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Walt Stepp’s "Why We Shot John!"

John Simkin

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New York Press



A piece of journalistic theater raises more questions about J.F.K.’s assassination than it answers

By Leonard Jacobs

The name Oliver Stone comes up once during Walt Stepp’s Why We Shot John!, a two-act “journalistic theatre” work that posits the idea that there’s a group of individuals now in their eighties that had something to do with President Kennedy’s assassination. But unlike Stone, who in h JFK spends screen time exploring conspiracy theories without deeply delving into the “why,” that’s the motor behind Stepp’s ambitious play. After all, the “what” seems clear—Kennedy is dead. And the “how”—whether you believe the single- or multiple-assassin theory—also seems clear. And “who,” “when” and “where” aren’t in question.

To believe what Stepp purports, we must believe that at least four men and one woman, perhaps more, stood at the vortex of a plan to kill Kennedy because they feared that as the civil rights movement gained ground, the president would emerge as its “Great White Messiah.” This would have upended the delicate balance of regional power that had held forth since the Civil War, not to mention the even tighter grip the Democrats had on national politics.

But swift as it moves and smart as it’s written, there’s head-scratching because we’re never given the actual names, ages, and present localities of these people; things are constructed tightly enough that unless you’re an expert on the Kennedy era, even tiny clues appear nowhere to be found. As the actors emerge from shadows at the top of the play, in fact, they acknowledge that the names have been changed to protect the geriatric. Just who are Brutus (Scott Glascock), Joe (Bill Dante), Trip (Buzz Roddy), Allen (Scott Van Tuyl) and Hildy (Charlotte Hampden)?

Over 24 scenes that are largely short, intense and revelatory, the actors also portray a constellation of stars from the glory days of Camelot. There’s Sam Rayburn, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives; Everett Dirksen, the Senate Republican leader; Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s vice president and successor; Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the U.S.S.R.; George Smathers, a Democratic senator from Florida; Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, the man the political establishment maintains shot Kennedy and the man who shot the shooter; J. Edgar Hoover, the cross-dressing head of the F.B.I.; plus a mob boss and others.

So the question is, does a group of stars equal a conspiratorial universe? The way director B. Peter Westerhoff stages certain scenes, I’m unsure. On the one hand, there are moments when staging, writing and acting coalesce so it seems evident that these people, whoever they are, were intimately involved or at least aware of the reasons behind, if not the plot behind, Kennedy’s assassination. If this is true, that would also raise the stakes dramatically in terms of the public’s right to know—it would be the key to unfurling the Warren Commission snow-job. On the other hand, there are moments when staging, writing and acting coalesce so you question whether the whole play is jerry-built fantasy fiction. If so, Stepp has created an alternate reality fertile enough to buy into. And if that’s the case, how about tackling 9/11 next?

The actors do their game best to add inferences and implications in the few places where the text falls short. Mostly, though, we’re intrigued, with a sleuth-like hunger for concrete morsels. And, as with every unsolved mystery, there are questions: Why has no one prominent, politically or otherwise, mentioned these individuals, or are they already known to us? Are there Kennedy-era figures that survive, like the president’s paramour, Judith Campbell Exner, who are still holding back information despite the interviews they’ve granted? Are the surviving civil rights leaders holding back, too? Why We Shot John! accomplishes its central goal—offering the “why” behind Kennedy’s death. Shall we now ask “why not”?

This is the review that appeared in the Village Voice:


Dear Mister President

Five would-be assassins (and Khrushchev) in search of a narrative

by Alexis Soloski

September 12th, 2006 3:56 PM

According to many conspiracy buffs, anti-Castro Cubans shot John Kennedy. Or Chicago mobsters did it. Or rebel CIA agents. Or Ari Onassis. One pamphlet, entitled "The Assassination Festival of Jacqueline the Praying Mantis," alleges JFK was a casualty of a deadly clan feud between the French Bouviers and Irish Kennedys. Walt Stepp's play Why We Shot John doesn't propose quite so fantastic a plot. Rather, he credits JFK's death to a cabal of five congressmen and government officials who felt threatened by the president's increasing power. Forty-odd years on, they've come onstage to explain why they ordered the assassination.

