When Vermont’s Bread and Puppet Theater brought its show “The Seditious Conspiracy Theater Presents: A Monument to the Political Prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera” to New York’s Theater for the New City last December, a woman arrived at the opening night with a letter from Lopez Rivera himself and read it aloud to the crowd before the show.
“I would like to thank the members of the Bread and Puppet Theater for its solidarity with the campaign for my excarceration,” Lopez Rivera wrote. “I'm extremely grateful for the support you're giving me and for all the support you have given to just and noble causes. … Puerto Ricans, who have struggled for the independence and sovereignty of our beloved homeland, have a good appreciation of how important compassion and solidarity are to keep the spirits strong and hopes alive especially when we have had to face oppression, criminalization and imprisonment. I believe no one should accept colonialism no matter where it exists or who practices it, because it's a crime against humanity.”
“We weren’t anticipating it,” puppeteer Joe Therrien says. “That was incredible. We were all just backstage. … It felt really personal to me.”
Bread and Puppet Theater, which was founded by Peter Schumann in New York in 1963, is known for its tradition of distributing fresh baked bread free to audiences at the end of performances; its monumental, mythic papier-mâché puppets; and its participation in street protests against the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, American torture. The company was also one of the landmark New York experimental theaters of the 1960s—and continues to elaborate its signature blend of vanguard performance, expressionist dance and folk pageantry.
“Peter has said the point [of this show] is to bring enough attention to it that [President] Obama will pardon him before he gets out of office,” Therrien says. “We didn’t expect to hear from him [Lopez Rivera].”
Bread and Puppet has long critiqued the problems of the world. But often the issues can seem big and abstract, impenetrable or far away. So the shows become as much about inspiring people not to give up hope as they are about protest. But the Oscar Lopez Rivera show has more specific, concrete, immediate aims. Could this play—which the company will perform at Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s Tower Auditorium in Boston at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, Feb. 17 to 20, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 21—actually help win a presidential pardon for Lopez Rivera?
“Because of the urgency to get these things to the staff of Obama, because he can grant clemency, we wanted to push the issue as well as can be done,” Schumann says. Then he quips, “And because presidents usually do exactly what puppeteers tell them to, we have a chance here.” More seriously, he adds, “If the public gets excited about an issue that makes a huge difference.”
Oscar Lopez Rivera is a Vietnam veteran who became a housing activist and a founder of a Latino cultural center in Chicago. But he was also part of the Puerto Rican independence group FALN, a Spanish acronym for Armed Forces of National Liberation, which claimed credit for bombings in the 1970s and ‘80s, mainly in New York, Chicago, Washington and Puerto Rico. Primarily the group seems to have attacked unpopulated buildings, but some of their blasts allegedly killed a handful of people and injured dozens.
Lopez Rivera was convicted in 1981 not of any specific bombings, but for seditious conspiracy—plotting to overthrow the United States government in Puerto Rico—as well as armed robbery and other charges. Sentenced to more than five decades in prison, his sentence was extended in the late ’80s for plotting an escape. President Bill Clinton offered to reduce his sentence in 1999, but Lopez Rivera turned it down, reportedly because not all the group’s imprisoned members were offered clemency. Opponents of his release allege that he turned down the offer because he would have been required to renounce violence. Of the more than a dozen members of the group convicted in the early 1980s, he’s the last still in prison. Bread and Puppet’s show arrives as part of a growing movement calling for his release.
“He went to prison not for what he did, but for what he preached,” Schumann says. “That is a clear cut case of political imprisonment.”
Bread and Puppet’s relationship with the Puerto Rican community goes back to nearly the theater’s beginnings in New York. “One of the first big parades with very large puppets was a Puerto Rican Day parade and it was for voter registration,” Schumann says.
One of the theater’s landmark early shows, “A Man Says Goodbye to his Mother” from 1965 or ’66, was inspired by the damage of the Vietnam War to New York’s Puerto Rican community. Schumann says, “There was a group of Puerto Rican mothers who had made something like a club because they had all received the same letter, which began, ‘We regret to inform you…’ Which meant their sons had been killed in Vietnam.”
In that show, a soldier goes abroad to bomb his enemy, ultimately killing a child, then is killed himself by the child’s mother in revenge. His body gets sent back home to his own mother. It feels like one of those Greek tragedies in which killing is an inevitable, unbreakable cycle.
Last winter, Schumann was encouraged to create a show about Lopez Rivera by Rosa Luisa Márquez, a theater professor at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan, who for three decades has been a conduit for Puerto Ricans to perform with the company.
“It was only logical that, knowing Bread and Puppet’s commitment to social justice and freedom, evident in many shows about individual and collective injustice,” Márquez tells me via email, “they should take into account the life of Oscar Lopez Rivera and his quest for the freedom for Puerto Rico and our collective struggle to help ex-carcelate him from such an extraordinary sentence for imagining a better world, for ‘conspiring seditiously’ against a colonial power such as the U.S.A. and its total control over Puerto Rico.”
“It’s a big issue in Puerto Rico,” Schumann says. “The right and the left are all pleading with Obama to set this man free.”
Rehearsals for “The Seditious Conspiracy Theater Presents: A Monument to the Political Prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera” began a year ago with a few performers at the company’s home on a farm in Glover, Vermont. It started as a small clown show, but the production—and cast—grew during the theater’s summer internship program into something monumental and dark. In Boston, it will be performed by a small core group of traveling puppeteers augmented by local volunteers.
The play is an indictment of American imperialism—in Puerto Rico as well as in its wars abroad. As Schumann puts it: “This total fake democracy here that pretends to spread peace and harmony by spreading as much war as possible.”
The show includes a version of “Man Says Goodbye…” as well as modern dance, giant puppets, poetic and didactic monologues, cruel clowns, mournful ruminations on war, and stark confrontations with the realities of prison. It is not a linear drama, but a series of actions and vignettes. There are striking symbolic images, for example in a prison scene performers sit under a single, bare light blub facing a gray painting of a cell. One by one, they run headlong into the picture and crumple to the ground. “He was in solitary confinement for 12 years,” Schumann says, “which is deemed by most people to be a form of torture.”
“Peter responded to the life of Puerto Rico's Mandela, who's been in jail for 35 years as he has responded to other important social and political issues that are the essence of his work,” Márquez writes. “The U.S. audience is left with the strong visual image of a man unjustly imprisoned and tortured by the country that prides itself of being the overseer of justice and peace in the world. If theater can make people aware of that, and if by chance, President Obama, the only person that can overturn his sentence, can be made aware of his pardon, then theater has accomplished a concrete goal. In the meantime, more people are made aware of this injustice through the profound power of art.”