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Stillman's Plays Explore the 50th Anniversary of JFK's Assassination

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In Partnership with UCR ARTSblock
UCR ARTSblock's mission is to provide a cultural presence, educational resource, community center and intellectual meeting ground for the university and the community.

By Tyler Stallings

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963, UCR ARTSblock presents a staged reading of two one-act plays by Deanne Stillman. The first is the award-winning "Inside the White House," which is about JFK and Marilyn Monroe in the afterlife. It takes place in a desert motel where God is the concierge, and explores what happens when two icons must spend an eternity as "themselves." The second play is "Billy the Kid and Lee Harvey Oswald Praise Citizenship in the American Dreamtime," in which two killers -- one revered, one reviled -- help each other through the night.


Book cover for "Mustang" by Deanne Stillman. | Courtesy of the author.Deanne Stillman is a member of the core faculty at the UCR-Palm Desert M.F.A. Low Residency Creative Writing Program. Recently, she won the 2013 Spur Award for best Western contemporary nonfiction for her book, "Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History," which is based on a Rolling Stone Magazine piece. She is also the author of "Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West," which was named a "best book" of 2008 by the Los Angeles Times and won the California Book Award silver medal for nonfiction. It is currently under option for a film starring Wendie Malick. In addition, she wrote "Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave," a Los Angeles Times "best book" of 2001 which was praised by Hunter Thompson and is included in college nonfiction classes around the country, and "Joshua Tree: Desolation Tango."

Were you thinking about the upcoming 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination when you wrote the plays? If not, then what was there original inspiration? Were they written close to one another? Also, I find that these two plays are interesting because they comment on today's celebrity obsessed culture, whether a gunslinger from the Old West, presidential assassin, femme fatale actress, or assassinated president. Was this commentary on your mind as you wrote them?

Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby as Oswald is being moved by police, 1963. | Photograph by Jack Beers Jr., Dallas Morning News photographer. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Deanne Stillman: No, I wrote the plays in the early 1990s and was not thinking of this or any anniversary. The first one I wrote was "Inside the White House," as part of a cycle of plays about our country's worship of fame and celebrity. We don't even use the terms "haves" and "have-nots" any more; people are either famous or not known. The first two plays in that cycle were about ordinary people. Their only point of communion is via celebrities -- talking about them and so on. I started to think about the toll that this worship of the famous is taking on famous people.

How did you decide to choose Marilyn Monroe, JFK, Billy the Kid, and Oswald? I can see how each has become part of American mythology, especially one that is tied so closely to violence.

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DS: Of course one of our most famous figures is Marilyn Monroe. I'm a long-time fan of her work; she was a fantastic actress and a most misunderstood figure, trapped in her persona, the object of celebrity adoration in the extreme. At one time or another, all of us are loved for the wrong reasons and it's hard to shun that sometimes. I came across an interview with Marilyn in which she talked about how the infamous scene in "The Seven Year Itch" (1955) where she stands on the subway grate and her dress blows over her head ruined her marriage. But around the world it's her most beloved scene. Imagine being loved everywhere for the wrong thing! So the play went from there -- a wannabe one-woman show which ran out of steam -- and then one day enter stage right or left, JFK -- literally, blasted through time and space into Marilyn's motel room in the beyond. Of course, he was another major American icon -- one of our most enduring -- caught up in a lot of myths and mantras ("the grassy knoll," "the torch has been passed," and so on). Since they had a past that was unresolved, these two figures had a lot to work out and then the rest of the play unfolded from there. And then of course there's the big question: Who killed JFK? I decided to answer it once and for all.

The only surviving authenticated portrait of Billy the Kid, tintype, unattributed, possibly a traveling photographer who came through Fort Sumner in 1880. | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

And then how did you come to consider a play on an assassin and a bandit?

DS: Sometime later, I wrote "Billy the Kid and Lee Harvey Oswald Praise Citizenship in the American Dreamtime." I've given a lot of thought to this thing we all learned in third grade -- "it's a free country and I can do what I want"...It's a great thing, and a troublesome thing, as I've realized over the years. Some of the people I write about are frozen at that stage, killers and outlaws whose personal psychosis has synched up with America's dream of self. I hear people say this all of the time: "It's a free country...I have my rights...How come the other guy didn't get a ticket?" This identity for some people is all they have, especially outlaws and killers. Exactly how this play came to me I can't remember, but all of this stuff has been on my mind for a long time. While I was working on "Twentynine Palms," I met descendants of Jesse James and this affiliation was a point of pride for them, a connection with both a celebrity and an outlaw. A movie I've long admired is Gore Vidal's "Billy the Kid" -- "That makes two of us," he once told me at a party -- and throughout this period, I kept thinking about Billy the Kid, and also modern killers such as Lee Harvey Oswald, especially after I wrote "Inside the White House" and was going over and over the assassination of JFK, reading a lot on the subject, and especially about Oswald. I had already read a lot about Billy the Kid and it just seemed to me that both were incredibly misunderstood, killers who missed the love boat. The Sherman Alexie short story title, "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" (1993) inspired my title and helped my play gel in some way. In the end, it's a love story, just like "Inside the White House."