One conspirator, who styles himself Brutus, explains that John was marked for death when "he began to show his fabulous ambition." "He would be crowned," says Brutus. Stepp, who numbers among his other works Dominoes: A Watergate Musical, makes the Julius Caesar parallels wearily explicit, if not altogether apt. While Shakespeare had Marc Antony complain, "They that have done this deed are honorable. What private griefs they have, alas! I know not," Stepp airs their grievances aloud, offering an overwhelming array of motivations. Scenes cannon from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Carousel Club. After a pause for exposition at the present-day "Conspirator's Reunion," they zing back to the Oval Office and the University of Alabama.

The five conspirators, each sporting a natty suit and, save for the lone female, a receding hairline, play all the roles, including Kennedy, Johnson, Oswald, George Wallace, and a bizarrely accented Khrushchev. (Though press notes and simple chronology indicate that the conspirators should by now be octogenarians, the median age of the cast appears mid-fifties.) The actors acquit themselves well as the plotters but perform their other roles with middling conviction. Were the production more thoughtful, one might even assume a Brechtian alienation effect was operating. In fact, the structure of the piece bears a striking resemblance not to a Shakespearean tragedy but to a Brechtian lehrstucke, such as The Measures Taken, in which a group of Communist agents are called before a tribunal and must restage the murder of their colleague.

Unlike in Brecht's play, Stepp never provides a reason why this troupe should come forward now and explain themselves. Why shouldn't they have done so decades ago? Why should they do so ever? Though Brutus (Scott Glascock) states that "the question why has always haunted" Americans, he gives no convincing reason for offering an exorcism. Stepp makes the grounds for Kennedy's assassination legion (his championing of civil rights, his reluctance to send more troops to Vietnam, his alleged non-aggression pact with Khrushchev), but the motivation for rendering all this in play form and producing it now remains tediously obscure.

Theater itself is something of a conspiracy, a scheme perpetrated by actors, directors, playwrights, and designers upon an audience who are typically happy to abet their own deceit. Is it altogether a coincidence that the story lines are termed "plots"? But successful conspiracies ought to have clearer aims and execution than what Stepp and his cohorts provide. Though the structure of each scene is itself simple, the number of figures portrayed therein and the history buff credentials one would need to identify them necessitate the program's inclusion of a two-page reference list and character glossary.

An introductory scene invites the audience into the proceedings, but much of the next two hours remain hermetic, self-contained assemblages of historically accurate vernacular and Biography channel personalities. Stepp's research is laudable, but the facts don't shore up a dramatic arc. Minutiae overwhelm narrative. A playwright's note indicates that Stepp means to draw comparisons between the Vietnam War, which escalated in the wake of Kennedy's death, and the current "foreign war of domestic expedience, no end in sight." But the play never makes good on those intentions, miring itself in backroom jargon (Bourbon Democrats, Dixiecrats, red hots, etc.,) and pompous epithet (i.e, "the prince of peace and sex" for JFK). B. Peter Westerhoff directs each of the 24 short scenes with speed and efficiency, if too much tonal similarity. Scenes don't differ much in rhythm or mood and Westerhoff offers little in the way of dramatic build.

The events of November 22, 1963, have inspired countless works of scholarship and art, each offering a different theory of the action, its perpetrators, and its impact on the nation. With so many questions raised and cover-ups mooted, a majority of Americans do not believe the true facts of the case are known. Yet the tangled and multidetermined story Stepp tells may make viewers long for those soothing and intelligible words of the Warren Report, "The shots which killed President Kennedy and wounded Governor Connally were fired by Lee Harvey Oswald."

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