Ron Peluso has an open door policy when it comes to ideas for plays. Peluso, artistic director of the History Theatre, tells people to pop into his office if they have an idea. Together they discuss whether the idea has stage potential. That’s how Frank Kroncke ended up pitching a memoir he had written about the Minnesota Eight.
Peace Crimes: The Minnesota Eight vs. the War, presented by the History Theatre and University of Minnesota Theatre. Playing through March 9 at the Rarig Center, 330 21st Ave. S., Minneapolis. For tickets ($25), see historytheatre.com.
Peluso ran with the story and turned it into Peace Crimes: The Minnesota Eight vs. the War. The play tells the story of eight Vietnam War resisters who raided Minnesota draft offices during the Vietnam War. The group stole draft cards from the offices in an effort to prevent Minnesotans from going to war. The FBI caught eight members of the group; most served two years of five-year prison sentences.
The Minnesota Eight were somewhat of a ragtag team. “We all resisted illegitimate authority,” says Kroncke, a member of the group, “but we came from many different backgrounds. We had a journalist, a theologian from the Roman Catholic tradition, one guy with a history of science background…and we were influenced by different people.” This is depicted in Peace Crimes when members of the Minnesota Eight grapple with strategic decisions on how and when to resist the draft.
After Peluso found Doris Baizley to write the play he partnered up with the University of Minnesota. It seemed like a natural fit, since many of the Minnesota Eight were graduates of the University and some of the story’s events take place on campus. Peluso also brought in theater MFA candidates from the University; they make up 13 of the 18 cast members.
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The involvement of the Minnesota Eight has been crucial. Kathleen Hansen, managing director of the History Theatre, says, “The [original Minnesota Eight] have been at the rehearsals and have watched the students actually play them. They can answer questions if the students have them and say, ‘Well, that was actually tied to something that wasn’t in the script.’ That really adds an extra layer of context.” The group also weighed on details—telling the playwright when an event as depicted differed from the actual events.
Members of the Minnesota Eight report that they enjoyed and appreciated the process of creating Peace Crimes. Don Olson, who now hosts a radio show at KFAI, said, “We actually found out more about the details of the trial, and about how people reacted to
the prison experience—something I didn’t know everything about.”
The staging of Peace Crimes prompted Frank Kroncke to organize educational events on college campuses in Minnesota. Kroncke helped secure speakers like Jim Wallis and Daniel Ellsberg, and coordinated events with groups like In the Heart of the Beast Theater. These events are separate from the play, but Kroncke hopes the events will generate interest in Peace Crimes.
The play itself is rich with historical information presented in a variety of ways. Historical documents place the audience in the midst of the Vietnam era. Pictures of Kent State, draft cards, American and Vietnamese soldiers, and the U of M campus flash across the stage and add nuance to the plot. The play evokes a tension between the “flower power” and “radical action” perspectives among protesters. Take, for example, a moment when the jarring song “Break on Through,” by the Doors, interrupts the Mamas and the Papas’ wistful tune “California Dreamin’.”
These devices help develop some of the play’s central questions, still relevant today. What does it mean to protest? Is non-violent resistance treason, or can it be patriotic? What is the most effective vehicle for change? The play doesn’t slow down to deal with these issues through character development; there are so many characters and time periods that the play sometimes feels like a string of moral aphorisms tied together only loosely. The plot is engaging, though, as it takes the audience through tumultuous events that are still relevant today.
Lisa Peterson-de la Cueva (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an educator and has taught in various contexts, including junior high social studies and adult basic education. She is transitioning from a career in teaching to freelance writing and is interning at TC Daily Planet.