Wednesday, August 29, 2012

History Alive

Some days are okay and some are extraordinary. My day, yesterday, falls into the second classification and frankly I’m trembling a bit as I try to tell you about it. It was very exciting!
by Charlie Leck

UPDATED: 1 October 2012 (thanks to Tess's comment below)

My blog is not usually an account of my activities – a diary page or memoir – but today it must be because I just had a day that left me dazzled and filled with wonder – and, it all left me just a little bit star struck. I want so much to tell you about it.

History was amazingly alive before my very eyes yesterday. I was transported back to two of the most important and extraordinary years in the history of our nation. I sat and watched the central figures in the events of those times; and, I listened in on their conversations and watched them struggle to make difficult decisions. I liked the people I met and that I watched in action during these excruciatingly difficult times – Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, General Ulysses Grant, Frederick Douglas, Mary Todd Lincoln (in 1865) and, one-hundred years later, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta King, Herbert Hoover, Senator Richard Russell, Jr., Nicholas Katzenbach, Lady Bird Johnson (1965). I watched and listened to them as they struggled with some of the most important decisions made in America’s history.

I wasn’t’ dreaming! I was there, transported into those moments by extraordinary actors and the genius of playwright Christopher Hampton. Thanks to my sister-in-law, it was one of the really luscious days of my life – one I’ll never forget and about which I will do a great deal of thinking.

I’ll stop being so mysterious. I sat in on a first-reading by the actors at the Guthrie Theatre, in Minneapolis, of Hampton’s amazing play, Appomattox.

I had the extraordinary opportunity to meet Hampton before the reading; and also to chat with him for a few moments at its conclusion. Mind you, I got to do a bit of the talking and he acted, anyway, as if he was interested in what I had to say. He’s a gentle looking man – this playwright of such extraordinary credentials – and he speaks softly and with precision. He’s brilliant, with an Oxford education and a command over a half dozen languages, but he approaches a conversation as one who is hungry to learn and not to lecture. My goodness, I was standing there chatting up a man who has won a slug (if you’ll excuse the profanity) of awards – Tonys, Olivers, Circles, Oscars, Cannes and many others that I can’t easily abbreviate.

And, he was asking me questions. Can you believe it? Were you really there – in Mississippi in ’64. In Montgomery in ’65?

I was, indeed, star-struck. There’s no other way to say it. I mumbled and bumbled out answers as best I could.

Our local theatre of international fame, the Guthrie Theatre, is doing a Hampton festival this autumn and featuring three of his plays – Tales from Hollywood, Embers, and the play I’m most interested in, Appomattox, which will open on October 5 (and I’ll be in the audience for the opening). Hampton is here for the festival.

Appomattox deals with events separated by a hundred years – first, the American Civil War and the end of it in 1865; and then the Selma to Montgomery march by Dr. King and his followers in 1965 and the violence that surrounded it. The play is packed with intense dialogue that allows you into Lincoln’s White House to hear intimate conversations between Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, Lincoln and General Grant. You also see historic conversations and exchanges of correspondence between General Grant and General Robert E. Lee.

Yesterday, the actors chosen to play these parts had scripts in front of them as they sat around a large square of tables and read their lines. Actors, however, are actors and there was nothing dry about the readings. The dialogue was rich and powerful and drew deep emotions from everyone who listened in. When J. Edgar Hoover sat in the oval office and conversed with President Johnson, you could feel the President’s coldness and contempt for the little man who had gathered far more power to himself than his position should have allowed. This was the profane and direct President Johnson, who felt the weight of Vietnam and the rampant racism of the South on his shoulders. There was danger everywhere and the President walked a mighty slim tight-rope.

The same brilliant actor will play both Lincoln and Johnson. It was amazing to watch him transform himself from one to the other and make both of them so totally alive and believable. The wonderful young actor who played the part of Doctor King was amazingly inspiring and remindful of the great civil rights leader. There were a half dozen people invited to hear the reading and each of us admitted, after it, that we were tearful and choked up during many moments in the play.

Hampton draws the play to a conclusion in the year 2010 with a fictional encounter in prison between James Bonard Fowler, the Alabama State Trooper who murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson in 1965, and Edgar Ray Killen, the only man convicted in the Mississippi murders of the three young civil rights workers in 1964. 2010 is contemporary – it is our time and place – and yet you hear in the conversation the repugnant hatred and racism that still lives in America in our own time. This conversation wasn’t shocking to me, but it was sad to sit there, listening in on the intimate conversation between two hateful racists.

I trembled as I listened to the two killers so lightly discuss their crimes.

Appomattox is going to be an incredible production!

Other plays, or screen plays, by Christopher Hampton include Total Eclipse, The Philanthropist, Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement and God of Carnage. He also has a long list of television credits. For theater buffs, the Hampton Celebration at the Guthrie is going to be nothing short of extraordinary. You can read about it on the Guthrie web site’s Hampton Celebration page. Come to Minneapolis for the celebration and, if you do, be sure to let me know about your visit. I’ll buy you a drink. Those of you who are locals should get your tickets now. Opening night is October 5 and there will be four preview performances before the opening.

by Christopher Hampton
directed by David Esbornson
(part of the Guthrie’s Hampton Celebration)

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  1. Hi Charles. I am a blogger and entertainment reviewer from the Brainerd area. I've been invited to view and review plays at the Guthrie, and a few other theatres, for about a year, now. I attended "Tales from Hollywood" (You can read the review on my blog Play off the Page), and found it both thought-provoking and entertaining. I'm thinking of bring my almost 15-year-old son to this play. Do you think it is appropriate for someone that age? I would not have been comfortable having him watch "Tales from Hollywood" with me, mostly because of the nudity and mental angst of the characters.

    I am now a follower and look forward to more posts by you. How did you get invited to the reading? That sounds fascinating.

    Play off the Page

  2. I see you have word verification on which makes it harder to leave comments. Most bloggers that I follow have turned theirs off and don't seem to have much trouble with spam.