‘Uncivil Disobedience’ Reading Offers First-Hand Accounts Of Sterling Hall Bombing [REVIEW]
Rena Archwamety, 77 Square

Photo courtesy of the UW-Madison Archives

“They were hell-bent on tearing down an institution.”

“I felt the ground shake. I had no idea what was going on.”

“As we approached University, we began to see debris.”

The stories of those affected when a bomb exploded outside of Sterling Hall on Aug. 24, 1970, killing one person and injuring three others, provide the basis for “Uncivil Disobedience,” a play-in-progress by Mike Lawler and shared with the public Friday evening as a staged reading at the Overture Center.

The reading, part of the Forward Theater Co.’s New Play Development Series, will be performed again on Saturday, March 10, at 7:30 p.m. and include a talk-back with the playwright and cast. Interest in this work outgrew the originally-slated Rotunda Studio space, and the reading was moved to the Wisconsin Studio on the Overture Center’s third floor. Reservations for both nights had already reached the 200-plus seat capacity of this larger space. However, those who showed up Friday without a reservation were added to a wait list, and all on the list were admitted to the reading with one seat to spare.

The accounts of the people represented in his play were collected over a span of two years by the Wisconsin Story Project in conjunction with the Oral History Project at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Lawler also weaves in reports from The Daily Cardinal, The Capital Times and other publications, as well as testimony from the trials of the four men who planted the bomb at Sterling Hall in an attempt to target the Army Mathematics Research Center.

Ten actors dressed in black, most reading several parts, presented the real-life accounts. Among the many characters are Karleton Armstrong (Donavon Armbruster) and the other bombers; Michael Zaleski (Sam White), the assistant state attorney general who helped prosecute Armstrong; and David Schuster (Bruce G. Bradley), a graduate student from South Africa injured in the blast, whose narrative as one both caught on the inside and witnessing this unsettled period in U.S. history as an outsider framed and ran pervasively throughout the play.

At Friday night’s reading, Forward Theater artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray pointed out that everything in this piece is a verbatim quote from the interviews of people who were there, and that this is the very first step in a long process of developing the new work. The question-and-answer sessions after the readings provide Lawler with feedback to help further develop the play.

Many commented after Friday night’s reading on how riveting the material was, including those who remember the events and those who are not old enough to have witnessed this part of history. Some felt the use of verbatim quotes hindered the storytelling, as real people speaking real words will ramble and use more "um’s" and "ah’s."

Lawler said he did tighten up some of the quotes, but it was important to him to keep the original words in people’s accounts.

“I feel very strongly that the work I do makes a statement because we say exactly what they said. You really find out who these people are,” Lawler said, arguing that if he took out the false starts and other imperfect dialogue, it would be like taking out the people themselves. One man in the talkback commented that he had transferred to Madison specifically to be part of the protests. Another divulged that the time around the protests and bombing “was a black, black period” in his life, but that “there was something healing about tonight.”

Several people agreed that a particularly poignant line in the reading came when Karl’s mother, Ruth Armstrong, asked if this whole event wouldn’t have happened if the adults had taken more action. A woman commented that she was not from Wisconsin and too young to have been around at the time of the Vietnam protests. Nevertheless, she found the reading compelling as it represented a much bigger story that captured the times and conflict.

When asked about staging the play, Lawler said little of his plans.

“I have a lot of ideas,” he said. “Having the readings is helping a lot.”

Posted on 3-10-12