Production brings blacklisted writers to life
The American “red scare” and its impact on Hollywood in the 1940s and ’50s isn’t the kind of history often taught in school, but it’s a powerful lesson in everything from First Amendment rights to personal morality and dignity. “Trumbo: Red White & Blacklisted,” now playing at Denver’s Curious Theatre, is a play devoted to the topic through the real-life story of Dalton Trumbo, a Colorado native and Hollywood screenwriter who suffered greatly under the infamous “blacklist.”
“Trumbo” is essentially a forum for the recitation of some of Trumbo’s voluminous letters written during his years in the wilderness. Like many of the other hundreds of blacklisted writers, Trumbo refused to “name names” or recant his testimony regarding any association with the Communist Party to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He was thus compelled to use “fronts” to publish his work, ultimately seeing the front for his screenplay win an Academy Award for “The Brave One.” (Trumbo wrote dozens of others, including “Roman Holiday,” “Spartacus” and “Papillon.”)
In the Curious Theatre production, the cast is comprised simply of an actor portraying Trumbo and his son, who serves as narrator and foil (Christopher Trumbo himself wrote this play). Denver theater stalwart Jamie Horton – most often seen in Denver Center productions – kicked off the run Sept. 2 with a memorable performance that captured perfectly Trumbo’s combination of wit, intelligence, compassion and outrage. Three other actors, including John Ashton, Louis Schaefer and Marcus Waterman will take on the role for the course of the run, while a touring production slated for late fall will feature Christopher Trumbo in the role of his father (an appearance in Breckenridge is planned).
This is a tough play to sit through. There’s little interaction between Trumbo and the narrator, and the audience is asked to find the drama within the letters themselves as Trumbo reads them. It can be a hit-or-miss affair. Some, like a hilarious letter on the rigors of onanism to his son away at college, provide more than enough entertainment, while a pointed attack to the principal of the school – where his young daughter is being persecuted because of her father’s past – demonstrate fully how the blacklist impacted whole families. Others, because of their high literary style and complex thoughts, don’t lend themselves so readily to oration, and “Trumbo” dragged in these places despite Horton’s best efforts.
Even so, theater-goers will find some poignant parallels between the fear-mongering of Trumbo’s time and the atmosphere of today’s America. Ultimately, “Trumbo” speaks to the need to uphold American ideals while also being true to oneself, and it is ultimately a portrait of a great patriot and WWII veteran who never gave up on his country regardless of how poorly it treated him.
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