Project Unspeakable – May 2013
Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy and inspired by James Douglass’ remarkable book, JFK and the Unspeakable (Simon & Schuster, 2010), Project Unspeakable envisions simultaneous dramatic readings or full performances of a theatrical work about the role of Thomas Merton’s “Unspeakable” in the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. Merton (1915–1968), an internationally respected spiritual writer and Trappist monk, wrote in 1965: “One of the awful facts of our age is the evidence that [the world] is stricken indeed, stricken to the very core of its being by the presence of the Unspeakable…[that] too few are willing to see.”
A generation of baby-boomers who have lived most of their adult lives in the rubble of shattered dreams, who have seen the great leaders of their generation slaughtered in officially whitewashed circumstances, are invited to come forward to insist that the truth finally be uncovered regarding this destruction of lives and visionary leadership. In addition, Project Unspeakable offers young people a unique opportunity, not only to learn more about these four inspirational leaders of the 1960’s, but also to re-energize their recent efforts to confront current manifestations of the “Unspeakable,” as many have already been doing in the “Occupy” and climate action movements.
Activist, religious, and theater groups around the country, and hopefully abroad, will be contacted and encouraged to become Project “partners” and to schedule staged readings and performances of the resulting script on November 22, 2013, the date of JFK’s assassination, or, if that’s not possible, on a birthday or assassination date of one of the four leaders within the next 12 months. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, a national holiday, will be celebrated on January 20, 2014, and would be a particularly appropriate time.
Project partners will also be encouraged to offer facilitated workshops or discussion groups following these readings and performances. The Project will provide suggested topics for reflection to all partnering groups, to be used at their discretion. Both the script and the discussion topics will raise questions regarding the implications of these 1960’s assassinations for understanding and overcoming the “unspeakables” of today.
Project Unspeakable began in February 2013 with the identification of key participants and staff and initial work on the script. With basic operational structures and materials for the project now in place, outreach to potential partners has begun. Distribution of the final script will take place by late August or early September, at which point partners can begin preparations for the first wave of readings and performances on November 22nd.
Through this proposal, we seek the engagement of groups and individuals willing to arrange readings and performances, encouragement and support from volunteers and other participants, and resources to support the Project.
Why Project Unspeakable?
James Douglass’ groundbreaking and meticulously researched book, JFK and the Unspeakable, has sparked a widespread review of the assassination of JFK and has rekindled longstanding concerns. At a recent conference in Rowe, MA, forty activists reviewed evidence and testimony concerning the assassinations of JFK, Malcolm X, MLK, and RFK and attended a dramatic reading of a work-in-progress version of Ginny Cunningham’s Noah’s Ark, a play about JFK’s assassination inspired by Douglass’ book. They also explored the meaning of Merton’s “Unspeakable” for today’s world.
The assassination of JFK and the government’s denial of responsibility, cloaked in the government’s covert-action doctrine of “plausible deniability,” is a clear example of what Merton meant by “the Unspeakable,” which he described as “the void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said; the void that gets into the language of public and official declarations at the very moment when they are pronounced, and makes them ring dead with the hollowness of the abyss.”
Yet, as Douglass reminds us, “The Unspeakable is not far way. It is not somewhere out there, identical with a government that became foreign to us. The emptiness of the void, the vacuum of responsibility and compassion, is in ourselves. Our citizen denial provides the ground for our government’s doctrine of ‘plausible deniability.’”
These four assassinations took place within less than five years, during one of the greatest periods of domestic upheaval in U.S. history, the 1960’s. Each assassination alone, and certainly all four taken together, left an indelible mark on the direction of our country that continues today. The words of internationally respected human rights advocate Ajamu Baraka, referring to the assassination of Martin Luther King, apply equally to all four assassinations:
“The murder of Dr. King was not just the murder of a man,
but an assault on an idea, a movement, a vision of society….”
So we are led to ask: “What were these influential leaders doing and saying that made them such a threat to their assassins? What might our country, our world, look like today had they been able to live out their lives pursuing their ideas and visions? And how can we carry forward their unfinished legacy, thus helping to create the kind of world they wished to create?”
The aim of this Project is not only to raise legitimate questions about the official stories of these assassinations and to demand that the truth finally be revealed, particularly with regard to the role of the national security apparatus (CIA, FBI, NSA, Pentagon, intelligence services, and especially their secret “covert operations” arms). It is also to remind us of the powerful critiques and inspiring visions of these four human beings, and to encourage us to reflect on the nature of the “unspeakables” we face today and to find effective ways of addressing them.
Through this Project we hope to contribute to a new national consciousness that will keep alive those critiques and visions and contribute to the already growing demand for a government that is far more open, transparent, and accountable to its citizens than the one we have now. Those conditions are, to a large extent, necessary prerequisites for effectively dealing with the various political, economic, and environmental crises that are undermining our core values, our collective well being, and our world.
