A True Story of Extremist Radicalization, Verbatim

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How does an average American father become a dangerous insurrectionist pursued by the FBI? Fatherland, conceived and directed by Stephen Sachs at the Fountain Theatre, portrays the sociopolitical process, as well as the human experience, of polarization. The play follows a character referred to as “The Son”(Patrick Keleher) testifying against “The Father” (Ron Bottita) in court for his presence at the insurrection on January 6th, 2021. It is a true story, with every line taken from real court transcripts, case evidence, and public statements. This is the art of verbatim theater, in which plays are written and produced without a single line added to or edited, straight from the original source.

The narrative begins in the courtroom as the son gives his testimony, and then moves into his memories of the years prior to the attack, as well as events of January 6th from his father’s perspective. The show shifts between these three time frames seamlessly, often portraying multiple simultaneously. The set by Joel Daavid is built upon a few sparsely painted metallic walls, which change in mood along with the lighting design and plot. The lighting by Allison Brummer and sound design by Stewart Blackwood further immerse the audience into the hearts and minds of the tragic duo. Verbatim theater creates this visceral resonance because it is so close to our reality, only a few steps away from the real events it portrays. These characters are our fellow citizens, our neighbors, our friends, and our family.

Although most of Fatherland is told from the son’s perspective, both of the duo’s experiences are shown just as they were. As the son begins his statement, a flashback brings us into the early 2010s. Our main characters sing along to Taylor Swift on the radio. The son and his father hold political positions that he defines as moderately left and moderately right, respectively. Soon, the audience starts to see the father frustrated. In a tough financial situation with a family to care for, a promised American Dream feels like it’s been stolen from him. An explanation for his troubles is given to him by presidential hopeful Donald Trump, who promises a solution, a better country, that American dream. The Father and Son continue to disagree, slowly drifting farther apart. When Trump wins the election the situation continues to escalate. He tells his son about how they’re going to take their country back. But surely it’s all talk, the son convinces himself. His dad would never actually do that.

When the son wakes up one day, the pickup truck his father had loaded with weapons the night before is gone. He had actually gone to do it. The son makes an online tip to the FBI, and soon watches his father on the news, standing on the United States capitol. The rest is American history.

The son’s story of losing his father, being the one to turn him in, and being shunned from his family afterwards is heartbreaking. But what struck me even more was just how much I felt for the father. I’m sure that many Americans could understand his emotions as well. There is this narrative around the United States, a utopian opportunity to grow and thrive and live a fulfilling life if you just put in the hard work. When that dream feels like it’s slipping through your fingers, you feel cheated. People feel that someone must be out to get them. And when a politician comes along to give those vulnerable people a scapegoat and a promised solution, they often follow.

As I watched Fatherland, what became clear to me was the full extent that extremist politicians intentionally manipulated vulnerable citizens, turning them into pawns in a selfish plan to take down the free democracy they convinced people they were fighting for. Stephen Sachs’ execution of the script brilliantly pieced together the information surrounding January 6th, which currently exists as a disjointed mess in the collective consciousness of most of the country. Who said what, what happened when, and was it really orchestrated or just an unfortunate effect of mob mentality? When you watch the slow descent of this regular human person against the political backdrop of the time, it becomes abundantly clear that it was all intentional.

By giving the audience a view into the father’s experiences with the knowledge that he is a real person, Fatherland connects uswith his humanity, as well as the humanity of other January 6th participants. Actor Ron Bottita, when discussing his role in Fatherland, commented how his goal was to portray the role in a fair and balanced way, and allow the audience to come to their own conclusions. The whole cast and crew communicate that same important quality: truth, without judgment. We see firsthand the dangers of the extremism pipeline that he went through. Fatherland is a masterpiece of humanity, family, and America, which utilizes verbatim theater to connect the audience with the January 6th insurrectionists in a way no other media could. It allows the audience to draw their own conclusions based on the exact events that occurred.

Events like January 6th are so horrific that the easiest way to console ourselves is by framing the people involved in them as crazy, evil, and inhuman. This feels better than confronting the fact that they are real people, usually with good intentions within their warped reality. And while it does not excuse their actions, dehumanizing the people who are radicalized by fascism, as well as their leaders, leads us blind into letting it happen again. In a time when our democracy is under attack, we must recognize that no one is immune to propaganda, and focus our energy towards the people pulling the strings of radicalization. If we don’t, they will continue to tear us apart like father from son.


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