(Last UPDATED 4/17/17) On October 13, Buck Busfield the Producing Artistic Director of the B Street Theatre, took to the stage to introduce the “first ever” performance of Chessman. There will be ten performances of Chessman during the Special Engagement which runs October 13-October 22 on the B3 Stage.
Chessman was one of the most famous Death Row prisoners in the world. Also see: Chessman – The Story Behind The Play (Part 1 of 2).
Joseph Rodota, the self-described “accidental playwright”, did extensive research to develop the plot and dialogue of Chessman. Rodota, in his Writer’s Notes, states that he “set the play in the Governor’s Mansion and not in San Quentin, in order to follow Governor Pat Brown as he navigated the extremely difficult legal, political, and moral questions raised by Chessman’s clemency appeal. This vantage point also allowed me to explore how the case affected other members of the Brown family.”
To develop much of the dialogue Rodota utilized historical documents including the Chessman papers archived at the California State Library, the oral histories of the Brown family at the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library, the writings of the late Governor Pat Brown, and a speech given by Kathleen Brown when she was running for Governor in the 1990’s.
Helping to fill in the “gaps” were Ethan Rarick, the author of California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown and an anonymous Jesuit priest.
Chessman has five major characters – Caryl Chessman, the convicted kidnapper sentenced to death; Governor Pat Brown, the then-Governor of California; Bernice Brown, the wife of Governor Brown; and their children Jerry and Kathleen Brown.
The two-hour, two-act play takes place at the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento, a courtroom, Chessman’s cell, and the Governor’s Office. The timeline is 1947 through January 1967.
Governor Pat Brown is played by Phil Cowan; Elisabeth Nunziato plays both Bernice Brown and makes a brief appearance as Hallie Chessman, Caryl’s mother; Eason Donner plays Caryl Chessman; Jerry Brown is played by Nik Duggan; and, Fiona Robberson plays both Kathleen Brown and Mary Alice Meza (one of the women Chessman raped) during two scenes of Chessman cross-examining his victim in court.
The bulk of the play takes place during the last few months of Chessman’s life on Death Row.
The primary focus of the play is on Governor Pat Brown, the Governor’s personal struggle with making the life and death decision on Chessman’s fate, and its impact on the immediate family. The decision he has to make not only weighs heavily on Governor Pat Brown, it also casts a shadow over a family trying to live as normal a life as they can under the circumstances.
At the time Jerry, the current Governor of California, was in his early 20’s. Jerry had left the seminary and was attending UC Berkeley. Kathleen was in her mid-teens and still living at home.
Public pressure on both sides of the death penalty debate and Chessman’s fate was intense. In Chessman Governor Brown references the Pope weighing in on the side of clemency. On the home front, Bernice and her son Jerry do not see eye to eye.
A thick binder containing all the relevant case details is much in evidence (no pun intended) throughout much of the play.
A Catholic, Governor Brown was personally opposed to the death penalty. On the other hand, he believed that Chessman was guilty as charged, and that he had not shown contrition for his crimes.
Kathleen was young and did not want to be “different” from her classmates. She rebelled against being driven to and from school, a security measure for her safety. Slumber parties at the Governor’s Mansion were no fun when Bernice insisted that the girls quiet down because the Governor was working.
Jerry is young and idealistic – and very much the intellectual. As to why he left the seminary – it appears that the adherence to “rules” was a major stumbling block. In one scene Jerry rejects the suggestion of public service and entering politics as proposed by his father.
As Chessman’s February 19, 1960 execution was imminent, Governor Brown decides to forgo the opening ceremony of the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley. He feels it is important that he be close at hand in case he is needed. He instead sends Bernice and Kathleen to represent him at the event.
Bernice tries to call her husband from Squaw Valley but she is unable to secure a connection. Alone in the Governor’s Mansion, Governor Pat Brown receives a phone call from his son Jerry. Jerry convinces his father to issue another 60 day stay of execution and to attempt to change the law. Governor Pat Brown agrees.
In Chessman Jerry reads the draft comments he has prepared for his father to deliver to the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of legislation to repeal the death penalty. The effort to enact legislative change failed, and on May 2, 1960 Chessman is executed.
Governor Brown lost his bid for a third term as Governor, and the closing scene of Chessman has Bernice announcing that she has finished packing up the last of their belongings in the Governor’s Mansion, and that it is time for them to leave for their lunch date with Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
What’s next for Chessman? The playwright has expressed his hope that the play, like Chessman’s books, will be translated into multiple languages and that the play will attract an international audience – especially in those countries whose populace mobilized against the death penalty in connection with the Chessman case.
Comments on Chessman – The Play?
Did you see Chessman? How did you like the play?
(UPDATED 12/18/2016) In November 2016, voters rejected Proposition 62 which would have abolished capital punishment, and at the same time passed Proposition 66 which seeks to expedite death penalty appeals. There is the possibility, although it is a long-shot due to legal challenges, that California could resume executions during the last two years of Governor Jerry Brown tenure. Governors have broad authority under state law to block executions. Governor Jerry Brown’s father, Governor Pat Brown, spared 23 death row inmates while allowing 36 to be executed. Governor Jerry Brown has not been faced with the decision as to whether to spare a convicted criminal from execution to date as the death penalty has been on hold due to pending legal challenges.
(UPDATED 4/17/2017) The Sacramento Bee on April 16, 2017, reported on recent pardons issued by Governor Jerry Brown. The article noted that “The latest batch of remissions brings to 926 the number of pardons Brown has issued since 2011, when the Democratic governor returned to office. He has granted nine commutations.” The article also quoted Governor Brown as saying “We have to do everything we can to change people,” when speaking to crime victims about rehabilitation programs. “You can’t change everybody. But you can change quite a number.”
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