Volume 17 • Issue 21 | October 15 - 21, 2004

Free play series examines McCarthyism

By Divya Watal

The infamous hunt for Communists in the 1950s, instigated by Senator Joseph McCarthy, still resonates in today’s charged political environment. To help remember and scrutinize this era in American history, the Metropolitan College of New York has organized “McCarthyism Revisited,” a free play reading series and discussion forum, from October 20-23.

The college has planned a panel discussion called ‘Urban Dialogue’ on Wednesday evening, which will include activist Paul Robeson, Jr., for whom McCarthyism literally hits home.

His father, Paul Robeson, was the eminent singer and actor who was ostracized in the 1950s by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The panel also includes writer and actor Ossie Davis; Victor Navasky, publisher and editorial director of The Nation; and Ellen Schrecker, professor of History at Yeshiva University.

The New Federal Theater is collaborating with the college on this event and will present four plays centered on McCarthyism from Thursday to Saturday.

“I’ve always wanted to deal with the McCarthy hearings,” said the theater’s Woodie King, Jr. in a telephone interview, “how he tried to destroy artists and went after so-called ‘un-Americans.’ I started looking at the country today, and I found that the political climate is basically the same way.”

King, Jr., an award-winning writer, director and producer, has worked on Broadway and off-Broadway productions for more than three decades. He is the founder and executive director of New Federal Theater at the Henry Street Settlement in Lower Manhattan, which showcases talented minority playwrights, actors and directors.

“The Patriot Act and McCarthy hearings are so similar,” said King, Jr., “except that now it’s an act of Congress. Under McCarthy it was one Senator that had gone amok.”

During the McCarthy hearings, which took place from 1953-1954, Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, aggressively and sometimes unfoundedly inquired into allegations of Communist activity in the U.S. government and social sphere. Many prominent citizens were implicated and tarnished, including musical director Leonard Bernstein, composer Aaron Copland, writer Dashiell Hammett, poet Langston Hughes, playwright Arthur Miller, actor Edward G. Robinson and director Orson Welles. 

McCarthyism Revisited plans to bring the notorious hearings back to life, to examine what went wrong and draw much-needed lessons for today’s uncannily similar political context.

“Through the ‘Urban Dialogue’ panel discussion we could determine if there are any parallels between the current War on Terror and Patriot Act, and McCarthyism,” said Hakim Hasam, director of the Metropolitan Institute. “There may or may not be anything. It’s a very complex issue.” He added that the discussion would also examine the role of Black Americans and issues of racism as they intersected with McCarthyism.

The panel discussion and play readings will be held at the Metropolitan College of New York, 75 Varick St., 12th floor. Since seating is limited, R.S.V.P. to Arlene Costa at 212 343 1234 ext. 3208 or email urbaninstitute@metropolitan.edu.

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