05 August 2009

'Song in the Blood (Hiroshima/Los Alamos)'

[Tomorrow, 6 August, marks the 64th anniversary of the air raid on Hiroshima, Japan, in which the United States dropped the first atomic bomb; 39 years ago today, the events recounted here began. This account is based on an excerpt from “Commitments and Consequences,” a book-length expansion of a 1993 TDR article.]

On 5 and 6 August 1970, Leonardo Shapiro’s “cheerleaders of the revolution” mounted Song in the Blood (Hiroshima/Los Alamos), a two-day environmental-theater event in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (now known as the Los Alamos National Laboratory) in observation of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Hiroshima atom-bomb raid. “Hiroshima seemed like Original Sin,” Shapiro, a life-long peace, disarmament, and civil rights activist, wrote later, “and somehow I’ve always identified myself with it.” (Shapiro was, in fact, born almost exactly five months after Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima.)

Shapiro, an experimental theater director who died in 1997 at 51, founded The Shaliko Company in the East Village in 1972, and I met him 14 years later. (I wrote a profile of Shapiro and his troupe: "Shapiro and Shaliko: Techniques of Testimony," The Drama Review 37.4 [T140 - Winter 1993]: 65-100.) In 1969, he traveled from New York, where he’d attended NYU, to California but broke his journey in Taos, New Mexico, where he ended up staying for two years. Shapiro formed a guerrilla theater troupe, the Appleseed Circus, which performed in ad hoc locations around the Four Corners. Song in the Blood, organized starting the previous March by the Circus and supported by the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, founded by folksinger Joan Baez in Palo Alto, California, was probably Shapiro and the Circus’s largest event in those years.

John Nichols, the novelist (The Malagro Beanfield War) and essayist from Taos who attended the rally, described Shapiro’s motivation in a two-part report in a local publication. After outlining at length the history of LASL, known locally as “the Hill,” Nichols generally invoked the “few hardy boys and girls and men and women (not yet in exile or underground or on the FBI’s top ten) who wish to carry on the dialogues that might, by some wondrous miracle, prolong man’s minute upon this tortured planet.” He then went on, more specifically:

One of these courageous people, a young curly-bearded pacifist named Leonardo Shapiro, left his hangout in the First Arroyo on the right in Dixon, New Mexico on a warm August day not so long ago, and, followed by a hoard of wierd people in various wierd vehicles, he towed a partly finished portable stage at ten miles an hour down along the Rio Grande River on Highway 64. He was concerned about something not officially in his competence field, had decided, moreover, to meddle with something not officially in his competence field, had in fact, decided to pull off a lot of definitely abnormal shenanigans during the course of this meddling--

And he was headed for Los Alamos.

The New York Times described this event as “the first large-scale demonstration at the laboratory” and noted that the demonstrators had been “escorted by the police, watched by undercover agents and filmed by 13 government cameramen.” Though the Albuquerque Journal made the point that the police escort was friendly and accommodating, even smiling when greeted by the ‘V’ peace sign from demonstrators, Nichols recorded that there was fear among some local residents and officials that violence might break out, and friends even tried to dissuade Shapiro from appearing out of concern for his life. Shapiro, himself, recalled that he had been “warned off, threatened, bullied and shot at” during the month preceding the demonstration and shots were fired at his Dixon house “a couple times” as intimidation. The Los Alamos authorities removed the ducks in Ashley Pond--“in order to avoid unspecified physical and emotional stress on the ducks”--wired the flag to its pole, and spread rumors that Abbie Hoffman, the nationally-known counterculture activist, was going to participate in an effort to generate another Chicago, where Hoffman had led the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In a statement on 28 July, the Los Alamos County Council, calling the demonstrators “unwelcome intruders,” warned that the “situation can lead to real trouble if anyone wants to start trouble” and on the same day, the semiweekly Los Alamos Monitor editorialized: “One might even say [the demonstration organizers] are looking for, hoping for, violent reaction to their ‘vigil’” to render the demonstration a “howling success.” If, however, residents “refused to be provoked,” the editorial continued, the protest would “fall on its bearded, dirty face.” Letters to the paper, while representing both support for and opposition to the protest, also showed that opponents were more vehement than proponents, and the editors of the Monitor, alleging that Shapiro’s “reasons for staging the demonstrations in Los Alamos are at best obscure,” questioned whether “he is more intrigued by the dramatic possibilities [of leading the first demonstration at LASL] than he is genuinely concerned with Hiroshima and peace.”

