'Project Unspeakable' Asks The Big Questions

A group of people inspired by a book on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy are creating theater around the idea that his death could have been part of a conspiracy. And the questions don't stop there.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Last weekend, you couldn't escape the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But there's one group that is using that date as the beginning of a project, not the end. It's a theater piece called "Project Unspeakable." NPR's Margot Adler explains.

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: "Project Unspeakable" begins with a play.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERGENCES THEATRE COLLECTIVE "PROJECT UNSPEAKABLE" PLAY READING)

ERIN LAYTON: (As Tenay) I need someone to talk to. I can't sleep. It started with this one dream.

ADLER: The play involves the assassination of John F. Kennedy and other assassinations as well. It's being read and performed in living rooms and event spaces. This reading involved 12 actors in SoHo, most not alive when Kennedy was murdered.

LAYTON: (As Tenay) It started with this one dream. There were all these doctors and nurses huddled around a gurney, but the doctors and nurses were gagged, and they had their hands tied behind their backs. Then I realized I was at an autopsy because on the gurney was the dead body of the president.

ADLER: The play comes out of a book that was written more than four years ago by James Douglass, "JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why it Matters." Although the book is in the JFK assassination conspiracy tradition, it has a religious and pacifist sensibility. The book argues that John F. Kennedy was killed at a moment when he was profoundly turning toward peace, not dissimilar to the arguments in Robert Kennedy Jr.'s recent piece in Rolling Stone.

And while the book raises more questions than it answers, it argues that this turning angered cold warriors and the national security state, providing fertile ground for assassination. A group of people started organizing around this book. They commissioned a play.

COURT DORSEY: We're trying to raise questions.

ADLER: The playwright, Court Dorsey.

DORSEY: We're not trying to dot all the Is and cross all the Ts and try to prove that this and this and this and this happened.

ADLER: They had the idea their project could be something like Project Lysistrata. During the Iraq War, a group of women put on readings of Aristophanes ancient Greek comedy where women refuse to have sex with men until they end the Peloponnesian War. Dorsey says reading a play aloud is different from reading a book. A book is good for reflection, but not for community discussion and action.

DORSEY: But to have people read a play together where you have to become an active voice, where you give your voice to the voice of these historical people in a community of people who are encountering this material together.

ADLER: It's more empowering, he says. Some 20 readings and performances have already taken place from Georgia to Seattle. The play tells the story of the failed Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination. Except for the narrator and the woman who describes her dreams and emotions, most of the words come from historical documents or from people who were there.

There are surprising quotes - many you can look up - like former President Carter saying recently America does not have at the moment a functioning democracy. At one point, the play details a two-year private correspondence between Nikita Khrushchev and JFK before, during and after the Cuban missile crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "PROJECT UNSPEAKABLE")

BRENNAN PICKMAN-THOON: (As Nikita Khrushchev) I like to compare our situation with Noah's Ark, where both the clean and the unclean found sanctuary.

ADLER: The letters were released in 1993 after a Canadian newspaper's FOIA request.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "PROJECT UNSPEAKABLE")

PICKMAN-THOON: (As Nikita Khrushchev) But regardless who lists himself with the clean, and who is considered to be unclean, they are equally interested in one thing, and that is that the ark should successfully continue its cruise.

CHAD HOEPPNER: (As JFK) I like your analogy of Noah's Ark. I'm trying to penetrate our ideological differences in order to find some bridge across the gulf on which we could bring our minds together.

ADLER: There's a moment when JFK is asked if he could envision a coup, like in the 1962 novel "Seven Days in May." Yes, he said, if there were a second or third Bay of Pigs.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "PROJECT UNSPEAKABLE")

HOEPPNER: (As JFK) The reaction of the country would be, is he too young and inexperienced? The military would almost feel that it was their patriotic obligation to stand ready to preserve the integrity of the nation.

ADLER: After the reading, the actors were asked what they thought: Here are Chad Hoeppner and Kaleda Davis.

HOEPPNER: I found myself feeling, like, each quote, becoming more and more aghast that this actually happened and was said.

KALEDA DAVIS: Just the way that you can know and not know, the way you can believe something is true and convince yourself that it's not, because it's too horrible.

ADLER: Which brings us to that word: unspeakable. It comes from the Trappist Monk Thomas Merton. It's the place you don't want to go, the questions you don't want to ask. Author James Douglass described it this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

JAMES DOUGLASS: Merton described the unspeakable as 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.

ADLER: Former Unitarian minister Doug Wilson is one of the organizers of the project.

DOUG WILSON: Most people don't want to think about it.

ADLER: But he says a fair number have bought the book, read the play and are putting it on, like this group in SoHo.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "PROJECT UNSPEAKABLE")

LAYTON: (As Tenay) I water the plants and pay the bills. I say, how can I be sure? I don't have the time. There's nothing I can do. The world curdles. I look around at my friends. We try to smile, as we mutter the sweet phrases, the creed of a democracy we no longer believe in.

ADLER: "Project Unspeakable" plans events through the anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X in 2015 and perhaps beyond. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: