By Russ Widdal, actor in Roseburg
On October 1, 2015, the sleepy logging town of Roseburg, Oregon, briefly became the center of the gun controversy in America. I say briefly because the beautiful and bucolic town earned this sad title by hosting what was (at the time) the latest mass shooting to shock and appall the nation. As frightening and grotesque as these tragedies are, they are just as certain to be quickly replaced by a new and even more devastating massacre. And then we move on …
Forty-seven years earlier in the waning days of the 1968 presidential primaries, an altogether different sort of tragedy occurred in the same little Oregon town. At the time, it seemed little more than a missed opportunity for a rising political star; a failed attempt to court the vote of a rural but open-minded citizenry who should have been receptive to the pro-people, anti-violence message of this well-known Beltway operator. But that message fell on deaf ears and the tragedy of this initial failure led indirectly to the cataclysm that would occur nearly five decades later.
New City Stage Company’s new play Roseburg takes a hard, unflinching look at these two, linked chapters in the ongoing argument among Americans about the things we hold dear: our friends, our families, and our beloved firearms.
First work-shopped and performed in the summer of 2016 in the shadow of the Democratic National Convention, Roseburg is the creation of Philadelphia-based playwright and director Ginger Dayle. Its inspiration came from a broadcast of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show that aired days after the 2015 shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. During the episode, the host showed an archived video of a speech by Robert F. Kennedy given on the ’68 campaign trail in Roseburg, Oregon. The topic of the day was the war in Vietnam and indeed Kennedy came prepared to speak about it, but the crowd had other ideas.
A gun control bill that had been debated on the Senate floor had the Oregonians’ full attention and they were determined to be heard. The crowd mercilessly heckled and booed Kennedy, and he ultimately lost the Oregon primary. It was the first loss by a Kennedy in any sort of election, ever, and Bobby was stung. Although he recovered enough to win the contentious California primary contest, he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet as he left the victory celebration.
Roseburg asks us to wonder how this first tragedy affected the second. With Bobby gone, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago descended into riotous chaos as Hubert Humphrey failed to unify the party and Nixon won with relative ease. Nothing stood in the way of Richard Nixon and his “law and order” platform.
Flash forward and the current NRA stranglehold on our Congress is a monster with many tentacles, but we all have our opinions on how this came about and what we must do about it. Is it a gun problem? Is it a mental health problem? Is it a political problem? See Roseburg and decide for yourself.
Roseburg is directed by Ginger Dayle and stars Russ Widdall, Jackie DiFerdinando, Ashton Carter, Arlen Hancock, Marantha Purring, Kayla Tarpley, Jed Krivisky, Nick Roesler, Ebony Pullum. Tickets are available here.
Russ Widdall is a professional tv, film, and theatre actor based out of Philadelphia and NYC, best known for portraying Robert F. Kennedy in a number of projects. He is also known for portraying Ron Lowenthal on HBO’s The Wire. He is the Producing Artistic Director of New City Stage Company, the only regional theatre that focuses on producing politically focused work. He can be seen in the upcoming independent feature Wetlands, starring Heather Graham.