitalist class for some rewards, such as wartime jobs, and could not be relied upon as allies in RYM’s framing of the anti-racist, anti-imperialist struggle. Voting and protest no longer seemed to matter. Only disaffected youth possessed a vision of bringing democratic change to America – along with rock music, sexual freedom and dope. By contrast, PL still maintained that student alliances with workers was still a viable political strategy.
The convention was marked by a total breakdown in the debate over strategy. The raging language of argument had the character of a messy, angry divorce. The two sides seated themselves across the aisle from each other. At a certain point, in response to some notion proposed from the podium, one side got up on their chairs facing the other, and with their Little Red Books of Chairman Mao raised in their hands, gesticulated with them toward the others, chanting, “Bull shit! Bull shit!” In response, the other side stood on their chairs, also holding their Little Red Books, and waved them back, screaming, “Fuck you! Fuck you!” To this had come our mass student movement of opposition to war, capitalism, and imperialism. Clearly these people were no longer capable of sustaining a broad-based mass movement – of students or anyone.
After the convention a rump contingent, still claiming the legitimate mantle of SDS, controlled by forces involved with the Progressive Labor Party, held on for a year or so from new headquarters in Boston.
The Weathermen, one subgroup of RYM, took their youth-as-the-revolutionary-spearhead thinking one step further and established little affinity groups of committed cadre, who unsurprisingly happened to be almost all white and middle-class. They would pick up the old idea of “propaganda by the deed,” setting off bombs in public facilities that, they reasoned, would make life in the U.S. unstable and “bring the war home” to our shores. “Our tools are the brick, the baseball bat and the truth,” one character in Home/Sick says.
(Another couple of personal notes: Shortly after the Greenwich Village bombing incident, FBI agents tried to interview me in New Orleans, where I lived, about Cathy Wilkerson, a Weather cadre who had escaped after the explosion. I declined to speak with them.
Some months later, as a result of an anti-Vietnam War action, I found myself serving a 20-day sentence in New Orleans Parish Prison. I could reduce my sentence by half by going out daily to assigned worksites, such as cleaning government offices and police stables. In a police office one day, cleaning up with a pail of water and a mop, I glanced up at the bulletin board and saw WANTED posters with the names and pictures of some of my former SDS comrades now sought for breaking shop windows and planting bombs. Out of an elemental sense of solidarity I removed these posters from the wall, crumpled them up and threw them out with the trash.)
Making theatre out of this history
Home/Sick is a collectively written theatrical project by an ensemble called The Assembly to put one of these Weather groups under a microscope to see what motivated its participants, what kept them going, how they survived underground, and what they did as urban guerrillas. The Assembly has done impressive research both into the literature and interviewing those who have since surfaced and are willing to speak about their experiences.
The play was first staged at Brooklyn’s The Collapsable Hole in 2011, again in 2012 at the Living Theatre, and at Wesleyan University in 2014. It was named a Critics’ Pick by the New York Times, Backstage and Off Off Online. It is recommended for mature audiences.
The time frame encompasses the period between the breakup of SDS and 1981, long after the Vietnam War ended. In 1980 several former Weathermen collaborated with the Black Liberation Army to rob a Brink’s armored car in New York, during which two police officers and a guard were killed. During that decade the Weathermen were active, they successfully bombed dozens of sites with sufficient attention to detail so as to cause almost no casualties. It takes over two hefty hours of nonstop acting before they realize their guerrilla theory of revolutionary violence will not succeed.
Six characters portray composite characters based on actual Weathermen types. Real personalities emerge, but first a listener has to pry off the heavy veneer of sloganeering and rhetoric that suffuses the dialogue. These self-appointed “vanguard” leaders believe that “organizing” anyone is hopeless. This small, ingrown collective who strive so hard to conform to their high revolutionary standards have their flaws and weaknesses, only gradually acknowledging the reality that no one is following their lead. The valiant actors, who have themselves helped to create the play, are Edward Bauer, Ben Beckley, Kate Benson, Anna Abhau Elliott, Daniel Johnson, and Emily Louise Perkins.
The décor by Nick Benacerraf uses Venetian blinds mostly in a state of disrepair, and furniture, mattresses and props thrown about in a disarray that reflects the Weathermen’s profound anti-bourgeois ideology. The sound design by Asa Wember incorporates many songs from the period. Fluid direction by Jess Chayes keeps her actors in constant motion, balancing the frequent self-destructive, accusatory tone against lyrical passages of reflection from the performers stepping into their personas as actors.
At the beginning of the performance an actor passed around 3×5 cards printed with the words “In my ideal America,” and audience members were asked to complete them. At the end of the show, the actors read these cards aloud. People spoke of no war, no weapons, kindness, socialism, nationalized banks, love, peace, and “without Trump.”
Clearly Americans still want change, progress, more peace (the show opened with a moment of silence over the massacre of 49 people at an Orlando LGBTQ nightclub early that morning), maybe even a political revolution however they think of that – goals in essence not so different from what the New Left of the 1960s envisioned, including, in a thwarted way, the Weathermen themselves. But how to get there? Home/Sick helps us understand a part of where we have come from, and people can draw their own conclusions about how to go forward.
Home/Sick plays six days a week (except Tuesdays) at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles 90025, through July 3. Tickets may be obtained at (310) 477-2055 ext. 2, or OdysseyTheatre.com.