Chilling New Play "Oswald" in Los Angeles Tackles the Kennedy Assassination
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oswald: The Actual Interrogation
Write Act Repertory Theatre
6128 Yucca Street
Last summer, I strolled into a small New York East Side playhouse and sat down to watch Dennis Richard’s play Oswald,a story about the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, one of the most dramatic events in the country’s history. I expected yet another drama filled with forensics investigations, sound analysis, movie clips and extended wild conspiracy theories, like all the others over the years.
Oswald was not like that at all. It was a riveting story about the police investigation of the Kennedy murderer based on the actual notes of Captain Will Fitz, the veteran Dallas police detective who talked to Oswald for most of the two days he was in custody. The story unfolded from the time of the shooting to the moment Oswald himself was gunned down by Jack Ruby, live, on national television, two days after Kennedy died.
Throughout, Richard built a riveting story and created a devastating character in Lee Harvey Oswald, an angry young man trying to fast talk his way out of the interview. Hour by hour, though, day by day, Captain Fitz built an unassailable case against Oswald. He proved, without question, based on evidence and eyewitness testimony, that Oswald killed Kennedy.
The beauty of Oswald was that even though you knew how the story ended, you were transfixed by the play. Now Oswald has re-opened at the Write Act Repertory Theater in Los Angeles for a month-long run. Its producers have been talking to other theaters across the country about staging the play in 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination that shook the world. Two screenwriters have talked to Richard about turning the play into a film.
How did Dennis Richard get hooked on Lee Harvey Oswald and an event that happened so long ago?
“I was reading the story of the assassination one day and came upon the scene where Oswald leaves the Texas Book Depository, goes home, changes, gets on a bus and goes to a movie. He bumps into a police officer and kills him. The police grab him and take him in for questioning. I said to myself, ‘there’s a play there,” said Richard, a veteran playwright.
He realized quickly that no one had written much about the grilling of Oswald by Fitz because all that was left to history were Fitz’s scribbled handwritten notes. There was no audio and no video. People just missed it.
“I thought that if I wrote a historically accurate play about the Fitz interviews, the whole story would spill out. And it did,” said Richard. “Another reason was that here was Fitz all alone with the most hated man in America in a small room in the police station while millions out there wanted Oswald’s head. It was a gritty drama.”
The playwright was also fascinated by the fact that in 1963 the Dallas police had control of the case and the FBI had to back off. That never happened again. “Here you had the police in what was, at the time, a small city in charge of the crime of the century. They really had no idea what they were doing and wound up doing things pretty badly,” Richard said.
He stuck to the Fitz notes and did not embellish the story. “This is history and you can’t change it or embellish it,” the playwright said. “Somebody said put a revolver in Oswald’s hand to build the drama. Come on! You can’t so something like that to an historical event. You’ve got to leave it alone.”
Richard paused. “Hey, look, why embellish anything? This was one of the great historical events of all time. You didn’t have to change it to get the drama out of it.”
He also kept his own opinion of the killing to himself. “There is no conspiracy theory here, no grassy knoll gunman. It is a straight story about how Lee Harvey Oswald shot the president,” he said.
And he is certain of that. “I spent eight months reading just about everything ever written about the assassination. I looked at all the documentaries. There is no doubt that Oswald did it. Were more people involved? I don’t think so,” the writer said.
He disputes all the conspiracy theories. “These theories have thrived because no one could believe that one angry 24-year-old guy with a rifle could actually kill the president. That’s how it happened, though,” said Fritz.
The crazy theories he’s heard have startled him. “Oh, goodness. Khrushchev ordered the KGB to kill him. It was rogue KGB spies. It was the Chinese. The Mafia. The Cubans. Lyndon Johnson, the CIA, the FBI, the Dallas police. One guy explained to me, very carefully, that Kennedy was unhappy and that he paid Oswald to shoot him. Someone else offered incontrovertible proof that the Beatles killed Kennedy. The Beatles!”
OK, the conspiracy buffs persist, if Oswald acted alone, how did Jack Ruby walk right up and shoot him in the Dallas police station?
“Easy,” said Richard. “Ruby was a friend to many Dallas cops. On the day Oswald was arrested he even called one of them and asked if he could bring the police food because they were working so hard. They saw him walk in, knew him well, and thought nothing of it. He wasn’t stopped by anyone and just walked right up and shot Oswald.”
Richard scoffs at all the doubters of Oswald’s guilt and the conspiracy theorists, but there is one thing about his play that puzzles him. “Kennedy died 49 years ago, half a century, and tens of millions of Americans still talk about it like fanatics. It never goes away,” he said.
And so the terrible story of Kennedy’s murder unfolds anew in Los Angeles. The theater will be packed with Kennedy assassination fanatics, conspiracy theorists, and squadrons of people in their ‘60s and ‘70s who still remember exactly where they were that awful day. The Kennedy assassination was pivotal historical event, and Oswald brings it back to life.
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