A Son of Weathermen, Dohrn Goes Down Into the Immigration Debate

by Ed Rampell | May 15, 2013

During the 2008 presidential race, GOP veep hopeful Sarah Palin snidely quipped that candidate Barack Obama “palled around with domestic terrorists.” Now a play by the son of those revolutionaries Palin alluded to is having a West Coast premiere — and its ripped-from-the-headlines subject deals with an issue President Obama and Congress are currently grappling with.

Set in the Southwestern desert, Long Way Go Down is an immigration-themed four-hander by Zayd Dohrn, whose parents, Bernardine Dohrn and William Ayers, belonged to the ultra-left Weather Underground (aka the Weathermen), the notorious ’60s/’70s militants, who advocated — and carried out — armed struggle against the U.S. government. (Robert Redford and Susan Sarandon play former members of this radical organization in the recently released movie The Company You Keep.)

Zayd Dohrn & Don K. Williams

Long Way Go Down is being presented in LA by a stage venue with a lofty leftist lineage, the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company at the Art of Acting Studio. This is the West Coast branch of Manhattan’s Stella Adler Studio of Acting, which was founded in 1949 and mounted Long Way Go Down in 2010. The artistic director of this bi-coastal theater operation is Tom Oppenheim, grandson of Stella Adler, the fabled acting teacher and Stanislavsky Method apostle.

Harold Clurman and Adler co-founded the legendaryGroup Theatre, which presented the 1935 Broadway premiere of that proletarian theater classic, Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty. It’s a long march from the pro-union Lefty to the pro-immigrants’ rights Long Way Go Down.

According to the latter’s director, Don K. Williams,“One of the things we try to do here with the Studio and Harold Clurman Lab Theater is do plays that are sociologically relevant. The first play we ever did here was Waiting for Lefty 

[in 2011]. Our first production was speaking to not only the time it was done, not only to the history of our Studio, but to the union strike going on in Wisconsin. Long Way Go Down speaks eloquently and personally — and violently — to the struggle for people involved in illegal immigration and the smuggling of [undocumented] immigrants across the border and people trying to have a better life.”

Although not all of the Clurman Lab’s productions are explicitly political, Williams, who is also associate artistic director of the bi-coastal Adler outfit, goes on to say, “The whole concept Tom took from Stella and infused in the theater companies is that we have to grow as human beings and entertain at the same time. As opposed to the 1920s and the early ’30s, a lot of the theater they were seeing was entertainment only. The well-made play, the cocktail and witty banter.” But Oppenheim and Adler before him “saw a need for a social consciousness,” and for asking “what do we have to say about the world around us? — that being a driving force behind what we do.”

Johnny Yoder, who is Long Way Go Down’s producer and director of the Art of Acting Studio’s school, adds: “We try to instill in all of our actors that they’re socially involved, that they’re socially conscious, that they are actors who are living, breathing and aware of the world going on around them. That’s our focus. Harold Clurman wanted that too,” as did Adler — Clurman’s wife from 1940 to 1960.

Dan Evans and Michael Keith Allen

Dohrn is proud to belong to this tradition of a theater of conscience. “I like the connection. I think it’s a continuum that’s fascinating for me as somebody interested in theater history and also to be a part of. Tom Oppenheim… is most definitely carrying on socially conscious theater that the Group Theatre pioneered in New York a generation ago. So Tom has been very supportive of my work and very interested in work in the tradition of Clifford Odets and the Group Theatre that tries to say something about the political state of our society.

“Clifford Odets is a big influence for me and this play. In the same way that he was writing about class and work issues of his time, I’m trying to write a similar thing about our moment. It just happens that right now the underclass is immigrant… and English is not their native language. Odets’ pioneering of a kind of naturalistic speech was considered revolutionary at the time and was an attempt to bring onstage voices that hadn’t been heard before. This play, which is partly in English, partly in Spanish, and mostly in a hybrid of the two, is also an attempt to show characters onstage who maybe haven’t been seen onstage that much. They’re certainly not characters you’d find in a drawing room comedy; they’re people the average theatergoing audience might not have come in contact with.”

