Lucina looked out the loft windows; the weather report was wrong! It was a beautiful day. May day. They would perform Choice again, the ever-evolving Choice. Crowds of people would be in Central Park hungry for a play. With all those new green leaves making them feel good, they would breathe hope. The idea of Sam going into hiding and building an underground movement for peace might even strike a Republican onlooker as a possible way to go, on a day like this.
One more time she reviewed the ending they had come up with, the ending that was always changing. Sam still holds a gun in his hands to remind the audience that not only soldiers are expected to use guns in ‘Nam, but also American citizens are allowed guns to protect themselves. And of course the N.R.A. is a huge political force in this country. Our gun-obsessed, violent country! Lucina’s mind was racing: Who told me that group sometimes claims to be America’s longest-standing civil rights organization? That it was founded by religious leaders who wanted to protect freed slaves from the Ku Klux Klan? That’s baloney! Mainly the Right supports it and the Right doesn’t fight for civil rights. Confusing.
So, now Marin and the chorus make it clear that Sam will not use his gun to kill for his country. The song asks: “If Sam goes underground, will he carry a gun along? Or, will he put it down, use his body as a stronger, non-violent weapon?” Louis is so great at ending out play: “What choices does Sam have? What choices do each of us have to stop our government from waging war in Vietnam?” He transforms the play into a real-time dialogue with our audience.
By mid-morning Louis and Lucina, nervous sheep dogs, rounded up the others. “Time to get going! Several of us will have to carry Fire Dragon.”
Their Dragon, a twenty-foot long construction of papier maché and cloth over wire, which could be disassembled into sections for easy transport, would be used for the first time. A dynamite crowd gatherer. “We have to be mindful,” Louis counseled new recruits, Hugh, Courtney, Jack and Joan. “We want to attract, not frighten people; frightened people are unpredictable.” They would each carry a section of the dragon in large canvas bags. And Al would carry the red drum, Louis and Lucina the musical instruments. Marin, Hans and Jenny, the large plastic boxes holding their props and flyers.
Lucina, remembering Hugh from Tamborcini’s Breaking Out show, had given him a call to come to a workshop. “We’re adding live music to our images,’ she told him. He had come to an open workshop with his pal Courtney, both eager to join the troupe. Friends since attending High School of Music and Art, they had each gone to college for a couple of years, Hugh to Bennington, Courtney to Bard, when they decided to drop out of academia and drop back into the New York art scene. Courtney acted in Off-Off-Broadway shows and Hugh played jazz gigs in the Village. But they were eager to do something both creative and political.
Jack, brought in by Marin, was another welcome newcomer with his back ground in yoga, meditation, and mime. Lucina felt his training in self-awareness would balance the more “free-spirited” members. He asked if his girlfriend, Joan, trained in acting and meditation, could help them out at times as an extra or back-up.
While the others readied to leave, Hans, blond hair covering his shoulders like a shawl, leaned against the loft wall, smoking. He observed the scene as if a visitor instead of participant.
“Aren’t you psyched up yet, Hans?” Louis couldn’t hide a grimace: “We need you to carry props and flyers. And no, we will not shoot smoke out the dragon’s nostrils. Too many crazies ready to accuse us of arson already. We got to be mindful.” Why didn’t he trust him? The guy hovered, waiting for some opportunity, for what? To create tension and chaos. That’s what.
Lucina put a hand on Louis’ arm and pulled him toward her. His suspicion of Hans was no good. “How much money do you think we can pull in, Honey?” She gave him a quick kiss.
“We have to do six performances to bring in the three hundred bucks we need,” he answered quickly, still eyeing Hans, who stood in the doorway looking glum.
“You know, I have a weird feeling about today.” Jenny commented as she bent easily from the hips to pick up a prop box filled with small masks, crushed felt hats and flyers which she quickly handed over to Hans. “Maybe it’s my cramps. I can’t wait till we’re back at the loft, drinking beer and counting our coins, just like greedy capitalists.”
“Starvation vages I’d say?” Hans snorted his comment and cigarette smoke at Louis before bolting out the door with his load.
Louis sputtered back, “Asshole.” The jerk always had a bug up his ass.
Out on Spring Street now, they made last minute decisions. Should they wear their colorful bandanas and caps on the subway? Yes! Draw attention. Let New Yorkers know Fire Dragon Street Theater will perform that afternoon in Central Park. Marin has a few flyers to pass out on the train. They should tell people they’ll be performing on the stone area in front of the Tavern-on-the-Green between one and five o’clock. (They are hoping to pull in more upscale folk and bigger collections.)
In the crowded subway car, Al’s new ideas for the wrap-up were passed along. “When Sam contemplates the gun in his hands and just as the chorus finishes singing, before Louis opens up the discussion, that’s when we should work the audience. We can be chanting, ‘Help Us build a Movement to Stop the War.’ Maybe if people chant with us, they’ll be more generous with their handouts. What do you think? After that Louis can begin a dialogue with them.”
