L.A. Times Bomb: Docu-play puts media and history on trial
The bombed shell of the Los Angeles Times building, 1910. | Wikimedia Commons

VENICE, Calif.—A new live stage production inspired by the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times and its building in Downtown L.A. has been mounted at the Beyond Baroque literary arts center in Venice. But instead of a conventional dramatization of the historic events and figures, with actors reciting dialogue from a script penned by a playwright, California Poets for Resistance (CPR) used a “docu-play” format and technique to bring the explosion that killed 21 LAT employees and wounded 100 others.

Director Matt Sedillo, journalist Greg Palast, poetess/academic ​Irene Sanchez, actor Lee Boek, and radio host Cary Harrison co-created LA Times Bomb, largely by utilizing period documents such as court testimony and speeches delivered by actual personages to convey what happened—and more importantly, why the notoriously anti-union newspaper was deliberately dynamited by labor militants.

Since Sedillo is a spoken word artist, Bomb also includes original poetry, as well as songs, to express the era and creatively chronicle the real-life roles of key participants. Projections (cartoonist/columnist Ted Rall and Harrison are accredited for the visuals), including clips and photos from the Times, were projected on a screen above the stage during the presentation by a cast of approximately 15 thesps.

In doing so, CPR presented a people’s history of the LA Times bombing that is also a sort of pageant, plus a rumination on the role of mainstream media (MSM). The docu-play’s technique has an effect similar to a movie montage or a cumulative collage, as opposed to a narrative told in chronological order. The noteworthy players depicted during the two-hour-plus extravaganza included:

The Wobbly troubadour Joe Hill, portrayed by Marlon Stern (an actor literally named after Marlon Brando!), who sings labor ballads by the IWW organizer. Jeff Rogers depicts one of America’s great muckrakers, Lincoln Steffens (who later, after visiting the new Soviet Union, would proclaim: “I have seen the future—and it works”). Mark Lipman plays Socialist politician Job Harriman, who was Eugene Debs’ vice presidential running mate in 1900 and ran twice to become L.A.’s mayor. Irene Sanchez recited poetry, as did the fiery Sedillo in his trademark head spinning, rapid-fire clip.

Perhaps the last major character to take the floor at Beyond Baroque was investigative reporter Greg Palast as the defense attorney for the men accused of bombing the LA Times, Clarence Darrow. This courtroom gladiator, who had previously successfully defended the IWW’s Big Bill Haywood, was the age’s equivalent to Michael Ratner and William Kunstler. In fact, like Kunstler at the Chicago Seven trial (he was charged with contempt), Darrow became ensnared in the court’s machinations and was himself brought up on jury tampering charges.

At Palast’s mass public events, in his documentaries, TV reports, and also as Henry David Thoreau at a docu-play I wrote commemorating the 55th anniversary of Dr. King and the March on Washington, the author has demonstrated a flair for performing. Dressed in period garb, including a top hat, Palast acquitted himself well as Darrow, who has been depicted by great actors including Orson Welles, Henry Fonda, and Spencer Tracy.

Palast also took the occasion to critique the LA Times of the 21st century, in particular for its allegedly unethical treatment of Ted Rall, who Palast acknowledged in the audience. (As a fan of Rall, whose columns are published in the Progressive Populist, which also prints my movie reviews, meeting Rall in person was a highlight of the evening.) Given the current climate created by Trump of “fake news” and “enemy of the people,” Palast rather provocatively asked if it was time to bomb the LA Times again? Inquiring minds want to know.

The docu-play is a great if rarely used alternative theatrical art form. One of its leading practitioners is playwright Donald Freed—I believe his plays Inquest (about the alleged atomic spies the Rosenbergs) and The White Crow (about Eichmann’s trial) extensively used court transcripts. In 2017, I incorporated testimony by persecuted artists before the House Un-American Activities Committee—read by their relatives, contemporary Hollywood artists, etc.—into the docu-play I wrote about the 70th anniversary of the Hollywood Blacklist, presented at the Writers Guild’s Theater in Beverly Hills. The docu-play I wrote commemorating King and the 55th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice was presented in L.A. at the end of the Left Coast Forum in August 2018.

The May 11 show at Beyond Baroque was standing room only. It may need some rehearsing and editing, but this docu-play packs a punch. Now that it has had a trial run (no pun intended) the thought-provoking LA Times Bomb deserves to be presented at other outlets and forums. It could be nothing short of explosive—even if you won’t read a review about it in the Los Angeles TimesCalendar section.


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

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