Dohrn says that while the multi-national coyote and Mexican characters have language barriers, “there’s lots of action onstage, it’s very intense… there’s plenty of sex and violence going on onstage that doesn’t require translation.”

The origins of this ongoing immigration imbroglio can be traced back to the Mexican-American War, which — 120 years before Bernardine Dohrn, William Ayers and millions of others in the “flower power” generation opposed the Vietnam War — was the first widely unpopular war in U.S. history that generated protests. Philosopher Henry David Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay a war tax, and on the floor of the House Congressman Abraham Lincoln denounced President Polk for perpetrating a war of aggression.

Michelle Ramos

“I don’t know that this was at the top of my mind, but certainly in the play some characters talk about some of the historical resonance,” Dohrn says. “They talk about Ulysses Grant and his role in Mexican-American relations…There was a time when North and South America were populated entirely by indigenous people and there was a time colonists came and changed those identities to these new national identities, and suddenly you had an idea of Mexicans versus Americans…I didn’t think about the particular parallel with my family, but I am certainly always interested in how these kinds of dynamics arise historically and how conflicts framed in different guises come back to haunt them.”

The playwright says this is the first time one of his dramas will have a full production in Los Angeles, although his plays have been presented in Orange County (Reborning at Anaheim’s Chance Theater last year) and San Francisco. Dohrn, who is also anassistant professor of playwriting and screenwriting at Northwestern University (while his mother is a clinicalassociate professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law), was interviewed by phone from Chicago.

The younger Dohrn was born in 1977 while Bernardine Dohrn and William Ayers were fugitives hiding out from the FBI and other authorities. “I was born at home in an apartment in New York; there was no hospital because we were living underground at the time,” says Dohrn, adding with a laugh, “I don’t remember the details.”

He was named after a friend of his parents, Zayd Malik Shakur, who had a Black Panther Party pedigree and “died before I was born” in a May 1973 shoot-out on the New Jersey Turnpike with state troopers. This gunfight was recently in the news, when the FBI observed the incident’s 40th anniversary by making another Black Panther named Shakur, Assata Olugbala Shakur, the first woman on its most wanted terrorist list. She had been convicted of the first degree murder of N.J. State Trooper Werner Foerster in the shoot-out but subsequently escaped from prison and fled to Cuba, where Fidel Castro granted her political asylum. (Dohrn’s mother had been on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list for three years.) Shakur, aka Joanne Chesimard, was reportedly the step-aunt of the late gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur.

William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, December 3, 1980. Photo by KNOBLOCK / AP.

Dohrn says he never met the hip-hop icon or Assata, but just as Tupac’s genealogical connections helped forge his “thug life” aesthetic, Zayd’s family background, growing up on the lam, shaped his awareness and artistry. Nevertheless, his unusual childhood “all felt, for me, very normal. Most people who grow up even in strange circumstances, it’s hard when you’re a kid to have anything to compare it to and to be able to know that it’s strange. For me — I knew we were hiding out from the authorities, but I didn’t know much about why, except that I knew that my parents had been against the Vietnam War…We had a family, I went to school, my parents worked, so there was nothing in our day-to-day life that was especially strange, except maybe for the fact that my parents were deeply, politically committed, and there was a lot of talk about politics in my house,” recalls Dohrn.

In 1970, during the Vietnam War, Bernardine Dohrn issued “a declaration of a State of War” against the US government, and the Weather Underground bombed official property that symbolized the powers-that-be, including the US Capitol Building, Pentagon, military recruiting stations and NYPD police stations. Zayd was about four or five when his fugitive folks decided to turn themselves in. William and Bernardine did not “serve long prison sentences. Most of the charges were dropped due to FBI misconduct and the statute of limitations. A few years later, my mother did about a year in jail for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury investigation… Former members of their organization [as well as Tupac’s stepfather, BLA member Mutulu Shakur] were involved in the Brinks [armored car] robbery in upstate New York, and the prosecutor tried to compel my mother to cooperate with the investigation of her friends, and she refused,” recounts Zayd. He grew up mostly in Harlem until the age of 13, when the family moved to Chicago because his father got a job at the University of Illinois.

