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Greensboro: A Documentary 

Wednesday, Nov 3 1999
On Nov. 3, 1979, a day before Iranians stormed the American Embassy in Tehran, a handful of communist anti-Klan protesters had just begun a march through Greensboro, N.C., when a little fleet of pickups full of Klansmen and neo-Nazis sped up from behind and started shooting, accurately, until most of the protest organizers were either wounded or killed. Five people died, and in the intervening 20 years not one gunman has been punished. Even now, the atmosphere surrounding the massacre in Greensboro is apparently defensive, hushed. The Iranian hostage crisis overwhelmed the massacre in the national news, and what could have been a raw case-study of the rift in American culture since the 1960s was forgotten.

Or, rather, it was left for playwrights to revive. Or -- better -- for documentarians. Greensboro is really a documentary adapted for the stage: Emily Mann, the playwright, went to Greensboro in the mid-'90s to gather material on what happened, and transcripts of her interviews make up most of Greensboro's dialogue.

"A group of people, many of us members of the Communist Workers' Party, were organizing black and white workers in the local textile mills," says the Rev. Nelson Johnson, a minister involved in the protest. "This was a time when the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise again in North Carolina. We organized a demonstration and rally against the Klan for the morning of November 3rd." The rest of the cast shouts "Death to the Klan!" while press photos from the event are projected on a backdrop painted with Klan robes and Nazi graffiti.

Then a Klansman character named Edward Dawson shouts, "You asked for the Klan, you communist sons of bitches, you got the Klan!"

Blackout. Rifle shots. Etc.

Mann blends "aural reproductions" of the massacre -- like the opening scene -- with her North Carolina interviews and a few monologues by racists like David Duke (who wasn't at the massacre) pieced together from speeches and things she's heard. The idea is to create an onstage collage of American racism. The play has a story, but it's an investigative one: Mann probes the question of how much the Greensboro police knew beforehand about the Klan's plans and how little they did to stop them. What she presents is the chilling idea that the Greensboro cops did nothing -- on purpose.

The play works, for the most part. The mass of talk moves forward, climaxes, and ends in a good sermon and some excellent gospel singing. But the reasons Greensboro is valuable have nothing to do with drama. The show is practical: It tells you what happened through the mouths of people who were there. Mann's fidelity to fact makes her more valuable as a chronicler of forgotten injustice than Robert O'Hara or John Fisher -- who write plays with a lot of research but also a lot of invention, and then excuse the invention, onstage, by having characters say, "We can't really know what happened." But somewhere between those two extremes lies the unself-conscious art of Ibsen and Shaw, who could invent as well as report, and who mixed these talents to put political problems onstage in a lifelike, dramatic shape. Where that unself-consciousness has gone I have no idea. In one interview Emily Mann defended her activist-minded plays by saying, "Actually, I'm someone who's driven by a sense of justice, and morality, and ethics, and integrity."

Hell, who isn't, Emily? At least to themselves? What I like to see is a play that exposes evil artfully enough to help us understand how it creeps up in the alchemy of being human, instead of showing us idiots who are obviously evil and then calling them bad, for applause.

Greensboro does a little of both, and its flashes of exposure are intense. You see one Klansman in a witness stand flat-out deny that he ever sang a song about killing Jews, and then recite what his friend (he's careful to point out it wasn't him) did sing: almost the same song. "Something on that line there," he says, "but it's a lot different than what you went through." The denial is incredible. You see it in scenes with Edward Dawson, a member of the Klan's "murder squad," played by Nick Scoggin with a casual, drawling un-guilt. He blames one death in the massacre on the fact that the victim stepped outside. "You know, she wouldna never got hit if she'da kept her damn dumb face in the doorway." Yeah, and she also wouldna never got hit if you people hadn't been shooting at her. Christ.

One protest survivor, Signe Waller (A.J. Davenport), makes an excellent speech that ends with the warning words, "As soon as you have that less-than-human thing operating, boy, you can do anything to people." Sally Bermanzohn (played with unstrained earnestness by Nancy Madden) wonders what would have happened if the protesters hadn't chanted, "Death to the Klan." Paul Lancour does an oily David Duke, slick with his own media-ready denial; Mujahid Abdul-Rashid anchors the play as a bellow-voiced Rev. Johnson. And another survivor, Paul Bermanzohn (Robert Hamm), says, provocatively, "The biggest mistake the postwar generation made, I think, was teaching their kids the Nazis were monsters, like they were a different species from us. The Nazis weren't monsters. They were people. That's the problem."

Unfortunately, this kaleidoscope of ideas just doesn't fuse into a coherent play. Greensboro lacks poetry, both in the writing and in the sometimes-clunky staging. Mann likes to call her work "theater of testimony," which is cautious and accurate. As testimony, it's good: She's revived a tragedy 20 years old, but certainly not out of date (pathetically, the Klan rallied in New York two weeks ago), and Unconditional Theater's commemorative production makes a decent service to memory.


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