The Hill/Thomas Hearings
Onyx Theatre Ensemble
at the Edgewater Theatre Center
By Carol Burbank
When Senator Edward Kennedy said, “This is all Shakespeare…” during the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991, I doubt he expected his statement to be taken literally and the hearings transplanted to an actual theater. But certainly, because they were televised, the participants were forced to become actors in a public dramatization of America’s failure to comprehend race, class, and gender hierarchies as filtered through the lens of sexual harassment. And Mame Hunt’s dramatization of the hearings, Unquestioned Integrity, is an intelligently staged, compellingly performed documentary that gives audiences the rare opportunity to examine the confusing heart of our own culture.
The testimony is verbatim but Hunt has carefully edited it to show the conflicts and alliances enacted during the hearings: this carefully staged dose of reality creates a tension that fiction rarely achieves. Placing Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Senate committee (represented by one actor) onstage forces us to reenact our own voyeurism from the peanut galleries of our living rooms in 1991. But in the theater we can’t turn off the TV or take a snack break when we get disgusted. This condensed reenactment, which gives equal time to Hill and Thomas, forces us to confront our recent past. We become a de facto jury but are tainted by our own previous judgments, jokes, and inattention during the actual hearings.
The press of daily experience also makes it easy to overlook subtleties that theater can highlight. Director J.R. Sullivan choreographs the testimony to reveal the networks of power behind the scenes. In 1991 it was painfully obvious to most people that the senators could not comprehend the testimony to discrimination offered by Thomas and Hill. Hunt puts the senators’ sometimes willful ignorance in perspective by having the witnesses approach them in an effort to be heard. When Anita Hill steps onto the senators’ platform to repeat, for the third time, her reasons for keeping silent, the senator steadfastly watches her chair, ignoring her attempt to stand on equal ground and be perceived as a professional. When Thomas expounds on stereotypes of black men, the senator leaves the platform and joins him downstage, and the two men sip their water as if the courtroom had become a casual cocktail party on the old-boy circuit.
The three skillful cast members make these simple gestures, which could have seemed polemical, into compelling theater. The transcript itself is dramatic, with its explicit sexual references, evasive oratory, and coercive questioning. But the actors’ expert portrayals of the personal dynamics between these familiar figures clearly demonstrate their political histories and professional connections. And, remarkably, their past associations and present antagonisms are dramatized with sympathy for all the characters, even the senators–who seem the most careless in their privileged ignorance.
When Hill (Celeste Williams) watches from the background as Thomas cries out, “This is a circus…a high-tech lynching,” she’s both sympathetic and angry in her stillness, embodying black women’s struggle to support their race while confronting sexual discrimination. Sullen and trapped, David Barr’s Clarence Thomas has a desperate and calculated dignity. He moves painfully sometimes, as if he were held together only by the will to remain still. At other moments it seems as if his controlled self-righteousness were a form of violence, focused in a stare or a seemingly casual gesture, a hand resting on the back of a chair. All three performers copy their originals precisely, creating imitations so uncanny they made me forget they were actors. They enable the transcripts to stand on their own, with no asides, interior monologues, or exposition.
Designers Lori Fong and Kathy Perkins have shaped the small studio at the Edgewater Theatre Center with spare efficiency. A smudged but imposing American flag serves as a backdrop for the Senate chamber, represented by two tables. The senators, played by Donald Brearley, speak from an upstage platform, peering down on the witness table. A round red rug focuses the light and the scene’s energy on this fragile-looking table and chair, which seem to represent the act of testifying itself. The set invites the audience to sit in that chair, under that scrutiny, and face the dirty flag. Without the safety and distance of television, the hearings become more personal and painful and strangely comic as the melodrama and injustice of the Senate “court” are re-created.
Unquestioned Integrity does not presume to explain the exact nature of the past associations and antagonisms that led to the hearings: the testimony alone speaks for Hill and Thomas. The relationships in this staging only demonstrate possible connections and contradictions, which can be interpreted (or reinterpreted) by an audience already biased. This production softened my own previous harsh judgment of Thomas, reminding me of the very human connection between fear and oppressive behavior.
Five years after the hearings, as Thomas and others are steadily dismantling affirmative action, this documentary is particularly important. Citizens are being asked to decide, on personal and collective levels, who we choose to believe, and how we want to legislate our belief. This play documents the first stage of a debate that is reshaping the legal, economic, and personal relationships between diverse interest groups in America, offering a chilling reminder of the ambiguities and undercurrents of “moral” constructions of public policy.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joann Carney.