The Trial of the Catonsville Nine A Relevant Reminder (2/09)

The well-performed play,“The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” has more relevance today for two reasons:  the perspective of history since it was first performed in 1971, and the comparison it brings to the current Iraqi invasion.


Viewing the play makes the comparisons more clear. Vietnam and Iraq were both unfortunate wars of choice. There was never a real plan for victory in Vietnam, and neither has there been one for Iraq.  And they are also similar in that misrepresentation was employed by the U.S. government to engage U.S. forces and keep them there, though not unlike WWI and WWII. 


And there is relevance too in the main point of the play:  how it came about that the law abiding American citizens on trial chose to be involved in such a dramatic political action that further galvznized a movement.


The event involving the nine relatively conservative Catholics, including two priests and a former nun., took place on May 17, 1968, in Catonsville, Maryland.   Their crime was burning several hundred draft files — with homemade napalm —  to protest American involvement in Vietnam.


The trial during which the defendants explain their actions also help explain why the burning of the papers exploded a national controversy already stirred up by committed pacifists, backed by a middle class youth movement subject to the draft   


Adding more drama, the leader of the group, Father Daniel Berrigan, went on the run rather than go to prison.  During the run of his play at its Mark Taper Forum world premiere in 1971, based on trial transcripts, the audience heard a tape recorded greeting from Berrigan, who was still a fugitive.   


In 2008 Berrigan made another statement that "those who seek a just society, who seek to defy war and violence, who decry the assault of globalization and degradation of the environment, who care about the plight of the poor, should stop worrying about the practical, short-term effects of their resistance."


Berrigan remains dismayed at where America is today.  He at the same time maintains, "The good is to be done because it is good, not because it goes somewhere," he says. "I believe if it is done in that spirit it will go somewhere, but I don’t know where. “  And this remains the stirring message of the play.


Directed by Jon Kellam, The Actors’ Gang interpretation of “Trial of the Catosnsville Nine” is exceptionally dramatic because Kellam employs Movement Direction by Melina Bielefelt and Jon Kellam, and Suzuki and Movement Training by Melina Bielefelt.  The actors slowly change places on the stage during their free-verse courtroom drama “testimonies” so that it feels almost like a t’ai chi dance.   Jacqueline Reid’s  naked lighting in the beautiful bare bone brick theatre and the perfect conservative dress of the late 60’s as designed by Susan Dalian  transport the essence of the characters onstage.  


Andrew E. Wheeler, Scott Harris, Chris Schultz, Cameron Dye, Corey G. Lovett, Patti Tippo, George Ketsios, Paige Lindsey White and Ethan Kogan make up the competent ensemble.  Adele Robbins as the Judge comments in a truly genuine manner from behind her podium in front of a huge American flag.

One can’t help but contrast the difference between activists today, who helped elect Barak Obama, and the passionate, often rowdy backers of the peace movement that included the individuals in the Catonsville Nine.  The first a contemporary group peacefully united and acting within the system to elect an extraordinary figure.  The youth movement of the 60’s feeling the need to attract public attention by taking a zany tone (Abby Hoffman) or a violent one (Weatherman),  thankfully absent in the U.S. in this day and age of the website, blog and blackberry.   

The role of religion is particularly interesting because in the play the activists demonstrate how powerfully religious principles have an effect on social change, especially with the two priests who are brothers.  By contrast the most influential and dramatic religious influence today come in the form of religious fanatics, both in the United States and abroad.

There are those who say that the youth of today may disagree with the war but they are not involved in the same way because there is no draft, and they don’t want to appear disrespectful to service men and women.   Let them see this play and hear the conviction of the nine on trial is deserving of respect from a strictly humane point of one human being explaining their actions as they individually and movingly tell exactly how they came to have their strong beliefs from their life-changing experiences around the world, including the deep south of the United States,  central American murder and violence in Africa.

One sign of the high respect paid to the play was the presence of both Gore Vidal and Ron Kovic on opening night, both in wheel chairs and both of whom drew great admiration and reverence from the audience.    Like the play, their short introductory remarks proved to be as strong, stirring and inspiring.


The Trial of the Catonsville Nine plays through March 21at The Actors’ Gang Theatre in the Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd (corner of Culver and Venice Blvds) in Culver City. 


Walking distance eateries are as gracious and welcoming as the park in front of the Actors’ Gang,  to make theatre going a complete yet practical afternoon or evening experience.  The presence of a casually dressed Tim Robbins gives it a neighborhood if impressive feel, too. Two hour free parking is available across the street in Ince Parking Lot, and street parking. For information:, (310) 838-GANG.