“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
— Albert Einstein
In a sense, Project Unspeakable is an invitation to remember, and in so doing to reconnect the past with our present and our future. As Professor Margaret Burnham of the Northeastern School of Law has said in relation to her students’ heroic efforts to bring to light the many unsolved lynchings and other murders of the early Civil Rights days in the Deep South,
“We seek to keep these crimes from fading into history.
If we don’t do this now, this piece of our history
will be lost to us and to future history.”
In short, our purpose is not simply to look back, but also to look forward, to take responsibility for our past silence regarding these assassinations and to commit ourselves to seeking the truth, not only about what happened fifty years ago but, equally, about what’s happening right now, whether it relates to corporate domination of our elections and policy-making, the extreme and ever widening gap between rich and poor, the recent economic collapse and its causes, our ongoing war in Afghanistan (and other U.S. “military actions,” whether publicized or covert), the escalating climate emergency threatening our planet, or the lack of government and corporate transparency and accountability with respect to all these issues.
“The price of not going into the heart
of the truth has become unaffordable.
Bob Dylan once asked,
‘Just how far would you like to go in (to the truth)?’
This question must mark the beginning of
a new journey at every level of society.”
author of “The Climate Bomb: Failures
to Confront the Unspeakable and the Way Forward”
November 22, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. The year 2013 will also be remembered by many as the 50th anniversary of a crucial turning point in the Civil Rights Movement: the year of the bloody “Birmingham Campaign” that included the amazingly courageous (and widely televised) “Children’s Crusade,” the bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church that took the lives of four little African-American girls, and Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
The issue of civil rights is, of course, intimately connected not only with the life and death of Dr. King, but also with the other three assassinated leaders of the 1960’s. Just five months before he died, on June 11, 1963, President Kennedy delivered a passionate, nationally broadcast speech (a speech dubbed by some “the second Emancipation Proclamation”) that finally put him squarely behind immediate racial desegregation and full racial equality. Malcolm X, in the final year of his life, had begun to move toward an alliance with King in support of the Civil Rights Movement. And Robert Kennedy made justice and fairness for African-Americans and other minorities a cornerstone of his short-lived presidential campaign.
During the remainder of 2013, the media will be avidly looking back at these historical events—especially the assassination of JFK. For that reason, this year could be the best opportunity in our lifetimes (especially for those of us who were alive during the historic period of the 1960’s) to address our ongoing questions and concerns about the assassinations of all four leaders.
Taken together, the similarities of these four assassinations and the media focus on the JFK and civil rights anniversaries are likely to create a substantial wave of popular attention and reflection that can provide Project Unspeakable with a unique opportunity for national visibility, widespread participation, and unusual effectiveness.
However, it is important to note that we are not relying on the (corporate-owned-and-controlled) media to spread the word about this Project, but are instead going straight to local, grassroots groups and individuals around the country—working through personal contacts and internet communication to encourage people to organize readings and performances and thereby stimulate community-wide processes of reflection and questioning. This gives us confidence that the impact of Project Unspeakable will be able to survive the accelerated cycle of today’s “flash in the pan” media environment.
About the script
The script, which is in the process of being written, will include text, video, and music that can be produced very simply as a “living room” reading with or without video, as a “readers’ theater” presentation, or as a full-scale production with video and live music. While it will raise questions about the role of the national security apparatus of the U.S. government in each of these four assassinations, the purpose is not to present an airtight legal argument to prove the role of these players in any of the killings. Rather, our purpose is to leave the audience with a compelling desire to find out what really happened, and why; to reflect on the implications of what happened then for the problems and crises we face today; and to consider why it is that we, as individuals and a society, have become so tolerant of, so unwilling to look into or even speak about, “the Unspeakable.”
“The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie,
deliberate, contrived and dishonest,
but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”
–President John F. Kennedy
The script will lend itself to an energetic presentation, including excerpts from the speeches and writings of the four slain leaders, documentary footage, witness testimony which has been covered up or explained away, ignored evidence, poems and testimonials from trusted sources, and the political and spiritual elements that helped shape these leaders’ actions. A chronology of events will provide a skeletal structure to orient us in historical reality. The script will seek ways to sustain our inquiry with spirit, music, and humor.
Even though polls have consistently revealed that a majority of Americans have always believed that elements of the U.S. Government were responsible for some or all of these assassinations, we fully anticipate that some people’s initial reaction may well be: “Why dig up these old pieces of history? Okay, so the government was responsible. What does that have to do with the problems we’re faced with today? Isn’t this just a distraction?” These and similar questions will be deliberately raised, and addressed, as part of the Project script, building bridges between past, present, and future.
Finally, the script will make clear that these are not just stories that point to criminal actions on the part of “dark forces” within our government. Perhaps more importantly, they are inspiring accounts of human transformation, of human awakening, on the part of all four leaders—which was precisely what made them so “dangerous.” Believing that transformation is possible, for us as well as our leaders, can be a welcome source of hopefulness that is often sorely lacking in these difficult times.
Who might be interested in becoming Project Unspeakable “partners”?
