A Weekend of Powerhouse Theatre

A play and two panel discussions explore the state of our nation
Three actors on stage, two hold signs saying "applause" and "cheer" while one screams
Sissy Jessup (Mary Mahoney) center, is whipped into a frenzy with the help of musicians Tilis (left) and Kaylyn Gillespie (right) at a rally in 'It Can't Happen Here' at Suffolk's Modern Theatre (photo: Nile Scott Studios)

A play based on a nearly 90-year-old novel proved incredibly timely when the Suffolk University Theatre Department presented its spring main stage production of It Can’t Happen Here, directed by Professor Wes Savick.

Nobel Prize-winner Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, written as Hitler rose to power in Germany, imagines a similar fascist coup unfolding in the United States. In 1936, it was adapted by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen into a play that opened simultaneously in 21 theatres across the country. Savick decided to produce the play at Suffolk this year “because it so accurately depicts what is going on in this country right now.”

For College of Arts & Sciences Dean Edie Sparks, the production illustrated why art is “an essential component of the public square—a space of civic conscience and consciousness,” she said. It Can’t Happen Here “prompts us all to grapple with difficult issues of our time, which for so many people are easier to ignore than to confront.”

Adam Hochschild and Arlie Russell Hochschild on stage with moderator Paul Solman during the Ford Hall Forum Facing Coups in America
Ford Hall Forum at Suffolk University "Facing Coups in America" with Adam Hochschild and Arlie Russell Hochschild, moderated by Paul Solman (photo: Michael J. Clarke)

Facing coups—then and now

Two talks were held in tandem with the run of the show. The first, a Ford Hall Forum event, featured the distinguished UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus, sociologist, and author Arlie Russell Hochschild, and her husband, author, historian, and journalist Adam Hochschild. Entitled “Facing Coups in America—Then and Now,” the discussion was moderated by award-winning PBS NewsHour journalist Paul Solman. The pair also participated in a talk-back following that evening’s performance. 

The Hochschilds have both researched and reported on America’s political divide. Arlie’s 2016 book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, which explored the origins of the Tea Party movement in Louisiana, was nominated for a National Book Award. Savick was so moved by the book that in 2018 he adapted it into a musical, one state, two state / red state, blue state, and invited Arlie to Suffolk to give a lecture. When Savick decided to stage It Can’t Happen Here, he reached out to the Hochschilds with another invitation. They responded within the hour: “You have two big fans here, and we can travel!”

Adam Hochschild discussed the increasing alarm that surrounded the rise of fascism in the 1930s and described the public mood when the book was written and when the play premiered, while Arlie considered whether the events of 1930s Germany could play out in a different form in America in the 2020s. She described the factors that have led us to this current moment and asked how we might emerge with an intact democracy—topics she explores in depth in her forthcoming book, Stolen Pride: Loss, Shame, and the Rise of the Right, based on her experiences living and reporting from Kentucky’s coal-mining country.

Actor on stage in front of a campaign poster that reads, "Windrip President"
Senior Rose Beardmore as Buzz Windrip in an impassioned plea to his followers in 'It Can't Happen Here' at Suffolk's Modern Theatre (photo: Nile Scott Studios)

Fascism, American style

The Political Science & Legal Studies Department presented the second talk, “Fascism, American Style,” which featured Psychology Professor Mimi Arbeit, a specialist in adolescent and sexuality development, antifascism, and social justice, and retired Philosophy Professor Jeffrey Johnson, a specialist in ethics and contemporary social issues. The session was moderated by award-winning author and playwright James Carroll.

Johnson described his experiences as a member of a Catholic fascist group in Spain in the 1970s and early 1980s. Searching for purpose and meaning in life, he was “seduced by something that sounded good and beautiful, true and hopeful, and moved further to the right.” Ultimately, he said, his religious studies and faith helped save him.

Arbeit also spoke from personal experience: She was completing a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville when white nationalists staged their Unite the Right rally there in 2017. Echoing Johnson, she said that “purpose is a key thing young people need for development—a purpose greater than themselves. And fascism is very strategic and uses organized attempts to take power and instigate violence by weaponizing [those] vulnerabilities.” 

She charged the audience to “bring your best gifts to get the outcomes of our future you want to see.” And Johnson agreed, calling our current political climate “an all-hands-on-deck moment.”

Moderator James Carroll concluded the session asking rhetorically, “Why didn’t it happen here?” His answer: “People voted.”

Two actors on stage at a table stand facing each other
Doremus Jessup (Matt Killian) and Lorinda Pike (Kate Carvalho) feel the strains of the fascist takeover in a critical scene from 'It Can't Happen Here' at Suffolk's Modern Theatre (photo: Nile Scott Studios)

Theatre as a form of protest

Savick hopes the production taught students that theatre is “a necessary part to the conversation, and not superfluous. They must be a part of it.”

Feeding off this momentum, Savick, James Carroll, and writer Rachel Dewoskin have adapted It Can’t Happen Here into a short-form production entitled It Can’t Happen Here, Again which will be read on July 19 in 29 simultaneous productions (including Suffolk’s Juvenilia company) in 17 states as part of a movement sponsored by Writers for Democratic Action. And in the fall, the Theatre Department will remount the musical one state, two state / red state, blue state in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election.

A post show talk back with Arlie and Adam Hochschild was moderated by director, Wes Savick.
A post show talk back with Arlie and Adam Hochschild was moderated by director, Wes Savick. (photo: Michael J. Clarke)

Hope on the horizon

Ford Hall Forum Executive Director Susan Spurlock concluded the Hochchilds’ talk by asking, “What gives you hope?” 

For Adam it was his belief in “sensible people. We’ve been in bad situations before,” he said, “and we’ve gotten out of them.” Added Arlie: “I love being American. We’re ‘fix it’ people. We grapple and we believe in democracy.” Solman concurred: “We have more in common than what divides us.”

Savick, too, is hopeful. Asked “Why do this (theatre)? Can this stuff make a difference?” His answer is immediate and impassioned: “Yes! Yes, it can!”

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