When most people find an injustice that strikes at the very heart of their sense of right and wrong they sign a petition, join a group, march in the streets, maybe raise some money. When Norman Morrison felt that same kind of outrage at the Vietnam War, the young father and Quaker drove to the Pentagon with his infant daughter, a jug of kerosene and a box of matches. Standing below the office of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara he set himself on fire in a last act of protest against the horrors of war. Inevitably reactions were mixed, some hailing Norman as an American martyr, others questioning his mental health.
Horseshoes and Hand Grenades theatre has brought the story of Norman Morrison’s martyrdom and legacy in Re: Union, an electrifying production now playing as part of the Magnetic North theatre festival. Re: Union follows Norman on the path towards his extraordinary act of protest, and examines his legacy as his daughter Emily, and Robert McNamara meet thirty-six years later in the wake of 9/11. I met up with Re: Union’s writer and co-director Sean Devine and Brad Long, who plays Norman to learn more about the show and what they did to get inside the mind of a martyr.
Sean Devine, one of the artistic directors of Horseshoes and Hand Grenades wrote the script after discovering Norman’s story while researching mid-‘60s U.S. politics for another play he was writing. “I really discovered it by surprise but then I got totally pulled in by the story of a man who is a husband and a father who decided that his convictions were strong enough that he’d be willing to sacrifice and give away his family. I couldn’t even conceive of having that much conviction.” Sean tells me that as much as Re: Union is the story of one man and one act of protest, the intention is to inspire audiences to ask, “How much social accountability should I have? And how much should we as a group of citizens force upon ourselves in the face of bad things?”
Horseshoes and Hand Grenades is a company that produces social and politically activist theatre and has recently expanded into Ottawa after about ten years in Vancouver. On doing political theatre in Ottawa Sean says “we’re happy to find out that although there are tons and tons of great companies and great artists here, that specific niche didn’t seem to be. It was funny, to do political theatre in Vancouver you’re definitely preaching to the choir. You’re preaching less to the choir here because it’s a more conservative city but it also felt like here we’re kind of like Daniel in the lion’s den where the many forces and individuals that these plays are being critical of are a stone’s throw away.” Re: Union is their first production in Ottawa.
Opening night proved Re: Union to be a feat, turning a very serious, political and historical subject into a night of fast paced, exciting theatre. The script draws nuanced portraits of each character and their respective transformations spurred on by a powerful act of sacrifice. Rather than simply take sides and celebrate Norman as a hero while denigrating Robert McNamara, the script draws out the humanity of each character in all their strengths and failings. All three actors deliver truly impressive performances of demanding roles. A brilliant team of designers play an equally key role in telling the story with highly sophisticated, but even more importantly, well-integrated use of video, sound and lighting which make for a wholly immersive experience.
Below is an excerpt from my interview with Re: Union’s writer and co-director Sean Devine and Brad Long, who plays Norman
Apt613: What attracted you to this role?
Brad: It’s something that for me personally as an actor and a human being is very hard to wrap my mind around. Benjamin Franklin has a quote that I think about as a lens to Norman, “the way to see by faith is to close the eyes of reason.” And that is Norman Morrison. He’s someone whose faith has come to a point where it transcends reason and it transcends the reasonable to most of us. To commit an act of sacrifice that is so great I don’t think we can possibly understand – that’s a great challenge for an actor to try to climb.
Did you have to research the Quaker faith to try and get in the head of Norman and how did you do that?
Brad: I read as much as I could find about it but that’s just one aspect of how I related to Norman. I relate to Norman on a lot of other really tactile levels, the fact that we’re roughly the same age and we have the same job and we both have a young daughter. And all of these things have happened to me in the last couple of years. It’s all come together to make me reflect on where this person was in his life which is where I am in my life, to be able at that moment in your life to make that sacrifice.
Sean: I’ve got a moment like that. When Norman Morrison died, on that day when he brings his daughter to the Pentagon, his daughter was one year minus nine days. When we did the show in 2011, our first day of rehearsal, I’m going to rehearsal and something makes me think about it, my daughter on that day was one year minus nine days. Then the next time I looked at my daughter in the car I said ‘how the fuck do you put your daughter in a car at this age and she looks up at you with those eyes and drive to a place where she might die with you?’ And that really hit me. I’m not saying I judged the man but how do you do that?
Brad: it’s easy to say he’s crazy but I don’t think he’s crazy. I have a lot of empathy for him. But it’s a huge chasm of understanding still between us and I don’t know if anybody ever gets there.
Do you think the play has more resonance now that we’re going to war all over again?
Sean: It took me years to research this. I started researching it right after 9/11 when we were all like ‘what do we do?’ I put it on the back shelf. When it was finally getting going in 2009, 2010 I was sitting there saying there’s no resonance for this play, there’s no relevance. The world’s pretty okay. And then the Arab Spring happened and the Occupy movement happened. So it found a resonance. And I was wondering now four years later has it lost resonance or gained resonance and if your question is do I think it resonates today? I think so.
The play isn’t just about what do we do in the face of war? Which it is, but it’s also like how do we resist a government or an oppressive force that is not being as noble as they could and should be? In this play the lead protagonist goes off and criticizes the Patriot Act which was definitely resonant in 2001, kind of resonant in 2010 when we produced it. It’s ironic that today the Patriot Act has been dissolved but for Canadian audiences the American Patriot Act is our Bill C-51. So if I have a protagonist trying to really up somebody by saying ‘how can we stand and let our government do this to us and impose these restrictions on us, take away our civil liberties?, then there’s this resonance going on. When we did it in 2011 we’re like oh, we’re doing this play in Canada but it’s such an American story. Well I’m sorry but it’s unfortunately becoming more and more Canadian.
What do you hope audiences take from this and why is this play a must-see?
Brad: I think as a society we’re not used to seeing people take such drastic measures when they see an injustice in the world so I hope that sparks something in the audience that inspires them go home and make change.
Re: Union runs until June 9 as part of Canada’s Magnetic North Theatre festival at the Academic Hall on the University of Ottawa campus. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased here.