Declaring, “We feel your paper . . . has led to the violent atmosphere in this town,” Shapiro submitted a statement to the Monitor on 4 August on behalf of the organizing groups:

Let us all[a]y your fears. We sense that the people of Los Alamos are afraid of what will happen during the Hiroshima Memorial because some of your citizens talk of rifles, of vigilante squads, of saving the Ashley Pond ducks from emotional disturbances. Your fears are groundless. We will not act violently nor will we react violently to violence. WE WISH TO COMMUNICATE WITH YOU.

Our own creed simply stated is: Believing all war to be a crime against humanity, we advocate Gandhian nonviolent resistance for creating a democratic society free of war, racism, and human exploitation. Non violence is action without hatred, revolution without guns, justice without prisons. We want to change the world before it blows up. GIVE EARTH A CHANCE.

We want you to question us and we want to question you. We want to talk to you about alternatives to working for the production of death gadgetry and about your and our relationships to the world at large. We feel that you have secluded yourselves up here for 25 years now, and the only real communication from the Hill has been the bomb. WOULD YOU CONSIDER SHARING SOME TIME WITH US ON AUGUST 5th and 6th?

On behalf of the Albuquerque War Resisters League, Sigfredo Martinez--“a sort of firebrand Chicano, bare-chested,” Shapiro recalled--wrote to the Monitor on the same day to reiterate Shapiro’s statement and to admonish the Atomic Energy Commission for scheduling a “light show and rock music group to ‘CELEBRATE’ Hiroshima Day.” (Twenty-year-old Martinez had been associated with Reies Tijerina, the Chicano-rights activist who led what became known as the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse Raid in June 1967, just over three years earlier.) Plans for a counter-demonstration in support of LASL at the high school athletic field had been canceled on 31 July for fear that, among other reasons, it might encourage the protesters to stay in Los Alamos longer. (Shapiro had earlier announced the possibility that some protesters “may wish to stay on . . . through August 9,” the date in 1945 of the second atomic bombing at Nagasaki. This eventuality never developed.)

On Wednesday, 5 August, the group arrived in Los Alamos in that convoy of “wierd vehicles” described by Nichols: a pick-up truck which Shapiro had obtained from his father in St. Paul, towing the flatbed that served as the Circus’s mobile stage, a “singles bus,” and a “couples bus.” The performers rode into town in the back of the pick-up, in the bed of which had been mounted a “cage” inside which they hung as if in a jungle-gym. That night they held a vigil at Ashley Pond in downtown Los Alamos. The pond is the site of the original atomic laboratory that housed the Manhattan Project and a plaque there commemorates this fact. About 400 people gathered through the night to watch films and plays, to listen to music and speeches, and to talk. The event began at about 8 p.m. with a guitarist from Texas singing, appropriately, Bob Dylan’s 1963 anti-war ballad, “Masters of War”:

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks.


Members of the Appleseed Circus and others, including residents of the Hog Farm commune, passed out sandwiches and peaches, and symbolic, clay “magic mushrooms” from the front of their makeshift stage, the flatbed with the sides raised. As a sort of master-of-ceremonies, Shapiro, wearing a construction helmet emblazoned with the slogan “Dig It Bigot, Freedom Now!” which he got during the 1964 Harlem riots and a “beautiful velvet shirt that I had made, Navajo velveteen, . . . blue and green, silver quarter buttons, leggings, one green and one blue, suede with fringes,” reiterated, “No matter what anyone does, react nonviolently,” and there was more music. Some nervous business-owners had hired guards or stayed in their stores, and “one or two local drunks shouted insults” from the memorial that marked where the Hiroshima bomb had been built. The Appleseed Circus performed Bertha, a satirical play by Kenneth Koch about a Queen of Norway who allows Scottish Barbarians to conquer her realm, defeats them, conquers Scotland, then allows the Barbarians to reconquer Norway so she can beat them again, just to fulfill her “dreams of conquest.”

