Joyce Antler's class writes its own 'History as Theater'

Students investigated antiwar radicalism at Brandeis and wrote a play about it

Students in Joyce Antler's class 'History as Theater' read from their play "When Rebellion Becomes Revolution."

“Stunning!” “Spectacular!” “Truly emotional and intellectual” were just a few of the responses from audience members following the dramatic reading of “When Rebellion Becomes Revolution: A Play of Protest, Murder, Denial and Atonement,” developed throughout the fall semester as part of Professor Joyce Antler’s American Studies course, “History as Theater.”

For 12 weeks, the eight students in the course investigated events at Brandeis in 1970 that led to the involvement of students Susan Saxe and Kathy Power in the robbing of the State Street Bank in Brighton, Mass., and the shooting death of Police Officer Walter Schroeder. Both women were on the FBI’s most wanted list in the 1970s; Saxe was captured and served seven years in prison, but Power remained at large until she surrendered in the early 1990s.

“Saxe and Power were part of a wider group of Brandeis students who passionately opposed the Vietnam War and other government actions," says Professor Antler, Samuel Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture and Head of the Division of Social Sciences. "As the coordinating body of the National Strike Information Center, Brandeis played a special role in student activism. Unlike other Brandeis radical activists, Saxe and Power…resorted to violence."

This issue of the shift from protest to violence is at the heart of the play itself, stimulating the students to examine the changing meanings of social justice. As Paige Lurie ’15 says in the play’s epilogue, a reflection on the students’ experience in researching and writing the play, “At the start of the semester, I had a very analytical definition about what social justice was. After learning about Power and Saxe I realized social justice is a personal thing—successful or not it cannot be limited by an outsider’s perspective. Even if I would never rob a bank to stop a war— and even though I still don’t believe these students went around it the right way— it doesn’t mean they weren’t advocates for social justice.”   

In the April 25 performance at the International Lounge, students acted as characters, with the dramatic reading a simple, streamlined affair. Student actors sat in chairs in the front, facing the audience, and each actor performed eight to 10 different roles, ranging from Kathy Power, the Brandeis student who drove the getaway car for the bank robbery, to Nancy Gertner, Susan Saxe’s lawyer and now-retired United States federal judge. Power was in the audience, as were several others portrayed on stage, including Sociology Professor Gordie Fellman and Barry Elkin ’71, who was president of the Student Council and head of the National Strike Information Center.

In the process of researching the play, Antler and her students found many connections in the current Brandeis community that stretch back 40 years, from professors who were directly involved in the 1970 case to staff members who lived in the neighborhood where the Schroeder family resided. Because of the vortex of protest activity covered in the play, the possibility of connections between students of the late 1960s and early 1970s and today’s student-based movements have also been raised.

Sharon Feiman Nemser, director of the Mandel Center for Jewish Education at Brandeis, commented on the relationship between the two in her reaction to the performance.

“It needs to be part of the Brandeis legacy but also the legacy of the student protest movement and beyond," Nemser says. "I think it would be moving and instructive to students involved in the Occupy movement."

Audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive. 

“What a powerful way to engage students with primary sources and how historians use them to construct narratives–which, if they are to engage readers, must have some kind of dramatic arc,” declared Gail Reimer, director of the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Scott Edmiston, director of the Office of the Arts at Brandeis, found the performance “so moving and meaningful. I would love to see the students more engaged with this work. Bravo!”  

This theme of restaging and repeat performance was echoed by UMass-Boston History Department Chair Roberta Wollons, who told Antler, “I hope you will hold on to this work and consider presenting it again and again, maybe each time given over to the vision of different directors or acting ensembles…It was an amazing accomplishment.”

As the course is one semester and time-limited, Antler noted that “it was a credit to the students’ commitment and imagination that they managed to fully research the play and collaboratively author this powerful documentary text.” She added that there will be a fully-sourced written script, and that the students on campus next year would love to offer it again to the entire campus. Some audience members have urged her to create performances where faculty can play some of the characters, and to form a traveling company to take the play to the state prison in Framingham and other venues.

“Maybe,” she says, smiling. “It’s enough for now that we have created an exciting play about such an important topic, and that the students learned so much about theater and history—and about ethical and moral issues and issues of social justice–that proved so relevant to their own lives.”

Melanie Zoltan is the academic administrator for American Studies, Journalism and the Division of Social Sciences.

Categories: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Student Life

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