Playwright Jeffrey Sweet actually met attorney William Kunstler—the subject of his play Kunstler, now onstage at Florida Studio Theatre’s Bowne’s Lab in an area premiere—once, briefly, but at the time, after a full day at a theater conference, “I was so exhausted, I blew my chance to really talk with him,” Sweet recalls. It wasn’t until watching a documentary on the fiery attorney and civil rights activist famous for defending controversial clients including the Chicago Seven, the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground that Sweet realized that Kunstler looked like his friend, actor Jeff McCarthy, “on a bad day,” and the idea for writing a piece for McCarthy to act in was born.
Sweet, whose other plays include The Value of Names, set in the aftermath of the blacklist era, realized he’d need access to some of the attorney’s writings. So he got in touch with two of Kunstler’s daughters, at the same Waverly Diner in New York where Kunstler used to meet his clients. “In the film, they had objected to some of his later cases,” Sweet says, “so I thought they might appreciate my idea of putting a fictional character into the play”—a black female law student who gets stuck introducing Kunstler at a seminar, when she was the one person on the seminar committee who voted against asking him to speak. “He senses her resistance, and there’s a battle between them,” Sweet says. “You’ve got to have some pushback; otherwise you end up with a solo 90-minute show of someone modestly detailing the things they’ve done.”
The play has been staged off-Broadway and by the Barrington Stage company, with McCarthy in the lead role. Here Kunstler is portrayed by Sam Mossler, with Anique Clements in the role of the law student; the two both recently appeared in FST’s Stage III production of The Nether.
Sweet says the productions have received positive response, including from some of the people closest to Kunstler. “His daughter Karin came to see the show five or six times,” he says. “I said to her, ‘Really?’ She said, ‘I miss my dad.’ And Kunstler’s law partner, Ron Kuby, told me, ‘You’ve licked his story.’ For Kunstler, it was really one battle after another; he kept fighting even when he later became disillusioned, feeling he couldn’t change the system. He couldn’t keep himself from fighting anyway.”
Kunstler continues at FST through March 13, and Sweet will be in town during the run to talk about the work; for more information, call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.