Following the play, the open microphone was offered to all who wished to speak. There was more music and Shapiro suggested a minute of silence for the dead of Hiroshima. When someone yelled, “Forget Hiroshima and remember Pearl Harbor,” Shapiro accepted the outcry as an addition. Hecklers attempted to subvert the purpose of the moment, but good humor prevailed and the hecklers were laughed off. This episode was followed by two films, one, called America, on the “street battles going on in America today,” dedicated to Black Panther leader Huey Newton, and the second a documentary on the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Appleseed Circus then performed Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s translation of “Song in the Blood,” an anti-war poem by Frenchman Jacques Prévert that contains the refrain:

the earth doesn’t stop turning
the blood doesn’t stop flowing
Where’s it going all this spilled blood.


The evening ended with a ceremony in which the participants carried candles in paper cups to Ashley Pond and set them afloat. Three of the candles made it across the pond, flickering in the dusk, as the group sang “Children of Darkness” by Richard and Mimi Fariña:

For I am a wild and a lonely child
And the son of an angry land.
And now with the high wars raging
I would offer you my hand.
For we are the children of darkness
And the prey of a foul command.


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And where was the will of my father
When he raised his sword on high?
And where was my mother’s wailing
When our flags were justified?
And where will we take our pleasure
When our bodies have been denied?


Shapiro encouraged the demonstrators to join in informal groups to discuss Hiroshima and Nagasaki or just to get to know one another. About midnight, it began to drizzle.

At 11 o’clock Thursday morning, 6 August, the date the atomic bomb had been dropped 25 years before, 100 of the demonstrators began the 1.7-mile march to LASL as a rain shower soaked them. Soon after they arrived at the courtyard of the Administrative Building, peace placards and papier-maché death masks drenched from the rain, the sun broke through and 100 to 150 laboratory employees came out to watch the demonstration, with another 150, including LASL director Dr. Norris Bradbury, watching from the windows. Shapiro, wearing dark glasses and his hardhat, cut through the grass at the entrance of LASL with a hunting knife to begin the hole in which the demonstrators planned to plant a Japanese cherry tree. He took out a piece of the sod and, dedicating the tree to the “memory of the people who died at Hiroshima and who are dying in Vietnam,” he prayed: “We hope by the time it is grown we’ll have a social revolution in this country and peace on earth.”

Other participants followed Shapiro’s lead, each making a short speech. After the demonstrators planted the tree, they read a list of “alternatives” to Delbert F. Sundberg, the director of public relations at LASL, who responded. Shapiro praised Sundberg as “the only man here who had the guts to come out and talk to us,” and the demonstrators quietly left the area, the sapling swaying in the breeze. Ironically, sometime between 6 and 8:30 that evening, a “person or persons unknown” removed the “peace tree” in what an LASL spokesman said was probably a federal crime. The peace tree never having had a chance to grow, neither the “social revolution” nor the “peace on earth” for which Shapiro prayed have, as he would certainly have acknowledged, yet arrived.

[Leo Shapiro, who became a friend and whose work I admired, retired from active theater in New York in 1993, after more than 20 years of making professional avant-garde theater, and moved back to Taos. Eighteen months after being diagnosed with inoperable bladder cancer--“What . . . you get,” he joked, “when you’ve been pissed off all your life”--Leo died on 22 January 1997, 15 days after his 51st birthday.]

1 comment:

  1. This is a marvelous account of a fascinating event, one worth remembering for what it says about a time when theater was seen as an active participant in society and not as merely an observer or an entertainer.

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