In 1944, when FDR was running for an unprecedented fourth term as President, the Democrats kicked out his then-Vice President, Henry Wallace, and nominated Missouri Senator Harry Truman to run for the office instead, even though Truman wasn’t actively seeking the office. Just 82 days after getting elected, Truman took over as President when Roosevelt died in April, 1945; he dropped the atomic bomb on Japan four months later – one of many actions that made the Wallace-to-Truman switch of great consequence.
“Convention,” which is running through June 29 at Irondale Center in Fort Greene, presents the 1944 Democratic National Convention where this occurred. It is an ambitious undertaking with a massive cast that performs throughout the cavernous room in a kind of surround sound experience – on stage, in the aisles, behind us, in the narrow balcony above us, and in the bleacher seats beside us. How a handful of bigwigs were able to engineer the ouster of a popular vice-president, and why they did so, promised to be a riveting drama.
But it didn’t turn out that way for me – not riveting drama, and not engaging theater. “Convention” didn’t work for me. It was simply too hard for me to follow what was going on.
Still, the team that spent several years putting it together — Brontosaurus Haircut Productions, led by playwright Danny Rocco and director Shannon Fillion — deserves credit for recognizing the historical importance and the theatrical potential of this event, and for marshaling the resources and mastering the logistics to get it staged. It’s obvious that much research and planning went into “Convention.” I respect what they are trying to do. So, let me attempt some constructive suggestions:
~Use one of the best practices of successful immersive theater, and give the theatergoers some sense of control. Instead of having us just sit still for two hours in the (un-air conditioned) “convention hall,” allow the theatergoers to move from the convention floor to some of the “smoke-filled backrooms” that we’ve heard so much about. Have a different scene unfold in the relative quiet of each one of those rooms. (This could be done a la “Sleep No More,” in which each individual theatergoer is totally in charge of where he goes and when, or it could be like “Then She Fell,” in which the actors lead the audience members to the various rooms.) That way we could experience the chaos of the large cast shouting and chanting and speechifying at one another in the convention hall, but also be able to listen undistracted to small group conversations, so that we can more easily follow the drama(s), especially the “conspiracy” to unseat Wallace that’s meant to be the heart of the show.
To answer any argument from the creative team that they are trying to re-create the actual experience of attending a political convention: I’ve been to national political conventions, and people don’t just sit in their seats, passive targets for sensory overload. They focus on what interests them and ignore what doesn’t. They move around, attend parties, go to various caucus meetings, lobby one another, schmooze. Much happens away from the convention floor. Having the theatergoers move to different discrete spaces is more in keeping with an individual’s actual experience of attending a convention. But even if it weren’t, clarity sometimes must take precedence over atmosphere in a work of theater.
~The Irondale Center was so unbearably hot that they distributed white paper fans, but asked us to return them at the end of the evening. Why not print campaign slogans on them — FDR/Wallace or Wallace’s The One or whatever they actually were in 1944? It would be great if they let us keep them.
~Have the characters wear buttons or nametags that identify them – or even huge signs around their neck. Politicians often wear buttons printed with “I am [their name],” and conventions often supply nametags, “Hello, my name is….” It’s true that neither politicians nor conventioneers usually wear huge signs around the neck, but I think the audience would be willing to suspend their disbelief – indeed, be grateful. Whether or not this is a workable idea, there must be some way to give the audience a chance to sort out these characters, almost none of whom are familiar anymore to anybody who isn’t a professional historian of the period. (As a public service, I’ve identified both the actors and the characters they’re portraying in the captions to the photographs below.) A colleague suggests projecting the names and IDs on the back wall when someone is speaking.
~Most of the characters are old white men; the majority of the performers portraying them are young white women , dressed in 1940’s men’s business suits, including Claire Mikelle Anderson as Henry Wallace. Whatever the symbolic significance of this casting (and it doesn’t reach “Hamilton”-level resonance or clarity), a greater diversity (certainly in age) would avoid the impression that “Convention” is a production of a college theater department.
To be fair, there is some diversity in the current production: Harry Truman is depicted by Charles Everett, a black actor, and his wife Bess Truman by Daniel John Serpati, a white male actor wearing a tasteful small-brim hat. And there are some female characters portrayed by women. The most intriguing is the actress Helen Douglas, a convention delegate from California, portrayed by Lizzie Stewart. Shortly after the convention, Douglas would become a member of Congress, and in 1950 run for the Senate in an infamously vicious election won by Richard M. Nixon.
~The show has a vendor (Brandt Adams) selling hot dogs for 20 cents to the cast of conventioneers, who stand on stage or in the aisles eating them inches from the audience, which felt rude. Give the theatergoers an opportunity to buy and eat some of those hot dogs!
~Have Harry Truman wear a hat. I had a long conversation during intermission about this with the costume designer, Jennifer Raskopf, who happened to be sitting in front of me, taking notes. (Her credits include assistant costume designer in the Broadway production of Hamilton.) She said that Truman didn’t wear a hat at the convention – she showed me a photograph of the actual hatless Truman at the 1944 convention – and that generally men didn’t wear hats indoors even then. But before he became a politician, Truman owned a haberdashery in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. So it would be a nice theatrical touch for Truman to wear a hat, even if this is not what he did in real life, because it would be a first step in establishing the characters of “Convention” as people with…if not observable personalities, at least some humanizing quirks.
Click on any photograph by Ahron R. Foster to see it enlarged, and read the caption.
Irondale Center 85 S. Oxford Street, Brooklyn, NY 11217
Written by Danny Rocco
Directed by Shannon Fillion
Lighting Design by Erin Fiel, sound design by Megumi Katayama, costume design by Jen Raskopf
Cast: Brandt Adams, Ashley Alvarez, Claire Mikelle Anderson, Christina Bottley, Paul Corning, Gabrielle Djenné, Charles Everett, Kyle Fitzpatrick, Alaina Fragoso. Ginnie House, Greg Hudson, Matt Hurley, Sue Kim, Nina Kova, Michael Leon, Kathleen Littlefield. Ally Musmeci, Michael Pantozzi, Mclean Peterson, Catherine Pulley, Jessica Rogers, Becca Schneider, Daniel John Serpati, Lizzie Stewart, Sarah Sutliff, Adrienne S. Witt, Amanda Barlow, Martina Fernandes, Jack Flatley, Caroline Kulak, Megan Quick, Grace Rittenberg, Noemi Sarog, Yui Taniguchi, Elliot White, Harry White, Tove Wood
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission
Convention is scheduled to run through June 29, 2019