It is our hope that…
…activists who have been inspired for a lifetime by these four important figures will be motivated to get involved and also to reach out to those in their extended communities, including but not limited to faith communities and social change groups interested in promoting democracy, resisting corporate abuse, or addressing other situations of violence, injustice, poverty, or environmental collapse…
…the children and grandchildren of those boomers will be inspired by the active participation of their family members and will join them in their efforts…
…young people in general, seeking to make sense of their country’s history and their place in the world, will want to participate…
…theater and community performance groups will be inspired to use their artistic talents and training to become part of this exciting theatrical event, and…
…historians, college professors, and African American Studies departments will take advantage of the opportunity to encourage their students to get involved in this historic reflection.
The fact of many groups of people simultaneously doing these Project Unspeakable readings and performances on November 22nd (or on January 20th or later dates) should make the Project additionally attractive to anyone considering getting involved.
Has this ever been done before?
The Laramie Project (based on a play about the gruesome 1998 murder of a University of Wyoming gay student in Laramie, Wyoming) and the Lysistrata Project (based on Aristophanes’ famous Greek play, Lysistrata, about women in Athens who refuse to have sex with their husbands until the men stop making war) are two recent examples of similar theater-based projects. Both “went viral,” were widely replicated within a short time frame, and sparked the type of community reflection and activism we seek through Project Unspeakable. The Lysistrata Project logged 1,029 readings internationally in 2003, just prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
A similar and even more successful example of this kind of project is Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, which has now been performed by theater, school, and community groups many thousands of times all over the world.
“By its very nature, live performance
fosters not only open communication, but
compassion…[and] emerging human truths….”
–from the Lysistrata Project website
How is the Project being organized and who’s already involved?
A Project Steering Committee has already been formed that includes widely respected actor, playwright, and musician Court Dorsey*, Project Unspeakable’s Director and chief scriptwriter; Doug Wilson, founder and longtime director of the Rowe Conference Center in Rowe, MA; Cheryl Fox, former co-director of The Mediation and Training Collaborative in Greenfield, MA; Karen Rehmus, 25-year event planner and fundraiser; and Randy Kehler, longtime progressive organizer and co-founder of the 1980’s Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign.
Working with Project Director Court Dorsey is an informal Script Committee comprised of other actors and playwrights, including Stephen Wangh, who co-wrote the script for the Laramie Project. In addition, a team of researchers and authors with special knowledge of one or more of the four 1960’s assassinations has been assembled to guide the Script Committee. James Douglass has agreed to be a key member of this team, along with Bill Strickland, Lisa Pease, James DiEugenio, John Schuchardt, and David Ratcliffe.
An Advisory Board is also in the process of formation and will include prominent individuals from around the country who have endorsed Project Unspeakable.
Paid staff, working on a full or part-time basis to coordinate the Project’s many volunteers and to keep the effort moving forward on schedule, will include, in addition to the Project Director, an Outreach Coordinator, and, as we get closer to the Fall of 2013, a Publicity Coordinator and an Administrative Coordinator.
What financial resources are needed?
At this point, the total cost of the Project—including staffing, materials, publicity, etc.—is estimated to be at least $75,000-$100,000. While we are confident that sufficient funds can be raised, if that turns out not to be the case, it will be possible to scale back some parts of the plan—for example, technical support to local venues or a full-scale emphasis on local educational work preceding and/or following the actual theater event. However, even if it is necessary to scale back some aspects of the Project due to fewer resources, simply having hundreds of readings and performances in hundreds of locations will be considered a great success. And who knows what exciting developments might flow spontaneously from such a success?
Those wishing to support the Project financially and who wish their contributions to be tax-deductible are asked to make out checks to “Pilgrim Theater, Inc.” (Project Unspeakable’s 501.c.3 fiscal sponsor), with “Project Unspeakable” in the memo line, and to mail them to:
c/o Debbie Lynangale, Treasurer
121 Montague Road
Wendell, MA 01379
For more information
Please email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
or call Karen Rehmus at: (413) 624-3025
*Court Dorsey, the Project’s Director and chief scriptwriter, is a resident of Western Massachusetts and an associate artist with the Pilgrim Theater Collaborative, a resident company of the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA). He has been a longtime collaborator with Wendy Woodson and Present Company, Inc. (Amherst, MA), including their award-winning solo “movement theater” work, Dudes in Suits, performed at Jacob’s Pillow, Dance Place in Washington DC, BACA Downtown in NYC, and Emerson Majestic Theater in Boston. He has written, acted in, or directed plays with over 30 performance ensembles, including The Talking Band (NYC), Serious Play Theater Ensemble (Northampton, MA), The Performance Project (Northampton, MA), Underground Railway Theater (Boston), Impact Theater (NYC), the Ko Festival of Performance at Amherst (MA), and the national touring group, Bright Morning Star. He is a frequent guest artist at Amherst College, and has been Artistic Director at the Maezumi Institute for Zen Studies (Montague, MA), and a guest lecturer at the Kahn Institute and School of Education at Smith College. Court is also a mediator, facilitator, circle keeper, and conflict resolution trainer who has developed Conflict Resolution Theater, a process he uses in many settings, especially with young people.