B Street Theater Tackles the Tough Stuff in new play, Chessman
By Kellie Edson
Controversial topics, Sacramento history and strong female characters that hold the story together – Chessman, the newest show to come out of B Street Theater opens this week for a limited 10-day engagement.
Chessman is a world premiere play written by Joseph Rodota, who has worked at the highest levels or federal, state and local politics for more than 30 years, and directed by B Street’s co-founder and producing director, Buck Busfield.
Chessman centers around infamous death row prisoner Caryl Chessman, who was convicted in 1948 of “kidnapping with bodily harm,” a capital offense at the time, for abducting and raping two women. Chessman fought the sentence for 12 years from San Quentin Prison, until it seemed he had no other options and his only hope of clemency was from that of Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, California’s governor at the time. (Yes, that would be our current governor, Jerry Brown’s father.) This poignant play tells the story of Chessman’s final months on death row through the memory of the late Governor Brown’s family’s eyes.
Last week I got to sit down and chat with the play’s two lead actresses, Elisabeth Nunziato and Fiona Robberson, and director Buck Busfield.
One thing I wanted to ask all of them was, why do you think this play is an important story to tell now?
“Well for one, it’s on the ballot next month,” said Buck, referring to CA proposition 62 to repeal the death penalty. “But you know, as a dramatist, we love conflict and perfectly balanced arguments. And the death penalty is a perfect example of that.”
Speaking to the trial process and scenes in the show, Elisabeth, who plays Governor Brown’s wife, Bernice says, “It’s shocking to see how far we’ve come. Seeing what the judge allowed in the trial, the slut-shaming of Chessman’s victims.” Alluding to how rape has been treated in 2016 trials, Elisabeth adds “But what’s more unsettling is to also see how far we’ve not come.”
Chessman acted as his own lawyer for a part of the trial process, so he is literally cross-examining his own victims. “Buck and Joe have been extremely judicious when it comes to the scenes related to rape,” says Elisabeth, “They are short and powerful.”
“It’s more about what you aren’t seeing,” adds Fiona, who plays both Pat Brown’s daughter Kathleen, and Chessman’s victim, Mary Alice Meza and is new to Sacramento. This is Fiona’s second time acting in a play related to the death penalty. When I asked the group if doing this show altered their personal beliefs when it comes to the death penalty, Fiona said, “It’s interesting, because both shows I was in portray families that are pretty heavily religious. So there’s that ethical question. But, for me it just solidified my position.”
Buck and Elisabeth echoed Fiona’s sentiments. “Every great piece of theater asks some overarching question and doesn’t necessarily answer it. That’s part of what makes theater such a powerful medium,” says Elisabeth. “You will definitely leave thinking, and fired up to take some action – or at least to be better equipped to talk about these tough topics.”
Women are central to both the Chessman case and to Pat Brown’s family. In the family, Bernice and Kathleen are the emotional balance to the conflict Brown is experiencing as he deals with his own turmoil of whether to grant clemency to Chessman. And then of course, the women who are the rape victims are the reason for the whole trial itself. Elisabeth, who is a regular to B Street Theater and the Sacramento theater scene, gushes about Fiona’s performance as Chessman’s victim. “Can I just say, that Fiona is incredibly brave? It takes a strong actress and woman to give voice to these victims, and the persona and intelligence she brings…it’s so powerful. I get to watch her do it over and over again. That’s just the nature of ‘rehearsing’ and it blows me away every time. I just think she’s amazing.”
“It’s difficult to bring these characters to the stage,” says Fiona, “But the realities of what they went through are important. We have to represent it without minimizing it.”
As we were wrapping up the interview, I was telling the ladies I was excited to see the show, but that it felt weird to say I was excited to see something about rape and the death penalty. Elisabeth said, “You know, there’s definitely humor in the family dynamics. I really like the saying ‘You can’t break a heart if you don’t get a laugh.’”
So while the subject matter may be heavy, going to see Chessman you can expect to see a poignant story, with strong women and a timely topic, with a few laughs sprinkled in.
Chessman opens Friday October 14th (with a preview October 13th) and runs until October 22nd with shows Tuesday-Friday at 7pm and Saturdays at 8pm. Prices range $26-38 and can be purchased here.