You are known mainly as a passionate nonfiction writer. Have you published many plays, screenplays, fiction, or poetry in the past? How do you see these plays fitting within your present oeuvre?

Book cover for "Twentynine Palms" by Deanne Stillman. | Courtesy of the author.
DS: I've written for network television series, including Square Pegs (Sarah Jessica Parker's first show) (1982-1983) and "A Different World" (with Lisa Bonet) (the first season, 1987). I adapted the ancient Greek tragedy "Antigone" on commission for the Hudson Guild Theatre in L.A. and also my book "Twentynine Palms" for TriStar. These plays are right in line with my work, having to do with outsiders and exiles, even if the characters are famous, and also exploring national myths. Note that the plays are set in the desert, where much of my work unfolds; it's the place that fuels our dream of self and nurtures our fantasies and nightmares.

In a recent interview following the publication of your new book, Mustang, you say that "these stories have all been of a piece, tales of war and peace on the modern and historical frontier, and they have become books that were years in the making. In each of them, two rivers have converged: my long-time affinity for the desert and an identification with those whose voices are not heard." In the context of Mustang, the "voices" not heard are those of abused wild horses. This notion of "voices not heard" feels like a thread through these two plays dealing with JFK, which would include the alternative and speculative voices for well-known figures such as JFK and Marilyn Monroe, and then the voices of killers. Am I making a stretch here?

DS: That's exactly right.

In much of your writing, you are bearing witness to violence in our society, whether human on human, or human on nonhuman animal. Is this to inspire others to try and rectify the situations?

DS: If my work inspires people to go beyond reading, or take a look at the American condition, or their own, that's great. "Mustang" has had a big impact across the board, bringing many into the campaign for wild horse and burro preservation, raising money for organizations, triggering a strong reaction on many fronts. It's been very gratifying, but it was not my intention as a writer, and I can say for a fact that my book about wild horses has almost run me over in a number of ways. But quite simply, I'm called to tell certain stories and that's all I can say.

Book cover for Desert Reckoning by Deanne Stillman. | Courtesy of the author.Please correct me if I'm wrong, but from recent interviews, it seems that you have only recently reconnected with your Jewish ethnic and spiritual history, which would seem to connect to your fascination with the desert, in regard to a historical location of Jews, and to issues of persecution, violence, and bearing witness. Can you discuss this more in the context of your overall process and perhaps in relation to these plays?

DS: Your observations are correct, but the connection has already been there. If you read my books closely, you'll find direct references to the sacred. While I was working on "Mustang" and found out that converso or secret Jews were among the conquistadors and that Cortés' own blacksmith was a secret Hebrew fleeing the Inquisition, this connection became stronger, partly because I myself grew up around horses and have an affinity for them. This blacksmith was actually burnt at the stake in the New World; the Inquisition tracked him down. Imagine surviving a trans-Atlantic crossing, only to have this happen...Also some of the first cowboys on this continent were Jews in hiding; the dark, handsome stranger was silent for a reason. All of this history deepened my connection to my ancestors. Then a trip to the San Diego Natural History Museum in 2007 to see the Dead Sea Scrolls had a big impact. Seeing a tiny fragment of parchment with the dregs of an ancient inscription really hit me - later, not at that moment. I realized that I am one of many in a long line of men and women marching through the desert, trying to make sense of things by way of sounds and letters, a person of the Book, for better or for worse. Or to quote Marilyn, whose menorah that Arthur Miller gave her was auctioned off a few years ago at Sotheby's, "It's me. Don't you remember? The tomato from upstairs." This was from "The Seven Year Itch" -- long live Marilyn and JFK, wherever you are....

Portrait of author Deanne Stillman in the desert. | Courtesy of the author.

UCR ARTSblock presents Two One-Act Plays by Deanne Stillman: Inside the White House & Billy the Kid and Lee Harvey Oswald Praise Citizenship in the American Dreamtime, Saturday, November 23, 2013, 7:30 p.m., free admission.

Related Film Screening

On the evening prior to the Stillman plays, Culver Center of the Arts presents the film "Grey Gardens," an eerie echo of the Kennedy Camelot, Friday, November 22, 7 PM, ticketed admission.

Meet Big and Little Edie Beale -- high-society dropouts, mother and daughter, reclusive cousins of Jackie O. -- thriving together amid the decay and disorder of their ramshackle East Hampton mansion. This impossibly intimate portrait, and an eerie echo of the Kennedy Camelot, by Albert and David Maysles, quickly became a cult classic and established Little Edie as a fashion icon and philosopher queen. Grey Gardens inspired a Broadway show, fashion spreads in both Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, a Hollywood remake, and Jackie O. to save the couple from a hazardous health eviction order.


Movie poster for Grey Gardens. | Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

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Top Image: Secret Service Special Agent Clint Hill climbs onto the Presidential limousine, seconds after the fatal shot that killed JFK on November 22, 1963, Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas. | Photograph by Justin Newman. Photo in public domain and courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

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