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Theater Review: Sacco and Vanzetti “A Long Shadow” by August Nigro

Theater Review: Sacco and Vanzetti “A Long Shadow” by August Nigro

Jerry Krase (November 8, 2018)
Italian American Theater of Chicago
Playbill "A Long Shadow" by August Nigro directed by Nancy Greco.

This review is not about the disputed facts or “alternative” facts about the case that tainted the reputation of the American “justice” system in the 1920s and beyond. Rather, it is about the powerful emotions that filled, and then overflowed from, the stage during the tour de force. As did the lives and deaths by electrocution of Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, their actual and truthfully imagined words uttered by their avatars cast a long shadow beyond the present.


As an Emeritus Professor, one of things I dread the most in the world of academe is attending conferences.

The only thing worse than listening to the boring presentations of others, most of whom are seeking a job, tenure, promotion, or scholarly stardom, is inflicting one of your own on Them. Unfortunately, to stay in the more and less scholarly game inflict I must, and inflict I did. Thankfully, the program of the Italian American Studies Association 51stAnnual Conference held at the University of Illinois at Chicago on Friday, October 19, was blessed with an invitation to attendees of IASA to be emotionally and intellectually overwhelmed by a staged reading of “A Long Shadow,” powerfully written by August Nigro, and superbly directed by Nancy Greco, of the Italian American Theater of Chicago. 

This review is not about the disputed facts or “alternative” facts about the case that tainted the reputation of the American “justice” system in the 1920s and beyond. Rather, it is about the powerful emotions that filled, and then overflowed from, thestage during the tour de froce. As did the lives and deaths by electrocution of Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, their actual and truthfully imagined words uttered by their avatars cast a long shadow beyond the present. Those passionate complaints and prayers by two ordinary yet heroic, human beings impatiently awaiting their 1927 execution could just as easily be spoken about the judicial injustices that swirl around us in America today. Unfortunately for today’s public, bigotry and programed misinformation is more deftly manipulated and magnified via electronically-enhanced mass media, such as cable television, and social networking. From top to bottom, too many leaders, as well as followers, have become mere minions consuming and regurgitating orange-topped twitter feeds. 

In “A Long Shadow,” the restless souls of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were convincingly represented in voicing and appearance by Antonio Brunetti and David Krajecki. During the staging, Nicolo and Bartolomeo sat, or stood, before individual black metal music stands upon which they placed their sacred scripts.  The space between them, also contained a music stand, and was filled as needed by the supporting characters, all of whom sat in a row behind them patiently waiting for their turn to move forward. In many ways the readings reminded me of Greek chorus of strophes, antistrophes, and epodes. They followed the kind of cadence I recall from reading aloud Pietro Di Donato’s Christ in Concrete(1939) who also mimicked Greek dramatists. While captured by the rhythm, I recognized at least two Jesuses, several Pontius Pilates, and one Mary on stage. We, the audience, simulated the crowd gathered on Golgotha. My own emotions, and most of the other jurists in the audience, alternated with the voices, facial expressions, outfits, and gestures of each speaker. Surges of righteous anger rose and fell. For manly me, sadness meant trying to hide my occasional tears, and inadequately hushed responses as Nico and Barto matter-of-factly spoke, and sometimes joked, about their dissipating mortal life without recognizing the advent of their immortality. On occasion, my sorrow and anger were relieved by laughter in response to the ironic gallows humor coming from the especially sharp sardonic tongue of “Barto.” Until his final, most powerful oration, Nico remained relatively quiet having years ago given up any hope for justice despite the pokes and prods by Barto and a troupe of more and less competent, or honest, lawyers, judges, and politicians who represented allusions of  “hope.” At the end of the reading, when the lights flickered and then dimmed, we The Crowd felt the dread, indeed the remorse, of our own complicity in this singular as well as too many other injustices – then and now. For those who continue to go to church, even without believing, it was much like a reading of the Passion. 

After a pause to catch ourselves, a well-deserved standing ovation followed. As opposed to listening to paper presentations, the time went quickly. I spoke with the director and some of the cast after the performance and wormed my way into dinner hosted by the Director. Frankly speaking, it was a superb performance that I recommend to anyone who wants, or needs to, have their emotions and intellects challenged.


