Play retells infamous Sacco and Vanzetti case

The University of Calgary’s latest dramatic offering Comrades tackles one of the most controversial legal case in United States history — the contested trial imprisonment and execution of Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti. The case which took place in the 1920s is widely viewed as an affront to civil liberties as Sacco and Vanzetti’s anarchist beliefs made them easy targets during the Red Scare following the First World War.

“It was considered the worst kind of tragedy and travesty” explains director Val Campbell. But despite the historical case it’s based on Comrades by Edmonton playwrights Daniela Vlaskalic and Beth Graham is hardly a courtroom drama. “It reveals these two men’s journey and the incredible struggle that they went through in their seven years [in prison] and how it impacted their families and the people who were gathered around them” says Campbell.

Technically the play is set in the cells where Nicola Sacco (Ryan Gray) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (Chanakya Mukherjee) are imprisoned. The play though depicts scenes from the stories of their lives up until that point and so Campbell explains “The set is a stylistic representation of all the different places of the journey that they took.”

From the voyage by ship to the optimistic arrival in North America to working-class neighbourhoods and the trial Comrades promises a theatrical non-linear story. Campbell says the play isn’t really plot driven but it is not only about lofty ideas either. “We get a sense of the day to day the reality the incredible determination to hold true to their political values.”

Gray and Mukherjee carry the show as the imprisoned men as well as a host of other characters implicated in the action. Both actors admit to not having heard of the Sacco and Vanzetti case before embarking on the play — and say it’s hard to find people who know anything about it.

“It really breaks my heart that this story is not as well known today… because I think their story is incredibly tragic and beautiful and inspiring” says Gray. “They wanted what any normal man would have wanted; they came to America they wanted to just live their lives and be free and be happy and they weren’t even permitted that.”

Period costume and sound design aside the topics that Comrades tackles are still relevant today close to 100 years after the original trial. “Time immemorial we’ve been dealing with these things they haven’t stopped” says Campbell. “People are still in prison people are still tortured people are still unfairly executed. All around the world innocent people are targeted — so [ Comrades ] is really a call to arms.”

Although history tells us how Sacco and Vanzetti’s story ends — in an electric chair — the play won’t leave its audience in despair. “The tragedy isn’t there to just be tragic it’s there to give something to society” says Mukherjee. “I always feel really good when we end the show because we have this bit which for me makes the telling of this whole journey much more relevant.”

Gray agrees. “The fact that [audiences] walk away from the show and have an idea and be thoughtful and mindful — I think that honours the memory of Sacco and Vanzetti better than if it had just ended with their death.”

For those inspired to learn more about the historic case or get involved in present-day social justice issues there will be both a display about the actual Sacco and Vanzetti case and its historical context based on dramaturgical work done for the play as well as a presence for the University of Calgary’s Amnesty International group.