Their stage was set; instruments, props, colorful plastic boxes for actors to stand on, were all in place. Al started a rhythm on the wood block and tambourine while Lucina kept a slow steady beat on the red drum. Five actors prepared to slide into the dragon’s body. Hugh was about to whistle a playful march on the fife, which started the dragon circling snake-like to to draw a crowd to their impromptu stage. But wait! Who was that young man dressed in a clown suit hovering by Louis?
The clown whispered at Louis: “Watch out. There’s a turf war in the park today. Cops are beating sown on some hippies in Sheep’s Meadow right now?” Then the white-faced messenger, his bulbous red nose bobbing, fled into the crowd.
“Louis, what did that guy want?” Lucina cupped her question, guardedly, still beating on the drum.
“Okay, change of plans.” Louis motioned the others closer to him. “Don’t engage the audience. The fuzz are getting antsy. Do the play, pass the hats. Then snap, we do the show again. Understand?”
What did it mean? Never mind! Get ready, the dragon is gathering a crowd!
A blast on the shofar, a ra-ta-ta-ta-tat of drumbeats, and Hugh, Louis and Al chant in unison: “How many men? How many men, women and children have been killed today?” The play begins. As the chant continues, Marin and Jack start the first frieze. They pose as Sam’s Mom and Dad, mimicking Grant Wood’s couple in front of a farmhouse. Instead of pitchfork and broom, they clutch an American flag, a rifle and a giant photo of Sam, labeled, “Our Son.”
Sam (played today by newcomer, Courtney) enters the frieze, a rope tied around his waist. His mother (Marin) holds one end while Hans, masked as a Vietnamese woman, holds the other. Mother shows the back of her son’s photo, with the printed statement, “We hate Commies. Go ahead, President, kill those monsters.” Hans as the Vietnamese Woman, holds up a sign: “Two of my babies were killed today.” To complete the scene, essentially a stylized poster, Sam, resisting being pulled apart by Marin and Han’s characters, freezes in a pose of tortured anguish, but determined resistance.
Louis mounts his milk box and begins narrating: “As you know, American military forces are involved in a war today in South East Asia in a small country called Vietnam. Most of us never heard of this country, never said its name, until the summer of 1963, when our forces ….”
Lucina watches Louis, obviously proud of him. His golden bandanna and silvery cape turn his skin dark. My Sephardic Troubadour is Prince of the park today, she thinks.
“Many of us have friends, brothers, sons, relatives in Vietnam,” Louis continues. “We have serious questions about that war. Why are we there, killing the Vietnamese? Think about this question as we take you into the life of Sam, a twenty-one-year-old American who is about to receive his draft notice. Think with Sam. Is it really our war to fight?”
Lucina surveys the faces pressing in on them. Confusion, curiosity, even contempt flood into her. God, she prays, let them open up to us.
After another sound from the shofar and rapid drumbeats, Sam’s story is told in more detail with a progression of friezes and related narration, all accompanied by a slow pronounced drumbeat. By the final scene, the rhythm and loudness of the beat intensifies.
Gradually, the audience becomes attentive, even simpatico. By the time Marin and the chorus sing the last song, some onlookers begin crying out: “No, No, he won’t go!”
As Sam freezes into his final pose, that of the conscientious objector, Louis expresses each progressing decision made by Sam: “he will not go to prison” — “he will not commit suicide” — “he will go underground and work with other resistors”…. But why the sudden silence? The dramatic rhythm of the play has broken! The crowd is alerted: Something seems amiss. Sam breaking from his freeze is anxiously looking for something.
The actors are baffled, disturbed. Where is the gun? Where is Hans? Hans is supposed to hand it to Sam for the final image, followed by Louis’ ending narration.
There is no Hans. There is no gun. Courtney/Sam improvises, pretends the weapon’s shape and weight, caresses the stock, fingers the trigger. Louis too fills the sudden gap: “Is this really our war to fight? Think with Sam, what should he do? What is his choice? What is our choice?” Lucina follows up with a series of drumbeats, and then abruptly motions the actors to fan into the audience with hats to collect donations.
Spectators nearest the stage area back up suddenly as if to protect themselves. From what? The dragon! Someone is in the dragon, darting this way and that. But only the head is jutting about frenetically without its body.
Louis gestures sharply at the dragonhead coming toward him. Lucina hears him shout out, “What the hell are you doing, Man? Get the gun, Hans! Get out of that mask! The gun, Hans! Give Sam the gun!” His voice rising to a shout can be heard by the onlookers.
Hans is deaf. He is the dragon. He has his own agenda. He is bent on riling up the crowd.
