In 1954, the great Buffalo playwright and labor leader Manny Fried, who died in 2011, made an agonizing decision that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
With his marriage on the rocks and the future of the thousands of Western New York union members he represented weighing on his mind, Fried refused to answer questions or name names during his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
What’s more, in an act of courage that established Fried as a great defender of democracy in addition to a booming voice for American workers, he used his platform to accuse that committee of violating the United States Constitution. Its unforgivable crime, according to Fried, was merely existing.
That decision, the central event in Anna Kay France’s new adaptation of Fried’s book “The Un-American” opening May 7 in the Manny Fried Playhouse, was not merely about standing up against the scourge of McCarthyism. It wasn’t only about the very real prospect of jail time or of being personally blacklisted.
It was about complicating the rest of his life and the lives of his friends and family by giving the federal government the tenuous excuse it needed to bring down its full weight upon him and those he loved. It was about his permanent establishment, according to an FBI file he often quoted, as “a symbol of the left that must be broken.”
And it was about sacrificing personal happiness and family stability for the sake of the greater good, and, ultimately about manufacturing a lifetime of guilt and anguish over the effect that choice had on those around him.
“Plenty of us ask ourselves, what would we do if it came down to it?” said Kurt Schneiderman, a student and collaborator of Fried’s whose Subversive Theatre Company is producing the play. “Nobody has an easy answer for that. Most of us have never gotten close to really being in that situation. But he was in that situation and he didn’t have the answer either, but he stood his ground and he made a very heroic stand.”
As Fried expected, the fallout was swift and merciless. Longtime friends and allies fell away. His young daughters were ostracized from their friends at school and from neighborhood carpools. He couldn’t get a job in the United States, nor pursue his acting career on Broadway or in Hollywood. What he could do – and did – was write.
“The FBI very consciously went after all of his close allies and told them they had better inform on him or else they were in trouble, so suddenly it’s not just a personal choice anymore, this is a choice that is hurting a whole lot of people,” Schneiderman said. “These people were incredibly important to him. He really valued what they were giving to the union movement and he really felt he had to win his fight for them and for himself.”
In some ways, France’s adaptation of Fried’s “The Un-American,” which he labeled a “nonfiction autobiographical novel,” is an anatomy of “heroism.” The book and the play feature two characters, one representing Manny (Richard Lambert) and the other an alter ego (Guy Wagner) representing the ever-present and sometimes schizophrenic voice of criticism, egotism, pride and self-doubt that resided in his head throughout his life.
For France, who said she made a conscious attempt to avoid hero worship in the play, Fried’s choice to put his family and friends at risk rather than cower before the committee sent echoes of guilt throughout his entire life.
“I have ended up feeling that he had to make that decision at that moment. I think that if he had not decided the way he did, he would not have been able to live with himself,” France said. “There were so many times later on when he could have backed away from the stance that he took, when he could have yielded, given in.”
That he didn’t, everyone involved with this project agrees, is a testament to his almost unfathomable strength and his continued importance to the theatrical and political landscape of Western New York.
“I think legacy is important, in every aspect of life and certainly in the performing arts. Especially in the Manny Fried Playhouse,” director Greg Natale said. “I think it’s important for all of us to keep his spirit alive.”