Allow me to present some words about the Italian American Theater of Chicago from their website.


As Italian Americans have taken their place in the mainstream and even at the forefront of society, many of their children no longer identify as “Italian.” It is imperative that we offer future generations an inviting and engaging way to understand and remember “where they come from.” 

It is also critical for us as an ethnic group to embrace and celebrate the riches of our past, but also to use its gifts and lessons to enrich our community and the world. No longer “the struggling masses yearning to be free,” Italian Americans are now in the privileged position of extending welcome and leadership. 

The Italian American Theatre of Chicago (IATC) will strive to preserve, examine, and celebrate the Italian American experience into the 21st century. Relying on the power of drama and its primal force in a world of virtual connection, the IATC will encourage the writing, production and reading of works that deal with the Italian American experience in its many forms and expressions. The IATC was founded and is currently led by Executive Director Cathy Zachar Sweitzer to whom we should be eternally grateful for the excellence of its timely and timeless productions.

One review of “A Long Shadow” that I read referred to Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzettias “dead men talking.” For me they are still very much alive.


The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti

Nicola Sacco was a shoemaker and Bartolomeo Vanzetti peddled fish. Both were Italian-born immigrants, and anarchists. To many, in 1927, they were falsely convicted of the murder of Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardellithat took place during a 1920 payroll robbery at the Salter and Morrill Shoe Company in Braintree, Massachusetts. Many contemporary, and most current, students of their long trial, eventual conviction, and subsequent electrocution agree that the ordeal was fueled by anti-Italian, anti-immigrant, and anti-leftist biases. Among the many well-established facts that ought to have resulted in a verdict of not guilty, a reversal, commutation of sentence, or at least a re-trial, were recanted testimony, conflicting ballistic evidence, the jury foreman’s prejudicial pre-trial remarks, and an exculpatory confession by a participant in the robbery. In the process of their, sometimes incompetent defense, they became national and global poster boys for all sorts of pro- and anti-movements that, in my opinion, gradually increased the reluctance of their accusers to give them justice. Massive demonstrations in their support grew while their unsuccessful appeals slowly progressed, and riots around the globe broke out after their state-sponsored murder. 


Among the many well-knowns who championed them were John dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and H.G. Wells. Perversely it seems, according to my old friend and colleague the late Distinguished Professor of Italian American Studies at the City University of New York Philip Cannistraro, Benito Mussolini secretly conveyed his sentiments about the case to the Massachusetts Governor asking for a clemency in 1927. 

My opinion is that the governor could commute the sentence and release our nationals from the terrible circumstance in which they have languished for so many years. While I do not believe that clemency would mean a victory for the subversives, it is certain that the execution of Sacco-Vanzetti would provide the pretext for a vast and continuous subversive agitation throughout the  world. The Fascist government, which is strongly authoritarian and does not give quarter to the bolsheviks, very often employs clemency in individual cases. The governor of Massachusetts should not lose the opportunity for a humanitarian act whose repercussions would be especially positive in Italy. 

In 1977, on the 50thanniversary of their deaths, Michael Dukakis, Governor of Massachusetts, issued a proclamation, in English and Italian, that Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were unfairly tried and convicted and "any disgrace should be forever removed from their names." A pardon was not given, as that would imply their guilt. 

I began writing this review during the aftermath of the racist and anti-Semitic murders that took place in just two short days. Eleven in a Pittsburgh synagogue and two in a supermarket in Louisville. They were prompted by the hateful, right-wing, fascist,  bigoted, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic messages that were filling the air waves across America, initiated and encouraged by the mindless twit in the White House. My writing continued through Election Day with a terrible sense that victory would not be ours, again, as the dirtiest, nastiest, most racist, political campaign I have ever known consumed the airways and the Electronic Highway. I finished the review after the election, being pleasantly surprised by a less than resounding, but solid, victory of sanity over absurdity in the choice of Democratic Party members to the United States of America’s House of Representatives. 


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