Kunstler by Jeffrey Sweet, directed by Meagen Fay, pays homage to a monumental civil rights lawyer of the second half of the 20th century. William Kunstler worked on some of the most iconic cases of the 1960s and 1970s and had a tremendous impact on the legal system.
It was an era strangely reminiscent of the current divisive political climate in the U.S. American citizens who were against racism and the Viet Nam War understood that the government was only serving some of the public interest. Many politicians, especially in the South, turned a blind eye toward racial and economic injustice. Indeed, the overarching power of federal law enforcement (under the FBI) and Southern law enforcement protected the rights only of white citizens and corporations. The government had to be pressed to uphold rights guaranteed under the law, such as equity in education, equity in housing, and voting rights. In learning about Kunstler’s importance we note the play’s predominant theme: Justice must constantly be fought for in every decade, including today.
Where there were injustices or civil rights violations, Kunstler was likely to be involved. He was a vocal advocate for the underprivileged and those who were defying a law that was unjust or, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “was no law at all.” Where there was a stand to be made, Kunstler was in the thick of it, advocating for his renowned clients (Abby Hoffmann, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis (the Chicago Seven), the Cantonville Nine, the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and even John Gotti among many others.
His forward thinking and clever, maverick approach to the law often won the day. He left a trail of enemies and whorls of controversy in his wake. One either loved Kunstler or despised him as a shameless publicity hound. But one had to respect him for his lightning-acute mind, his humorous wit, his keen intuition and wisdom, and his ethical treatment for all, especially those who had been violated by the justice system.
Much of his character is revealed, indeed uncannily inherent, in the profound and inspired performance by Jeff McCarthy in the title role. McCarthy is incredible in the way he embodies the look, the voice, the ethos of this figure of jurisprudence and icon of U.S. Civil Rights history.
Kunstler is superb primarily because of McCarthy’s incisive portrayal and because of the playwright’s selection of the groundbreaking moments in Kunstler’s life. Each instance reveals a vital turning point in jurisprudence, ethics, and egregious governmental injustice implemented by willing and corrupt law enforcement, all of which resonate today. Shepherded with very fine direction by Meagen Fay, McCarthy’s Kunstler is a tribute to the lawyer who refused to defend the right-wing Minutemen because “I only defend those whose goals I share. I’m not a lawyer for hire. I only defend those I love.”
That Kunstler was largely misunderstood is dealt with throughout the production, which takes place at a generic law school in the 1990s just prior to his death. Kunstler speaks at a podium in an auditorium, and we become his audience. Outside, protestors are boycotting him and have distributed flyers railing against him. Indeed, the play may be likened to a trial in which Kunstler testifies for himself. We are asked to consider his arguments as he presents his life’s story. And we must gauge whether his life is worthy of the honor some would bestow upon it or whether he was just another hack lawyer attempting to feather his own nest.
As a foil to Kunstler, the playwright creates the character of Kerry, the Vice-Chairman of the law school’s program committee (played by the able Nambi E. Kelley). Throughout, Kerry shows her skepticism, holding Kunstler to account and challenging him. With aloof taciturnity, she implies that she is not pleased that he is speaking to the student body. But by the play’s conclusion, after his talk, Kunstler manages to strike at the core of Kerry’s doubts about him, eloquently revealing the pieces of the puzzle that have been missing for her, extinguishing her doubts and encouraging her to be as he is.
The play is vibrantly drawn. Its action shifts as Kunstler addresses his audience, tells jokes, moves from the podium into the audience, and solicits Kerry’s involvement. The variety maintains our interest. McCarthy portrays him as a warm and open individual, extending friendship to the reticent Kerry. He is naturally “a hugger,” who even hugs mobsters.
Sweets’ expertly delineated portrait of Kunstler gives rise to the idea that the lawyer was interested in continually evolving as a person. It also suggests that he was concerned about recognizing where individuals were without prejudgment, and that perhaps he could move them off inflexible notions to have a dialogue about the logic and rationality of their views.
At the outset, Kunstler tells the audience in a friendly, avuncular manner – all broad smiles and grand gestures (McCarthy is spot on with this) – that he is aware that the type of law he practices, his clients, his politics are anathema to many (the inference he makes is to militant Jews who dislike his defense of Muslims, and Republicans who dislike his politics). He suggests that they weigh the merits of the case presented by those who boycott him against this presentation he will give, and following their consciences, decide whether the other side is credible and honorable. If they decide against him, they can “boycott him retroactively.”
Immediately, we are won over by Kunstler’s considerable charm, humor, soundness of mind and lack of fear. This is an individual who is open to discussion and compromise (a rare trait in our culture today). Certainly, he is completely aware of what others think about him, and is nonplussed about it. All of these qualities are inherent in many great men, who also demonstrate a certain humility which is, at its core, based on seeing both sides of an issue. What is paramount in his character is that he reveals an ability to stand in other’ shoes and see from their perspective.
Sweet follows the arc of Kunstler’s life from a progressive, parlor liberal who salves his conscience about helping African Americans by supporting the Urban League and the NAACP to becoming the most radical lawyer in America. What ultimately moved him was a call from the ACLU sending him to Jackson, Mississippi, where he became truly useful to the Freedom Riders in their stand against Jim Crow Laws.
Sweet reveals the intricacies of how Kunstler and others were able to spring 400 Freedom Riders from a state penitentiary (incarcerated in maximum security for drinking a Coke at a white counter), and how he fought for the Chicago Seven against notorious Justice Julius Hoffman. We also hear of the prison riots at Attica, and his most important trial in support of the American Indian Movement after the Wounded Knee incident. It was not all glory; descriptions are poignant. We learn he was held in contempt of court, was lonely away from home, and acutely felt the loss of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy and an ending of the movement’s momentum.
Through Kerry’s questioning of Kunstler’s devolution in client selection from the Cantonville Five to John Gotti and the Central Park Five, answers to the mysteries about Kunstler are revealed at the climax. Cogently, concisely, Kunstler solidifies the meat of the argument for his life’s work. He reveals that jurisprudence in this country is gravely wanting and needs able civil rights lawyers to continually hold the system to account. This is especially so when the legal system blatantly moves far afield of constitutional rights by implementing unjust laws that favor political or business factions and special interests at the expense of others. All of these laws are “legal,” but they mete out unequal justice. The speech is devastating. We are living his words.
I cannot praise this production enough. It is a walk through history that evokes today’s political and social climate. McCarthy gives us an incredible encounter with a monumental human being. Those who have known Kunstler up close would be satisfied.
Kunstler runs until 12 March at 59E59 Theaters. See it to be uplifted by the views of a lawyerly lion. See it to be encouraged by his actions and views in a time which screams out for us to manifest a similar courage, good will, dedicated activism and brilliance.