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Generational Saga: From Panthers to Occupiers

Ed Rampell: Perhaps in the hands of a less talented dramatist, Unbound would have wound up merely being just another romantic comedy. But Watson has something deeper up his sleeve than merely wearing, like Othello, his heart upon it.

Chris Gardner and Laila Ayad (Photo: Dean Cechvala)

UNBOUND Theatre Review

Playwright D.G. Watson’s Unbound proves that the old cliché “politics makes strange bedfellows” is true. The two act play opens with what could be a typical Tinseltown-type “cute meet”: Under mysterious circumstances an interracial 20-something couple clad only in their undies wakes up in bed next to one another in a posh hotel room where they’ve apparently spent the night together. However, Michael (Chris Gardner, whose TV credits include Oz) and Kate (Laila Ayad, who acted Off-Broadway in Shiner and has a recurring role as aide Charlotte Reid on one of my favorite TV series, Scandal) haven’t the slightest idea how they wound up together at a glitzy tourist destination, where radical slogans have somehow been spray-painted onto their hotel wall.

Inquiring minds want to know! Not least, their own noggins, as Michael and Kate try to put the pieces of the puzzle together as to how they met, et al. For the first 15 or so minutes it seems that Unbound is a sort of romcom. The opening night audience chuckled as Michael and Kate groped (apologies to Donald Trump who has trademarked the practice) their ways to some sort of understanding. Can you say, “Kiss me Kate”?

Perhaps in the hands of a less talented dramatist, Unbound would have wound up merely being just another romantic comedy. But Watson has something deeper up his sleeve than merely wearing, like Othello, his heart upon it. For just as Shakespeare’s Moor goes on to say “I am not what I am,”in Act I, Scene 1, Michael and Kate are not who they appear to be. The gifted Watson has something more profoundly meaningful on his mind as he proceeds to take the aud on a rollercoaster ride with more hairpin twists and turns than the road to Hana, Maui.

Perhaps in the hands of a less talented dramatist, Unbound would have wound up merely being just another romantic comedy. But Watson has something deeper up his sleeve than merely wearing, like Othello, his heart upon it.

It turns out that both Michael and Kate are involved in the Occupy Movement and have fled the Occupy LA encampment in front of City Hill, as swarms of LAPD pigs raided the protest site in November, 2011. However, precisely how they ended up two-gether in a touristic holiday getaway remains a mystery, as does exactly what did happen when they hit the sheets.

But the dramatically “devious” Watson has even more tricks in store for us up his theatrical sleeve, for Michael and Kate are no run-of-the-mill Occupiers denouncing the one-percenters while camping out in front of the mayor’s office. As the characters reveal, Michael has been instrumental in freeing Ellis Clay (Ellis Williams) who - like Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali and Huey Newton before him - was a Black militant imprisoned by whitey. However, unlike both Ali and Huey, Ellis - who was a card carrying member of the Black Panther Party, which Huey was Minister of Defense of - languished behind bars for 36 years, mostly in solitary confinement, until Michael and his mother’s campaign liberated him.

Upon being released from the hole, Michael and Ellis tour Occupy “liberated zones” across America in a drive to resurrect the Panthers. In the process, Michael is shooting a documentary about their crusade on his digital camera - the fact he’s a filmmaker is a crucial plot point.

Not to be outdone by her proletarian if petulant Petruchio, Kate has her own startling back story: Her mother Dana (veteran actress Gates McFadden, whose credits include four Star Trek features as Dr. Beverly Crusher) is a U.S. Senator so rabidly rightwing that Kate describes her as making Congresswoman Michele Bachmann look sane in comparison. As the 2012 presidential race heats up, Dana is about to toss her hat into the ring. As a Tea Party candidate slightly to the right of Attila the Hun, Dana is a firebreathing alt right alternative to the more tepidly conservative Mitt Romney.

But our man Watson isn’t content with this bombshell - he has to toss the proverbial kitchen sink into the combustible mix to blow it up: Namely, the role Dana played in busting Ellis and sending him to the big house back in the 1970s. So Kate is driven to defend and prove her radical street cred. She is far more than just a shrill “shrew” to be “tamed” by a macho Michael as the story spirals out of the characters’ control, as Act I ends up being closer to LeRoi Jones’ (Amiri Baraka) visceral 1964 drama Dutchman - about race, sex and violence - than some sort of When Harry Met Sally silly romp.

