The Trial of the Catonsville Nine: The Play Again

On May 17, 1968, during the height of the Vietnam War–and of the antiwar movement–nine people, including two priests and a former nun, broke into a suburban Baltimore draft board (in Catonsville, Maryland), and burned several hundred files with home-made napalm. The protesters, including their leader, Father Daniel Berrigan, were arrested and put on trial, an event that was a media sensation in which the defendants were dubbed “the Catonsville Nine.”

Daniel Berrigan went on to write “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, ” a play based on the bombastic trail’s goings on. It premiered in 1971 in Los Angeles. Since then, the play has had several incarnations. The latest is a now-touring production by the non-profit, politically oriented Actors’ Gang of Hollywood founded by, among others, the actor Tim Robbins.

The show features an ensemble cast going through their paces on a bare-bones, abstract courtroom set, behind which looms an American flag. “While one is humbled by the nine’s moral rigor, the play is more sermon than debate, ” Charlotte Stoudt wrote in her recent L.A. Times review . “The real drama lies in the conversion stories each defendant recounts — experiences after which they could not continue their lives as before. Bigotry in the South, bombing in Africa, murder in Guatemala: The Berrigans may have been on trial, but it’s the American government that is indicted here.”

The next gig for the play will be on September 12 at the Reston, Virginia, Community Center , followed by will two performances, September 17 and 18,   at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park . It then heads for Australia’s Brisbane Festival for three performances, September 24-27.

Several events, under the rubric of  “the Catonsville Nine Engagement Project, ” will take place in and around the U. of Maryland in conjunction with the play.  At 7:00 p.m. on Friday, September 18, for example, there will be a panel discussion at the Robert and Arlene Kogod Studio Theatre dealing with the university during the Vietnam War. Among other things, a student uprising shut down the school in 1970 following the incursion into Cambodia. The events are part of the U of M’s “Semester on Peace.”

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