“My function is not to represent the darlings of society, but to represent the damned.” Willliam Kunstler
William Kunstler (1919-1995) was a radically liberal lawyer with politically unpopular clients. Once a Westchester “parlor liberal,” he began by helping a local black family in a housing discrimination case, got involved with the ACLU, and found himself in Jackson, Mississippi representing 400 Freedom Riders. It was here, blatant bigotry and injustice lit a fire under the practitioner.
“In the 1960s, there were two major causes, the Vietnam War and the 1968 election.” When the Berrigan brothers protested against the former, Kunstler acted as defense. When demonstration leaders were arrested at Chicago’s Democratic Convention, Kunstler was called to the front. It was his representation (with Leonard Weinglass) of the infamous Chicago Seven that brought the advocate to national prominence. There were initially eight, but having vociferously demanded to represent himself, Bobby Seale was literally gagged and shackled in court. Kunstler, finding it “impossible to continue with a black man in chains,” saw to it The Black Panther’s trial was separate.
The Catonsville Nine, Black Panther Party, the Weather Underground Organization, Attica Prison rioters, and the American Indian Movement kept him in public view. Less favorable publicity dogged clients including, in part, the daughter of Malcom X-accused of plotting an assassination, the head of the Egyptian-based terrorist group responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and members of The Gambino crime family. The play doesn’t address these.
It’s 1995. William Kunstler (Jeff McCarthy) has been invited to speak to law students at an unnamed college. We hear protesters outside. A dummy has been hung in effigy. The guest’s ambivalent student handler, Kerry (Nambi E. Kelley), anxiously tries to get rid of it. She needn’t worry. Kunstler has a sense of stoic humor about the world’s reactions to his unswerving principles. Acknowledging awareness of objections while advising attendees to read the incendiary flyers and make up their own minds, he starts with several lawyer jokes: “What do you call a lawyer gone bad? A senator.”
Playwright Jeffrey Sweet’s portrait of Kunstler is as entertaining as it is riveting. The civil rights crusader was whip smart, passionate, caustic, and very much a showman, avowedly in the service of clients. His reputation for handling the press, shouting matches and humor in court is ably depicted by monologue that reflects these characteristics. Various cases/trials are related in the first person with illuminating details and personal observations. All are comprehensible. If you lived through these times, recognition is swift. If unfamiliar, situations are chronicled in such a way it’s difficult to imagine being unaffected.
This Kunstler rants, sings, quotes, enacts, and conscripts Kerry into playing the Chicago judge “who looked like Elmer Fudd” in excerpts of court transcript. His legal approach indicates “I don’t believe in putting process above people” might have been the defender’s motto. Kelly’s presence is unnecessary, though she offers another voice and later foil/questioning reaction.
Jeff McCarthy lopes down the aisle, white mane in permanent flight. Inhabiting Kunstler like second skin, the actor delivers tirades as credibly as ba-dump-dump jokes. He addresses the audience with focus and provocation, visibly thinks, and occasionally (purposefully) loses track swept up in recollection. McCarthy is all over the stage without a false move. We attend, laugh, and cringe.
Nambi E. Kelley does a yeoman like job showing curious passivity when listening to the controversial presentation. She fares better when playing the judge.
Director Meagen Fay gives us a living breathing man, humanity and idiosyncrasies intact. Stage business is subtle, pacing is pitch perfect.
I found the use of Original Music & Sound Design by Will Severin intrusive and distracting except for outside protestors.
A documentary about Kunstler by his children entitled William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, had a screening as part of the Documentary Competition of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
Photos by Heidi Bohnenkamp
Opening: Kunstler’s image of Roy Cohn
Jeff McCarthy in Kunstler
Written by Jeffrey Sweet
Directed by Meagen Fay
59East 59 Theaters
58 East 59th Street
Through March 12, 2017
February 28 – Ronald L. Kuby, Esq., former intern and informal partner in William Kunstler’s Firm.
March 2 – Elizabeth McAlister Berrigan, wife of the late Philip Berrigan. She and the Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip were incarcerated for their actions of peaceful protest against the Vietnam War at Catonsville and Harrisburg.
March 7 – Sarah and Emily Kunstler, daughters of William Kunstler and co-founders of Off Center Media, a production company that produces documentaries exposing injustice in the criminal justice system.
March 9 – Vincent Warren, Executive Director, Center for Constitutional Rights.