Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

The Man Who Came to Dinner 

John Warren and Unconditional Theatre

Wednesday, Oct 27 1999
Raise your hand if you remember the Greensboro Massacre of '79. Me neither.

Now, how about the Iranian Hostage Crisis?

Aha. And therein lies a powerfully clear, if overly simplified, demonstration of the power of the press.

On November 3, 1979 a group of Ku Klux Klansmen and neo-Nazis rolled through a quiet neighborhood in Greensboro, North Carolina, casually mowing down 13 innocent people. Five were killed. And though the TV cameras covering the peaceful, pro-labor march captured nearly every disturbing moment, clearly, on tape, no one would ever serve time for the murders.

The next day Mr. Khomeini hit us with the grand "I gotcha" and the events in Greensboro, a tragedy which might otherwise have enraged the nation, were buried on the back page.

This story was told to me by John Warren, the young artistic director of the award-winning black-box and beyond group Unconditional Theatre.

"I come bearing barbecue," said John, who'd invited me to meet him at the Outer Sunset home of another Unconditional company member because, he'd explained, "I don't own a VCR."

In addition to serving up barbecue from Pittman's on Fillmore -- "The real thing" -- John wanted to show me a video, a PBS documentary on what happened in Greensboro. In honor of the 20th anniversary of the massacre, Unconditional Theatre is currently mounting the West Coast premier of Obie Award-winner Emily Mann's play Greensboro: A Requiem.

As John placed a paper boat filled with fried catfish on the table, he explained how Mann had crafted the play entirely from transcripts of interviews she conducted with survivors and witnesses of the actual massacre. "And I got two kinds of chicken," he said, "spicy and mild."

John described one of his earlier meetings with Mann, a playwright whose work is more often seen on Broadway, or locally at leading theatres such as Berkeley Rep, than it is at intimate spaces like the Center for African & African American Art and Culture's Buriel Clay Theatre, home of the current Unconditional production. "I asked Emily, 'Is this a race play?' and she just looked at me like, 'I don't know what the hell that means.' Because it was a totally multiracial incident," said John. "When you think of the Klan you would assume it was a predominantly African-American attack, but really it was a group of union organizers in the mills. A lot of the people they were trying to organize were black workers, but there were also a lot of northern white doctors and medical students that had come down to be part of the struggle."

In addition to the fried catfish in cornmeal batter and the two grades of tasty barbecue chicken, John and I enjoyed a bucket of Pittman's french fries along with plenty of potato salad, cole slaw, and slices of fresh Wonder wheat bread. On the side were frosty mugs of ice cold root beer. "Let me give you this," said John, handing me a piece of paper, "now that your fingers are covered in barbecue sauce."

It was a photocopy of a proclamation, signed by each member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, declaring next Wednesday, November 3, "Greensboro Massacre Remembrance Day." Supervisor Leslie Katz, who sponsored the motion, will officially present the proclamation to Unconditional Theatre at a 20th anniversary ceremony and panel discussion that day.

As we continued eating John explained that several of the characters in the play are spouses of the victims. "I knew that Paul and Sally Bermanzohn, two of the survivors, lived in New York," he said. "So when I was back there last Thanksgiving to talk with Emily, I tracked them down. They just kept talking and talking and talking. I ran out of tape. Sally's been just incredibly helpful. A lot of the images we use in the production came from her.

"And then last summer, when I was up in Providence, a woman by the name of Marty Nathan, whose husband Michael died at the massacre, invited me up to where she lives. So I drove up and met with her and she made me dinner. They have an incredible perspective on all of it that I find very inspiring."

"So," I asked John, "do you think the play is about the survivors?"

"Well, one of the main characters is the man who purportedly put the attack together. So I think it's about more than just the survivors," he answered. "I think it's about that counterpoint between very different sets of ideologies. And I'm glad that there are some other voices in the play, from the far right, to speak for themselves. Because that could get tiring to hear, you know -- blame, blame, blame. Although they're absolutely justified in blaming, I think it's a little more interesting to see, well, what the motivations were."

Licking the last of the Pittman's from our fingers, we moved over to the living room and popped the documentary into the co-opted VCR, and for the next hour John and I watched the old edition of Frontline which aired just a few years after the Greensboro event. The program included much of the actual footage showing the Klansmen parking their cars, removing their weapons from their trunks, nonchalantly walking up to the protest, and opening fire.

Despite the video evidence, in the criminal trial that followed an all-white jury acquitted the murderers on grounds of self-defense. The Frontline program went on to expose apparent connections between the Klan, the local police, and an FBI informant.

A second federal trial failed to convict based on a narrow statute requiring the prosecution to prove racial motivation. But finally, a conviction was returned in a civil case brought by the families of the victims. For the first time in U.S. history a municipality -- the city of Greensboro -- and the Ku Klux Klan were found jointly liable in a wrongful death. But the award was purely monetary, and no one ever went to jail.

Most powerful for me, towards the end of the tape, were the images of two women screaming their impassioned political messages while kneeling over the bodies of their dying husbands.

John hit the stop button and reflected on the important piece of theater he's charged with directing. "I'm still discovering the construction of the play, and the juxtapositions, and why things are next to each other, and what the connections are," he said. "It's not your typical dramatic structure; it's more of a documentary style. You know, in deciding to take on a project like this, we first had to ask ourselves, 'Is this a common story? Is this unique? Or does this present a new perspective?' That's when we started to become more acutely aware of the recent resurgence in violent hate crimes."

John went on to rattle off a list of recent incidents. Buford Furrow in Los Angeles. Benjamin Smith in Illinois. And even more recently, and closer to home, a judge in San Jose who was the victim of an attempted firebombing. For John, and for Unconditional Theatre, the Greensboro story seems as relevant today as it was exactly 20 years ago.

Unfortunately, it looks like John is right.

Want to host The Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail and tell us what's cookin'.

About The Author

Barry Levine


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"