When the proverbial curtain lifts for the second act, the older generation of extremists enter the stage to clean up the mess created by the young ’uns. Dana’s White House ambitions depend upon a cover up that would have given Tricky Dick the smile of the day and the Caucasian conservative icon offers an unholy alliance to Ellis, whom she had put behind bars more than a third of a century ago.

Williams - a stage stalwart who has performed from the Great White Way to the West Coast, where he won an L.A. Ovation Award for Distant Fires and was NAACP Image Award-nommed for Blade to the Heat - invests Ellis with a proud dignity. But battered by a life spent in the slammer and confounded by the brave new world he’s encountered beyond the prison walls, Ellis’ façade quickly crumbles.

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Laila Ayad and Chris Gardner

However, Ellis does give a fine speech about the accomplishments of the Black Panther Party, highlighted by their free Breakfast for Children Program, which in 1969 fed 20,000 poor children, prompting J. Edgar Hoover to oink in a confidential memo that the BCP “is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.” Although Watson doesn’t turn a blind eye to alleged criminal activities by some Panthers, on the occasion of this vanguard party’s 50th anniversary the playwright serves the United States of Amnesia well by reminding us not only of the Panther’s militant bravado, but also of their “serve the people” credo which, on June 15, 1969, led Hoover to oink, “the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country.” (This, by the way, is a textbook example of what Sigmund Freud meant by “projection.”)

Deploying informers like Unbound’s Dana, the CoIntelPro counterinsurgency program against “subversives” ensnared militants (like Ellis) in its net. As people scratch their heads over FBI porker-in-chief James Comey’s intervention into the presidential election, Unbound reminds us that far from being by a high-minded professional organization of law enforcers, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its antecedents have been, since before even the anti-radical post-World War I Palmer Raids, America’s top secret police organization persecuting dissenters, such as Martin Luther King. And in pondering Comey’s intrusion into the electoral arena, Americans should remember that “Deep Throat” - Bob Woodward’s main informant during the Watergate exposes that toppled Nixon - was FBI Associate Director Mark Felt, who was also implicated in the tainted investigation of the Weather Undergound. America may not be a banana republic, but it is a banana democracy clearly going bananas.

Meanwhile, back at the review:

In addition to ’60s/’70s and (almost) contemporary lefty politics, Unbound depicts partial nudity, sexual violence, explicit language, the role video of an event can play (and be played), violence, alcohol and other substances, lynching and more. Some of it is pretty graphic (this show is definitely not for the kiddies), while other aspects may be metaphorical in a magical realist or Bunuelian way (especially the grand finale). Unbound raises some unsettling, perplexing questions:

Was Michael and Kate’s hooking up random, due to a deliberate plan - or, as in Greek tragedies, predestined by the fates? Is there a sexual frisson between those old sworn enemies, Dana and Ellis? Is the relationship between the older Ellis and Michael a commentary on African American father-son interactions? What does it mean to be a socially committed individual and how are they supposed to truly treat others?


Ellis E. Williams and Gates McFadden

Watson is a NYU Tisch School of the Arts grad who has already written several plays, as well as for the Emmy-nominated Disney series Johnny and the Sprites. Combined with wild political insights about the nature of sex, race and power Watson proves he is a playwright with promise as he plumbs the depths of profound issues while taking us along on a riveting ride with unexpected switchbacks. Perhaps Watson is on his way to becoming our African American Aeschylus. While his dialogue can be sharp about 10 minutes of talking could be cut from each act.

Se Oh’s set captures the ambiance of an upscale hotel. Ahmed Best’s fight choreography renders a realistic, gritty experience. The sound design by Dalmar Montgomery is interesting; during the intermission, appropriate recorded songs were played, including “Ohio” - Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s response to the 1970 shootings of students at Kent State by National Guardsmen, with the haunting refrain “Four Dead in Ohio” - and Gil Scott-Herron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

Although judging by this drama, the revolution will be staged by live theater. Jennifer Chambers’ direction of her ensemble of actors has made her Prometheans Unbound in a thought provoking world premiere about what actually makes America tick.

IAMA Theatre Company’s production of Unbound is being performed on Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 7:00 p.m. through Nov. 27 at the Hudson Backstage Theatre, The Hudson Theatres, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90038, at Theatre Row. For tickets: Call (323)960- 7784 or see

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell