‘Convention’: Staging a 1944 Progressive-Moderate Slugfest

Danny Rocco's sprawling experimental history play proves that everything new is old again.

Kathleen Littlefield in a scene from "Convention" at Brooklyn’s Irondale Theatre. Photos: Ahron R. Foster.

Convention, by playwright Danny Rocco, is an “immersive political comedy” that takes place during the 1944 Democratic National Convention. You remember that one — where President Roosevelt’s fourth-term nomination was a foregone conclusion? Dramatically far more interesting, however, was the bare-knuckle political brawl that erupted regarding the nomination for Vice-President. In one corner: Henry A. Wallace, the current Vice-President as well as America’s foremost progressive, the champion of the common man, and “by far the most popular of the Democratic candidates” for the ticket’s second spot. In the other corner: bland, little-known Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman. This was the convention at which progressives felt they were on the cusp of positioning one of their own to be dying FDR’s likely successor, only to be thwarted by entrenched and corporatist interests. Does progressive vs. establishment seem remotely familiar to you?

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I should hope so. But the titanic drama of the 1944 Democratic Convention is largely not familiar to us at all. As Rocco told me, and as Oliver Stone’s Netflix documentary, Untold History of the United States, tells viewers of its second episode, Roosevelt would have kept Wallace on the ticket. Party bosses, despising Wallace’s progressivism, would not have it, and they told Roosevelt they would openly oppose Wallace’s renomination. Truman was picked by Roosevelt, more than anything else, to maintain party unity. (Does that rationale also sound familiar to you? I should hope so.)

On stage, as a guest production at the Irondale Center (85 S. Oxford St., Brooklyn), Rocco and his director, Shannon Fillion, are transcending the limitations of Stone’s selectively used, one-dimensional black-and-white footage by replicating both the feeling and the fact of the 1944 convention right on stage. (These theater artists have a thing for big: their production company is called Brontosaurus Haircut.) The achieve this requires a 42-actor ensemble and a script that runs to hundreds of pages.

Yet, the play runs a reasonable length. This is because Rocco has conceived Convention like a piece of orchestrated music: scenes of intra-party squabbling, backdoor deals and machinations, petty and legitimate grievances, power-hungry politicians and the demands of the grass-roots progressive faithful all happen, or seem to be happening, at once. You won’t — you can’t — catch every moment of every scene. But if you’re listening, you can hear the music of the words ebb, flow, crescendo and dissipate:

Convention runs through June 29 at Irondale Center. For tickets, click here.

The following is a lightly edited conversation between myself, Rocco, Fillion and producer Justin Brock Schantz.

In the shadows? Actor Michael Leon.

Leonard Jacobs: The idea behind this play is epic: to recreate, in a sense, a long-ago, largely forgotten yet eerily consequential Democratic convention. What’s the genesis of this?

Danny Rocco: The idea came from Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States. I’m a big Oliver Stone fan and I saw it on Netflix a few weeks after the 2016 election — I was in the mood for watching something about American history and putting things in perspective. The documentary isn’t really a documentary; it’s very much Stone’s portrait of history, and the second episode focuses, in part, on the 1944 convention. At the time, I also had a residency with the Atlantic Acting School; using their adult students that take classes there in the evenings, they wanted me to develop a play for the whole class — 20 or more people. Now, wouldn’t it be cool to create a play taking place at the convention itself? My mind buzzed with how — and I thought of Shannon to direct. I was really taken by Stone’s portrait of Henry Wallace: tragic, progressive hero; a hero completely slighted by corporate interests and moderate Democrats.

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LJ: Sounds like you’re drawing comparisons to something, say, more recent — but subtly?

DR: Or: history repeats itself! It’s way more complicated than what Stone says. When you really get behind their perspectives, behind World War II and what was at stake, what you have is a really great history play.

LJ: The sheer size of the project, though…

DR: Well, because I knew I could work with these students, I had the luxury of months — and of asking them to join me in the dramaturgical fight to find out as much as we could about the historical figures at the convention. We developed a first act for a presentation. Atlantic loved it, so they gave us space again to develop it in the fall of 2017, so we worked further, including the second act. It was all ambitious and I thought that if we’re going to do this right, let’s do it in the right theater. We scoured the city and Irondale generously reduced their rate to let us do it in their space.

LJ: By my count, the first act has five, 10 different vignettes happening all at once at one point. Your script must be a doorstop.

DR: Ha! Because in certain moments we operate inside different playing spaces at the same time, there are different scripts that synch up. Shannon and I developed a format  called The Score: a horizontal sheet music format for playwrights that is basically a cueing agent that tracks who’s speaking. Because it’s horizontal, we have a lot of pages.

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Michael Pantozzi, Sue Kim, Lizzie Stewart and the “Convention” company.

LJ: Shannon, does this make you as much a dialogue “conductor” as a director?

Shannon Fillion: Referencing an orchestra and a conductor is on point. Partly what I love is that in my mathematical musical brain, we run the room like an orchestra: the conductor is expected to know the full score and what each part does, but the instrument players are also expected to learn their parts. A huge part of the success of this project are the actors we chose. We have a good group of people very eager and excited, who want to do this right.

LJ: May I extend the metaphor? How does a conductor hear all the notes that need adjustment at the same time?

