“Trial of the Catonsville Nine” Connects Past and Present

Alasdair Padman, Staff Reporter

Activist and poet Reverend Daniel Berrigan visited Whitman campus twice, once in the 1970s and again in the early 1980s. Each time, he directed a dramatic reading of “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.” Two years after his death, his political theater has returned to the Harper Joy Theatre under the direction of Jessica Cerullo, the Whitman Assistant Director of Theatre. The production ran from Thursday, March 1, to Sunday, March 4.

Patrick Henry, a friend of Daniel Berrigan and a retired Whitman professor of philosophy and literature, was amazed by the performance. He had attended three of Berrigian’s dramatic readings in the past, but was so enthused by Cerullo’s direction that he attended this adaption twice.

“[Before], all we had was a reading of the play,” Henry said. “Jessica’s version was brilliant and it was so powerful–it used the whole theater. It wasn’t even possible in listening to the readings to imagine the power of this production. I think it was just terrific.”

On May 17, 1968, nine Catholic anti-war activists removed 378 draft files from the draft board in Catonsville, Maryland. In the parking lot, they doused the papers in napalm and set them ablaze. While protest is protected under the Constitution, the nine were found guilty of destruction of U.S. property, destruction of Selective Service files and interference with the Selective Service Act of 1967. The play “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine” recalls their trial, written by Berrigan in free verse. History has remembered the Catonsville Nine as the Catonsville Two–Daniel and his brother, Philip Berrigan–while the others have faded out of memory.

In his letter to The Wire, Henry wrote, “The production gives equal billing to the forgotten Catonsville Seven. In the first act, among other strategies, slides depict images of the seven at the time of the trial. In the second act, all nine characters speak from the audience and from behind the audience so that we hear one collective voice of protest that doesn’t prioritize any single voice.”

While “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine” focuses on the court case of 1968, many of the phrases, images and sounds in the play are distinct reminders of our current political climate.

“Dan would have loved the play because at the same time that the production captures the mood of the time 50 years ago when the action of the play took place, it refuses to allow us to watch it solely as a phenomenon unraveling in the past,” Henry said. “From the very first song, ‘We Are Here,’ we are directly confronted with similar issues (poverty, racism, American imperialism) present in our contemporary world and forced to ask ourselves why we are not collectively protesting these same conditions in our world as the persons on stage are doing in theirs.”

The theater department chose to include protest songs of all eras in the production, none of which were written into the original play, to bridge the gap between the Nine and the protests that have spread across the United States.

“We’ve done some things with the play that you won’t find in the script, that is, we have paralleled a history of protest music alongside and on top of the play,” Cerullo said. “So there is a past and a present with our production where you can very much hear and see five people dressed in modern day clothes who are college students next to actor’s embodying historical figures in the play. You can see moments in the play when the Berrigans’ are talking about ‘the resisters’ and we show images not just of the resisters of the Vietnam War but of resisters pre and post-Vietnam. We have incorporated images as recent as the news last week with students in the wake of the Parkland shooting.”

Actress Emma Cooper portrays poet, activist and playwright Daniel Berrigan. She was also the dramaturge for “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.” She spoke about how the production brought her to a deeper understanding of political theater.

“This play really clarified for me what it meant to make political theater. It’s like, political theater is not meant to be safe,” Cooper said. “There’s this line between saying something and being respectful, and it’s a constant pushing and tension against what that line is. I guess, I had never been made uncomfortable in a way to where I had to think about: is this a message that I think is important enough for me to say? If I rustle some feathers on campus, what’s going to happen? That was something I’d never had to confront because the last show I did was a comedy.”

The Whitman production of “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine” succeeds not only in being a brilliant performance, but also in capturing the essence of protest in an era of unrest. Henry wrote, “I only wish that Dan would have been next to me in the theatre. He would have been as exhilarated and elated as I was.”