Instead of becoming, literally, a bomb thrower, Zayd — whose lightning-rod mother had issued communiqués — turned to the theater as a means of communications. “I’ve always known I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid, of books or movies,” Dohrn recalls. “I was always interested in theater and going to Shakespeare plays and things like that when I was a kid. But the first time I thought of it as a potential career was probably in college, when I took some playwriting classes at Brown. I went to graduate school; I got my MFA in playwriting at NYU, and then went on to be writer in residence at the Juilliard School for a couple of years.”

Orlando Chavez

Dohrn’s website reveals details of nine of his plays. “They’ve all been produced, around the country: New York, Off-Broadway, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, New Orleans…They’re published by Samuel French…I started doing it right after college. Wrote my first play,Shameless, when I was 22 and it was produced first in Boston, then in New York…They’re all dramas and they’ve all got dark comedy in them. They’re all political dramas and fairly dark in tone…The unifying theme is a dark look at the political and social forces that make people do the things they do.”

This, of course, also applies to artists. Even when they tackle topical matters, playwrights bring the baggage of their own selves to the work at hand and see the world through the prism of their own subjectivity. Dohrn’s oeuvre is arguably a case study wherein the political is fused with the personal.

Consider Sick, which won the Kennedy Center’s Jean Kennedy Smith Playwrighting Award and Dallas-Fort Worth Critics Award for best new play, 2008 (not to be confused with Erik Patterson’s play of the same name, which played LATC in 2010). Dohrn describes his Sickas being “about a family of allergy sufferers who never leave their house because they’re afraid of environmental collapse. It’s about family, paranoia and the environment.” A blurb at his website states Sick“toys with post-9/11 phobias.” Perhaps — but the way Dohrn relates the plot during this interview, it also sounds strikingly like how a child whose parents are the subject of an intense manhunt might metaphorically view the world.

Outlining Long Way Go Down’s border-crossing plot, Dohrn says, “the desperation at certain moment leads to outbursts of violence” — which can also describe how his militant parents allegedly turned to armed struggle in their reaction to the devastation in Vietnam and racial injustice at home.

“Artists mine their own experience and history for what they write,” Dohrn muses. “But I don’t do it particularly consciously. So yes, it’s true that the play in some ways is about being underground and hiding and a lot of my plays have those themes, but it’s not something I go to as a conscious source of inspiration. It’s more that I’m trying to write about what these people might feel, and the only way I can access that is by putting some of my own experience into it… Certainly, a lot of my work is inspired by the way I grew up. But I think that’s true of all artists. Everybody has to deal with and define their legacy.”

Michelle Ramos and Dan Evans

In early May William Ayers was embroiled in yet another controversy when he delivered the keynote address at a Kent State commemoration of the “four dead in Ohio,” the students shot and killed by National Guardsmen during the 1970 campus antiwar protestreferred to by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in the song “Ohio.” Ayers denied that the Weather Underground’s bombing campaign, which generally targeted property, was comparable to the Boston marathon bombing, which struck unarmed civilians.

The prolific playwright’s new Muckrakers, inspired by the WikiLeaks controversy, will open in June at theBarrington Stage in the Berkshires — his tenth full-length play. Zayd Dohrn says he does not know if his name — celebrated in some circles but reviled from Washington to Wasilla — is more of a hindrance or a help in his theatrical career. But as many aspirants following in their parents’ famous footsteps have found out, even if a prominent moniker opens doors, the proof, as Brecht reminded us, is in the pudding of their performance as artists.

Long Way Go Down, Art of Acting Studio, 1017 N. Orange Drive, LA 90038. Opens May 17. Thu-Sat 8 pm. (Plus Sunday, May 19 at 3 pm). Through June 7. 323-601-5310.