SF: Correct! It’s impossible to hear every mistake. I rely heavily on actors who have the desire for accuracy, who find the “music” exciting. My part is conducting what sticks out, how we slow things down, how we raise the volume together; there’s also an expectation that actors will practice their parts and learn their cues. Even at the first read-through, you have to listen to everyone else in the room, which helps the ensemble to become cohesive immediately.

LJ: Given so many component parts, how organic were you in terms of staging the play? Did you pre-block before rehearsals?

SF: The only pre-blocking is what the script calls for: Actor 14 has to talk to Actor 27 and then Actor 12 on these three pages, etc. Most of the first get-on-our-feet read-throughs were about finding each other in space. Once we had the mechanics of who talks to who and when, I could start to create the ballet of when and how they move. I really give the audience a lot of credit because I think people do crave listening to plays this way. It’s almost more unnatural for people to take turns talking. The way Danny has written this play, it starts huge, narrows down, then fills the room. The audience has to lean in and connect the dots just a bit.

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LJ: Justin, you’re the producer. Brave guy! Is Convention a logistical nightmare?

Justin Brock Schantz: Before I answer you, let me say that I’ve been a fan of Danny and his work for quite some time. Beyond the structure of the format of the play, there’s this layer of relevance to today. I know I crave political theater, but not theater about Trump. I’m craving theater that doesn’t speak to Trump — which this play does, in a subtle, back-door way. Logistically, there’s a lot of divide-and-conquer, much to grab at: the marketing and social side, lots of admin, so many contracts and wrangling, lots of emails and a lot of touch-points and a lot of volume.

SF: We also tag-team our communication. I take rehearsal, Justin takes contracts, so none of us are inundated. Some of it, too, is “What is best for the play?” What’s most important is to recognize the biggest fire so you can put it out first.

JBS: Considering how big a cast it is and how many touch-points there are, it really speaks to the team-family feel how well this has gone. When I signed on, the number of people coming back from previous presentations, and their enthusiasm for the show — it was hard to resist.

SF: Something this large has to be truly ensemble-based. There’s a chorus, but most of the main 26 actors really share the stage for the majority of the show.

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Matt Hurley (center) with Ginnie House, Michael Leon, Gabrielle Djenné, and Michael Pantozzi.

LJ: Which returns us to Danny’s original vision.

DR: I came into writing this with an almost investigative-journalist attitude. I was really curious where the truth is. Was Oliver Stone right? Is there evil in our country? Are people trying to screw the little guy? Are elections rigged? I’m leaning now on the other side — of putting the pen down and saying yes and no; that it’s incredibly complicated and nuanced. My love of democracy and all of these historical people — many of whom are really not good people on paper — has grown with my empathy for them. I understand why they’re fighting in the way they’re fighting. The truth is always the intersection of multiple points of view, so it’s not just what the Wallace or Truman supporters were saying; it’s somewhere in the cross-fire between them. I’m not writing with a political agenda — genuinely. I hope that the audience feels a multitude of the different things, and whether they take action upon those feelings or not, or gain any insight or not, I leave it to them.

SF: We’re not trying to have anyone say “This is the lesson.” Democracy is a living beast. But I also have a different perspective: I have a son, and I’m pregnant again. It’s 75 years since the 1944 convention; 75 years from now, what will we have changed by then? My word is activate.

JBG: What I want is for audiences to feel “What did I just experience?” The immersion is very unique and I think it leaves a lasting effect on you. There’s the historical aspect of how crazy that time was — a moment nobody knows about anymore. This high-stakes moment has been buried. The show ends, Wallace gives his concession speech — and shivers go up my spine.

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LJ: Is that a real speech, Danny? It has that quality.

DR: Wallace’s speech I wrote. I have no record of him actually making a speech at the end of the convention. Truman made a speech; the play ends with Truman accepting the Vice Presidential nomination. I wrote an ending for Wallace mostly because we begin with him and the main fight is between Truman and Wallace.

LJ: And now I have to ask an awkward question. Isn’t this play another example of the left agreeing with the left? A play in a sort of vacuum?

SF: I looked around the [rehearsal] room and we all agreed with each other — no, nobody wore a MAGA hat. But a lot of things that we call progressive ought not to be; things that should be the cornerstone of the Democratic Party shouldn’t seem like the fringe. I find it interesting that what was progressive in 1944 feels normal to us today. It doesn’t feel like any label aside from “new.”

JBS: Progressivism is teetering into a bad word; people call Bernie Sanders “progressive” like it’s a diss. This story from 1944 is important and needs to be told.

DR: I identify with your feelings on this — remember, I started writing after 2016. There was something really healing about writing it. To realize that 1944 feels way longer ago than it actually is, and how, in that time, a lot has actually happened. What comforted me was getting into the humanity of these people. People like Sen. Bennett Clark — he’s an alcoholic, we come to find out later in the play. He’s a big Truman supporter, but he lost his wife a few months before the convention and basically drinks his way through it. He wanted to be a greater figure — this should have been his 2004 Obama moment — but he drank himself into being forgotten. Plus, he was an isolationist, a racist — things on paper I do not like. But seeing his humanity healed me. We’re people — people capable of action and mobilization. Getting behind the humanity always inspires me.