The crowd, maybe to help the confused actors, or fired up by the frenzied circling of the dragonhead, begins to chant: “Hell No! We won’t go. No, No, No, Sam won’t go!”
Courtney/Sam, still holding the non-existent gun, but out of character now, looks imploringly at Louis for some direction.
Jarring, abrasive shouts erupt again from the spectators, this time from the stone steps leading to the roadway. Momentarily, two policemen, anger tightening every muscle in their faces, slash their way into the aroused mob and cut a path to the stage area.
One points at Louis: “That guy with the beard and cape!”
“Yah, the big mouth. Let’s get him”
Dragonhead Hans darts pell-mell into the melee.
The uniformed men tore Louis from his milk carton, ripped the silver cape from his back, and hurled it in Lucina’s direction. They grabbed his belt, dragged him through the jarred and by now baffled crowd and headed to the stone steps where their squad car, like a silent accomplice, waited. Not one spectator moved to stop the assault. Was this part of their play? Like that crazy dragon?
Lucina rushed at the attackers screaming: “Leave him alone! Pigs! Murderers!”
Al was behind her grabbing at her arms, trying to pull her back. “Lucina, stop it! They’ll get you, too!”
“Louis, Louis!” she shrieked out. “They are going to kill him!” She clawed at the one jabbing his stick into Louis’ ribs, as the other cop rammed him into the back of the squad car.
“Don’t you hurt him! I will kill you, monsters. I will kill!”
Al threw his arms about her, pulling her away from the moving car. Through the back window, Lucina could see the cop coming down on Louis again in the back seat. Now she knew what they were about! They were going to take him to a secluded spot in the park, beat him mercilessly and probably leave him there.
New rookie cops, Joe Petrocelli (born and raised in Brooklyn) and Tommy McVale (born and raised in Hoboken) took the “Jew Boy” to a small, secluded stone bridge in the park where they pulled him, handcuffed, out of the car. As Louis cried out, “You, Bastards,” and urinated uncontrollably, they slapped him against the trunk and beat down on his shoulders, his legs and his back with their clubs.
Joe Petrocelli only heard Louis cry with pain after he’d already gotten in four good blows with his Billy club. “To think my mother Tony’s fighting over there for scum like you,” he growled, clamped his teeth tighter, spat at the frightened man’s head and continued beating.
Tommy McVale saw the intense look in the Jew boy’s eyes. He noticed the large “Jewish” nose, the large, feeling eyes. He flashed on the unfairness of two armed men going after one man, alone, unarmed, but his hate was stronger than any compassion he might have drawn upon as it was hidden away, somewhere in the corner of his heart, and he too continued to beat down on the soft body.
Neither Joe Petrocelli or Tommy McVale considered for one second that the wounds they inflicted on Louis Altman that day would fester in his memory and smolder in his heart (one more instance of man’s inhumanity to man) long after the wounds had healed on his body. They did not know that their abuse would stay as a terrible humiliation for both himself and Lucina. (He had not fought back hard enough before they had handcuffed, beaten and insulted him, he told her. But No, Louis. It was she who had failed him. She had not beaten on their backs with enough force. She had not protected him!)
Lucina could not find the words to address the congregation who had stayed gathered at the Tavern on the Green, in confused witness to the attack on Louis. She saw them as mourners at a funeral. The cops had murdered her Louis.
But Al came through. He mounted Louis’ milk box and explained what had just taken place: “Right before your eyes, two New York City policemen dragged off Louis Altman, one of our actors, and probably right at this moment they are beating the hell out of him. Is this a real democracy? Is this a free country? I don’t think so. Where is there justice for Sam? Where is there justice for Louis? We have to pack up now and go find our brother….” He was off the milk box now, holding back sobs, holding himself together, imploring onlookers to serve as witnesses to the assault. Would they give him their names and phone numbers so that when this attack was brought up in court… “Yes, Fire Dragon Street Theater will take this to court! Justice for Louis will be carried out….” He could not continue.
Several went to him with their cards and avowals to show up in court and bear witness. One, dressed better than most, still looking ironed and unruffled handed his card to Lucina. He was a lawyer. He’d been eating lunch in the tavern and had come out when the shouts of the crowd stopped him from enjoying his food. “I’ve been wanting to get a hook in with you people. That war is crazy. This stuff with the police is even crazier. We’ve got to stop it.”
“Will you go with us — now — to look for Louis,” Lucina begged, clutching his arm.
“They probably are booking him in the park’s precinct right now,” he nodded grim-faced. “I’ve got a couple hours, let’s go.”
Lucina, Al and Joseph Solares, the lawyer, headed for the precinct while the other actors gathered up the props and instruments. All this time, a small group of young people huddled together. Holding hands, they rocked and chanted: “Tell Sam, We Won’t Go. No! No! No More War. We Won’t go. No!”