Jack Karp's Play Poses Questions About Morality and Protest

Meet local playwright Jack Karp, whose latest play is currently running at the New Ohio Theatre in Manhattan. Titled Incendiary Agents, it takes place in the Vietnam War and attempts to raise parallel questions about our own current attitude toward political protest. Jack expands on this, as well as his Brooklyn roots and attraction to Ditmas Park, in our recent interview with him.

Jack Karp

So tell us a little bit about this play.

Well, basic synopsis…Incendiary Agents is about a group of friends led by a Catholic priest and his brother — it takes place during the Vietnam War, about 1969 — and they decide that in order to protest the war, they’re going to break into a local draft board office in the middle of the night and sabotage the draft. They make a container of homemade napalm — for symbolic reasons — and try to burn as many draft files as they can. Predictably, this plan goes awry and the play is basically about the choices they’re forced to make once that happens.

I know that you were commissioned to write the play. When the company, Nylon Fusion Collective, approached you, did they ask you to write a play about war or a protest play or something specific? Or did you decide independently this was something you wanted to write about?

They definitely wanted a political play. They didn’t give me a specific topic. It was originally supposed to come out to coincide with the election, but plays don’t always come out when they’re supposed to. The Artistic Director also wanted something that took place in the late ’60s/early ’70s. She wanted a history play. That was the basic guideline I was given — political play taking place in the late ’60s/early ’70s.

Well, then you’re kind of asking for a play about the Vietnam War, right?

Yeah, it’s hard to avoid. But once I got the assignment, I did a lot of research on that era to find what I wanted to write about. I did think about the Civil Rights movement, Kent State, Watergate, but, yeah you’re right, it’s hard to avoid the Vietnam War. Everything was related to that in some way.

Obviously, there are inherent links between wars going on now and the war going on then, but is there anything in the play that overtly comments on what’s happening today?

Over the last couple years, we’ve seen kind of a rising protest movement with Occupy. I thought there were some interesting parallels between what Occupy was doing and what the draft board raiders were doing. But, to be honest, the biggest relevancy between what’s going on in the play and what’s going on now is kind of a lack of parallel. I’m really fascinated by the fact that in the late ’60s/early ’70s, there was so much protest — people were marching in the street, doing things like this draft board action where they were willing to go to prison for 6 years. Meanwhile, now, we’re just out of Iraq, we’re still in Afghanistan, and you see no protest. There was a little bit of protest at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, but it died out pretty quickly. I’m fascinated with what changed, why that is.

And the fact that you chose a Catholic priest, does it have to do with your own feelings about religion, is it more about the relationship between religion and protest?

To be honest, the real reason why the main character is a Catholic priest is history. There was a movement at that time called the Catholic Left, which is hard to imagine now since we think so much of Christians as the Christian Right. They were very active in protesting against the war and protesting against poverty. Catholics, both lay people and clergy, organized these raids. There were two priests who were brothers, Phil and Dan Berrigan, Jesuit priests. They were both peace activists and the main character is very loosely inspired by them. But I do think there are some very interesting issues that come up from that — a definite element in the play about how you define morality. Is morality what the institutions tell you it is or is it what you decide for yourself? Where do you draw that line?

I will say this — and this is one of my favorite elements of the play — the fact that the main character is a priest gave me the ability as a playwright to draw parallels between scripture and civil law. One of my favorite parts is when an FBI agent infiltrating the group and the priest have a kind of face off.

Where do you write? Home, somewhere in the neighborhood?

I’m a big coffee shop writer and I find it really difficult to write in the apartment. Too many distractions. I usually end up at either Cafe Madeline or Qathra. I find that if I go to a coffee shop and just bring a pen and my manuscript, and I buy a coffee, I have to write because now I’m stuck. It forces me to really focus. I also just like the people, the white noise in the background.

How did decide to move here?

I moved maybe 14, 15 months ago. Actually the reason we moved here…my girlfriend and I were living a little further out, like Avenue J, and we had good friends, musicians, who live on Rugby and Cortelyou. We used to visit them a lot because their neighborhood was so much cooler than ours, they had such better restaurants and coffee shops and everything was open on Saturday. So when our lease was up, we very much focused on Ditmas Park. Honestly, I don’t think we looked at any other neighborhoods.

I was actually born in Brooklyn and grew up not that far from where we live now — on Ocean Parkway and Foster Avenue. My family moved out when I was a kid, about 10, and I didn’t come back until I was about 33. It took me a long time to move back to Brooklyn. And I have to admit, when I moved in with my girlfriend at Avenue J, it was kind of eerie. It was only a couple blocks from where I grew up.

And the actor who plays the lead is actually, like me, from Brooklyn. He lives in Jersey now, but he was born and grew up in Brooklyn.

Besides this play, do you have anything else coming up?

The next thing is I have is something in Nylon’s 10-minute play festival at the end of April. But the next big thing I have is unfortunately not in New York. I have a full-length play that’ll be in a theatre conference in Omaha, Nebraska, at the end of May. I’m really excited about that. They’re flying me out there, giving me a hotel and room and board and a theater and some actors. Just a week to do nothing but workshop the play. I’ve never actually done that before, so I’m very excited.

Incendiary Agents runs through March 24 at the New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street in Manhattan. Tickets are available at smarttix.com.