Thursday, March 04, 2010

In God's Country (feature article)

Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.
- Voltaire

Since 2002, at least nine recorded hate crimes have been committed in Davis, from vandalism with swastika symbols and satanic language, to the painting of a racial slur on the street in front of the house of an African-American family - which later moved out of the city - and the vandalism of the UC Davis LGBT center, with derogatory and hateful words targeting the gay community.

This doesn't even count events such as the 1983 murder of Vietnamese student Thong Hy Huynh on the Davis High School campus, or the 1978 incident where seven students appeared at a football game wearing genuine KKK robes and carrying ropes, to protest an African-American player on the other team.

(It was felt, by the administration at the time, that punishment would be 'counter-productive' and that surely the students 'didn't understand the implication of their actions.')

On the surface, Davis seems like a nice, peaceful, accepting, enlightened town, but hate is present. Hate speech appears to be escalating at the high school this academic year, with students heard proclaiming things like 'Jews are stingy' and 'Hitler was really smart; he had the right idea.' Other students wonder why the school needs a Black Student Union, but not a White Student Union.

DHS drama teacher Gwyneth Bruch wants to jolt her students and us townsfolk out of our complacency, and get in our faces with the reality of what hate speech can spawn.

'California has more hate groups than any other state,' she said. 'We have 84; one count says 87. Tracy is the white supremacy capital of California. I have friends of color who won't drive to Chico.'

She points to names of groups such as the American Nazi Party, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Confederate Strikeforce Skinheads, the Covenant Sword and Arm of the Lord, Guardians of Justice, Teenage Commandos, White Knights of Liberty ... and on and on and on.

What do the groups want?

'They want a homeland; they want a white place,' Bruch said. 'They're so absurd, they might just be funny ... if they didn't kill people.'

Last summer, Bruch decided to produce Steven Dietz's controversial play, 'In God's Country,' which follows the true story of The Order, a white supremacist, neo-Nazi group that operated in the Western United States in the early 1980s. Its members, led by Robert Jay Mathews, staged armed robberies, netting more than $4 million; declared the establishment of a new, all-white nation; and murdered Denver radio talk show host Alan Berg in 1984, because he ridiculed them.

And because he was Jewish.

The play opens Friday and continues through March 13 at the Brunelle Performance Hall, 315 W. 14th St., Davis. Curtain times are 7 p.m. Friday, Saturday and March 11-13, and 2 p.m. Sunday.

The play's cast will lead a discussion after each performance.

Tickets - $12 general, $8 students - are available at (831) 224-0005 or

Original court transcripts of the trial of Berg's killers - indicted for 'violating Berg's civil rights' when they killed him - provide the base for this play. Other elements are interwoven: images of neo-Nazi rituals and rhetoric; a training camp; intensely, intimately powerful monologues; and Berg's liberal and often in-your-face talk show.

'I'm grateful for the courage of our principal, Winfred Roberson, in agreeing to let me put on this show,' Bruch said. 'I showed him the script in August, and he read it. That's awesome.'

She then set about re-working the play so that 55 actors could participate in a play that actually calls for only nine or 10 (each of whom usually handles several roles).

'The students are excited to be doing this, because they see it as an important message,' Bruch said. 'Hate crimes happen in Davis; anti-Semitism is alive and well.

'What can we do about it?'

Bruch discussed the 'violence continuum,' with a casual racial slur at one end of the spectrum - a seemingly harmless thing - that can lead to murder at the other end of the spectrum.

'This reflects what happened to Matthew Shepard. If we ignore the anti-Semitic or racist comment - and there are lots around here - then somewhere it could end up with writing graffiti on the sidewalk to chase a family out of town, wearing sheets to a football game, or stabbing someone on school grounds.

'It's really important that people leave at the end of our play with the image that something very wrong is going on. And given the way I'm going to do this play, they will.'

Bruch has worked on this project since the summer, not only re-structuring the play to fit her large cast, but also recruiting to get specific actors in key roles.

'I have 10 guys playing white supremacists, and they're the sweetest people in the whole universe. Just beautiful, beautiful, beautiful people.'

Parents have been, for the most part, very supportive. One family agreed to let their child participate, but only if the role weren't as one of the white supremacists. Bruch accommodated that request.

'We're having a good time, but it's meaty. Theater is a powerful venue for a message. These kids have something to say, and I want to help them by choosing a piece where they can feel that they've made some growth as a person, and also helped their friends. My kids actually are excited about just talking about the experience of being in this play, and engaging their friends in conversations about the fact that hatred and hate speech are a real thing.


B. Durbin said...

I've lived up in Spokane, near where many of the incidents of the play took place. In fact, one of my professors was involved with a production that Richard Butler— of Aryan Nations— attended, apparently with approval. (They let audience members know ahead of time, and allowed them to switch tickets if they were uncomfortable sharing a theater with Butler and his bodyguards.)

One of my classmates actually went and interviewed Butler for a class documentary. Most of us agreed that she had more guts than the rest of us.

This is a very important play, because of the meditations on how hate gets into the system. "You have to be carefully taught" says the song from South Pacific, but kids will pick up on the subconscious cues as well, In God's Country argues.

One more thing— this play is not for the faint of heart. Or easily panicked. It draws you in quite thoroughly.

Bev Sykes said...

I was very sorry that I was not able to see this production.

Jeff Shaw said...

If you missed the production you can order a DVD from Davis Media Access or watch it on cable channel 17 during the "Arts in our Schools" series:

Or go to and click on schedule, or call Alex Silva at 757-2419 as he schedules the shows.

Bev Sykes said...

Thanks for that information. I see that the DVD is not yet available, nor is it on the schedule, but I will definitely follow up on this. I appreciate your input.

Jan said...

The first time I saw this play was as a chaperone with a group of 8th graders(!) at Ashland. They had a lot of preparatory discussions and post-play discussions, with little games that showed how easy it is to go along with the crowd. It was very VERY powerful. I've now seen it three times, including one high school production. Great play.