[article as originally published in TDF Stages, March 1, 2017.]
A new play takes on William Kunstler
Playwright Jeffrey Sweet was inspired by a shock of hair and a lanky swagger. “It started off as a fairly pedestrian impulse,” Sweet says of his play Kunstler, about the activist attorney William Kunstler. “As I was watching the documentary Disturbing the Universe by Kunstler’s daughters Sarah and Emily, I thought: he looks like Jeff McCarthy on a really bad day.”
Naturally, he called his actor friend McCarthy to gauge his interest in developing the role. From there, they began a five-year journey of readings, workshops, and regional productions that has led to the show’s New York premiere. It’s currently running at 59E59 through March 13.
Beyond his disheveled appearance, of course, Kunstler offered plenty to inspire a dramatist. He defended the Berrigan Brothers, the Chicago Seven, and the native activists at Wounded Knee. He knew rock stars and countercultural heroes, and he even played himself on an episode of Law and Order. Late in his life, he also notoriously defended Yusef Salaam, who was convicted (and later exonerated) of a rape in Central Park.
Disturbing the Universe was a kind of apology from the daughters to their dead father, reflects Sweet. “They were very upset with some of his later cases, had fights with him, particularly were upset with his taking Salaam.”
One idea Sweet explores is that while “some people are lucky enough to die at the right point to have their reputations secure,” others outlive their time. There’s William Jennings Bryan, he notes, “who went from being a hero to a goat,” and Herbert Hoover, who lived to embrace Joe McCarthy and found himself on the wrong side of history.
In the play, that tension is evoked by Kerry, a law student who is on hand to assist Kunstler before he speaks to her classmates. She’s able to push back against his opinions and his self-image. “There had to be an oppositional force,” Sweet says.
Along with the documentary, the playwright watched videos of Kunstler speaking and performing and read his 1994 memoir My Life as a Radical Lawyer. Kunstler’s own words, however, only briefly appear in the play. “His book was compiled with a collaborator who interviewed him, but it doesn’t read well, and it doesn’t speak well,” Sweet says. “Almost none of the language was useful.” The only direct quotations are excerpts from the Chicago Seven trial and from a commencement speech that includes the lines: “I don’t believe in putting process above people. The process is supposed to serve justice.”
McCarthy, understandably, is focused on the human attributes of Kunstler the man. He recalls the initial meeting he had with Sweet and the Kunstler daughters at the Waverly Cafe, sitting in the booth where Kunstler would meet with clients. “He’d cross the street to talk to anybody,” McCarthy recalls the daughters telling him. “You know the old trick where you put your finger on somebody’s sternum until they look down, and you hit ’em in the nose? He loved that joke. And if anybody withheld an opinion from him, he would not let them go until he resolved it.” This tenacity informs an important moment between Kunstler and Kerry, who is played by Nambi E. Kelley.
Speaking of withheld opinions and fierce legal debate, it’s not hard to see contemporary parallels to the issues that ignite this show. As McCarthy notes, “With the Trump years, suddenly the play has a whole new resonance.” Kunstler lives on.
Featured image caption: [L-R] Jeff McCarthy as William Kunstler, Nambi E. Kelly as fictional law student.