LOS ANGELES – The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare) resulted from more than three decades of Daniel Henning’s research and ruminations on the JFK assassination the fateful morning of November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. For a time Henning lectured widely on the case and guest appeared on dozens of radio talk shows.
“One day I was reading Shakespeare,” says the man who conceived, adapted and directed the play now on the boards at the Skylight Theatre in the Los Feliz area, “and then I saw it: the connections to people and situations that directly paralleled those of the JFK story.
“I noticed some things that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up because it seemed that Shakespeare was not just smart, but in this case almost prescient: he saw the future 350 years before it happened.” It then took Henning 20 years to craft a theatrical offering in one long substantial act that represents his answer to the question people always asked him: Who did it?
Those of us old enough to recall the 1963 killing of our president know that the somber mood carried through the rest of the year. It took some time before the humorists started whittling their barbs. “What was LBJ doing 5 seconds before Kennedy was killed?” ran one of those jokes. “What?” you responded, and the jokester quickly moved his hands hard over his ears.
As time went on, especially as the Vietnam War ramped up after the fictitious “Gulf of Tonkin” incident in August 1964, and as military contracts with LBJ’s Texas-based buddies boomed, many Americans seriously questioned whether or not Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson had perhaps indeed had a hand in the assassination. The Warren Commission investigating the circumstances around the act fell into disrepute as it never convincingly made the case that a single “magic” bullet from a gun fired by Lee Harvey Oswald could possibly have made so many distinct sounds nor caused so many wounds not only on Kennedy but also on Texas Gov. John Connally, who was riding in the same limousine. Suspicions over evidence withheld by government agencies such as the FBI and CIA thickened the plot; and the film sequence shot by Abraham Zapruder with his home movie camera further proved that the official inquiry was profoundly compromised.
This conspiratorial stew has been bubbling away for over half a century already.
Henning’s play covers the period beginning in the weeks before the assassination, and ends with the equally tragic murder of JFK’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, less than five years later in Los Angeles, just as he was launching his own run for the presidency. In the meantime, Martin Luther King, Jr. had also been assassinated, several Black Panther Party activists, Malcolm X, and others. It seemed as though killing the leaders whose messages we did not wish to hear had now become the modus operandi of a racist military industrial complex gone berserk.
Henning has grafted the JFK saga onto Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, complete with omens and warnings, reconstituting many of the Bard’s well known passages to be spoken by the new set of characters. Basically, same plot, different people: JFK’s dying words are “Et tu, Lyndon.” In the latter third or so of the play, the Shakespearean speech ebbs away as we hear MLK’s eloquent oratory and proceed through the decade.
In place of the ancient Romans we have a large cast of 17 actors playing over 20 roles and also filling out crowd scenes. The roles include, besides JFK (Ford Austin), RFK (Chad Brannon), and LBJ (Time Winters), spouses Jackie (Casey McKinnon) and Lady Bird (Susan Denaker), FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Tony Abatemarco) and his companion Clyde Tolson (Cris D’Annunzio, who also plays Texas multimillionaire Clint Murchison), CIA man Allen Dulles (Bruce Nehlson), JFK’s secretary Evelyn Lincoln (Kelie McIver), national security adviser McGeorge Bundy (Jacob Sidney), gangster Carlos Marcello and consigliere Jack Valenti (both Jerry Della Salla), Gen. Edwin Walker (Jonny Walker), Gov. Connally (Jonathon Lamer), Lee Harvey Oswald (Brian Brennan), and the Rev. King (Brett Collier).
Aside from the tripartite role Daniel Henning played on this piece, he is also the founding artistic director of The Blank Theatre. For this special baby of his, he has called on some truly fine actors to fulfill his neo-Shakespearean vision. Especially notable are those playing the JFK, RFK, LBJ, MLK, and J. Edgar roles. The various accents – Bostonian and Texan in particular, and MLK’s – come across well.
The relatively simple staging recalls the spareness of the Shakespearean mise en scène. The main prop, put to powerful effect, is JFK’s coffin over which the funeral orations are recited – “Friends, Americans, countrymen” – and which later turns into RFK’s. Henning uses video projections most effectively, sometimes having his actors reenact on stage the awful events documented by the camera.
As researcher and playwright, Henning is convinced that Hoover and LBJ were implicated in the plot to kill the vile, tyrannical, and ambitious president (as they see him), while RFK knew the story, kept his doubts to himself, and publicly played the “loyal soldier” on the side of the plotters, perhaps awaiting his own moment to rise. Is this a stretch too far, an overwrought conceit carried to preposterous proportions?
There’s no point fact-checking Henning’s version of the JFK tragedy crammed into Julius Caesar. The theatrical repertory is replete with “historical reenactments” of events as imagined by playwrights. This is to be taken as drama, and as such it works surprisingly well. “Take the play at face value,” Henning asks theatergoers. “Some of it is metaphor, some of it is not. This is the story of what might have happened based on what I know. We may never be told the truth. But I hope this play at least makes you think and talk about the possibilities.”
In the end we have to admit that Shakespeare himself was not a historian, but rather (to many minds) the greatest playwright who ever wrote. Yet in many cases his version of the truth in history has come to signify history itself. We can only suggest that the veracity of Henning’s play bears a relationship to the historical “truthiness” in Shakespeare’s plays, and he can be likewise lauded for attempting to create order where there was chaos in a project most worthy.
The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare) plays through Nov. 6, Fridays at 8:30 pm, Saturdays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm. It is a Blank Theatre visiting production at the Skylight Theatre, 1816-1/2 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles 90027. For tickets: (323) 661.9827 or www.theblank.com.
Photo: left to right, Jerry Della Salla, Cris D’Annunzio, Brian Brennan (kneeling), Time Winters, Tony Abatemarco, Ford Austin (on ground, back to camera) / Rick Baumgartner