Below a grainy photo of the Twin Towers spewing black smoke, it touted the "honest dialogue" about 9/11 that the three-day array of theater events intended to advertise—"honest dialogue" being a surprisingly effective dog-whistle for "conspiracy theory." It promoted plays with obviously tinhat-friendly names like 9/11 and the YouTube Tapes along with others like To Kill Eric Garner, The Horrors of Cocaine, and Gaza Emergency Pageant.
Naked Uncle Sam was the first of Thursday's scheduled plays. I was the only audience member, and the four actors read from scripts, yelling above the din of traffic lurching by the First Street Green Park, where the reading took place. At the opening of the play, three girls find an unassuming vagrant man on a Central Park bench, who we later learn is Uncle Sam, stripped of his dignity and patriotic garb. He begins detailing his sins—America's sins—to the girls, and with every story, they bring him back a piece of his outfit. At first, the narrative is palatable: Sam talks about slavery, and Martin Luther King, and violence against Native Americans. But by the end of the play, he's in full stars-and-stripes regalia, yelling about the Pentagon and false flag operations. All appears to be merry for the truthers until an irritable NYPD officer realizes what the girls have become and chases them off. "9/11 was an inside job!", they scream at him in unison.
Most of the ideas I discussed with the actors and playwrights who performed are the same kinds of ideas I discuss with friends and colleagues, and that get published on sites like Gawker every day: Income inequality needs to be fixed. Institutionalized racism is alive and well in America. The flow of military equipment to local police departments is deeply troubling. War is bad. The only difference is that for these people, the imagined U.S. government conspiracy behind 9/11 is to blame.
For Exavier Wardlaw, the playwright who directed and produced the festival, all the issues in Naked Uncle Sam are intimately connected. "Since 9/11, how much money has been spent? How much money went to the military-industrial complex?" he asked me during a conversation before the plays. "How much American money—the money of the citizens—went to buy tanks, and bombs, which we ship to Iraq wholesale? And half of those are now in our police departments. And the police are making war on American citizens. That's all 9/11. That all stemmed from 9/11. Those programs that allowed the police to get military weapons—that's all 9/11."
Earlier in our conversation, Wardlaw mentioned Michael Brown: "Poor man is just killed for living while black. Not driving while black, living while black. He was killed. The same with Eric Garner." He also mentioned that jet fuel can't melt steel, and two planes can't knock down three buildings, and a Boeing aircraft can't fly 550 m.p.h. at sea level. When I told him I don't believe that the government was behind the attacks, and asked him what he'd say if he were trying to convince me, he responded, flatly: "Well, first of all, I'd tell you that you're wrong."
Ben Adducchio, an actor and former public radio journalist who plays the police officer, doesn't actually believe 9/11 was an inside job, but enthusiastically participated nonetheless. He, too, described a connection between the events of that day and mainstream progressive issues:
"Had there not been a 9/11, there most likely would not have been a Patriot Act. I think that, regardless of our views, whether or not you believe that 9/11 was engineered by the American government, I think that everyone can agree that the Patriot Act violates Americans' Fourth-Amendment rights," Adducchio said. "And the invasion of the right to privacy is directly corollated to police brutality against minorities, to oppression in impoverished neighborhoods, and the like."
He added: "I wonder what the world would be like now, had there not been a 9/11."
The next play, Gaza Emergency Pageant, was considerably more polished, and drew dozens of spectators. The Bread & Puppet Theater, a protest theater troupe that's been active since Vietnam, performed a solemn, near-silent elegy for the victims of violence in Gaza, complete with masks, violin music, and towering, elaborate creatures. It was moving in its austerity, and it didn't so much as mention September 11.
I asked Joeseph Therrien, a resident puppeteer with the company, whether he felt any personal conflict about performing. "I'm definitely not willing to say that our government caused 9/11, or brought the buildings down, but I do know that there are government files that have been made public, that are official files that have similar scenarios throughout history, where they were planning on bombing our own cities, and then blaming it on—it obviously never happened," he said. (It's possible that he was referring to the "Northwoods" memorandum, a real, truther-favorite Department of Defense memo from 1962 that proposed committing acts of violence in America to create support for a war on Cuba.)
He continued: "I guess I wouldn't put anything past our government."
After Gaza Emergency Pageant, Thursday's event was over. I spoke to Wardlaw and Carla Cubit, who wrote The Horrors of Cocaine, about their history together. Decades ago, they were East Village squatters. They saw the neighborhood, and the city, and the country, wrestled away from artists and people of color like themselves in real-time, and for them, for whatever reason, 9/11 is a kind of climax in that narrative. I wondered how two nice, passionate people became so misguided on their festival's central issue.
Cubit told me she'd never encountered the term "truther" before helping to organize the festival. She was visibly agitated when describing the dismissiveness she's encountered along the way. "I've joined some 9/11 groups on Facebook in trying to promote this event, and some of the groups are '9/11 truthers are crazy,'" she said. "So I'm thinking: 'What the heck are truthers?' Oh, truthers are the 9/11 people who they think are crazy."