Premiere Stages, the resident professional theater at Kean University in New Jersey, continues its commitment to new American plays with the world premiere of Martin Casella’s historical drama Black Tom Island, inspired by true events that many regard as the nation’s first terrorist attack, which took place in Jersey City in 1916. Adding to the local color and significance of the experience, the Oct. 11-21 production is staged at Liberty Hall Museum’s historic 1882 Carriage House in Union, NJ.
Playwright Casella told me, “Black Tom Island is a 90-minute drama set in the sweltering summer of 1916, a year before America entered The Great War. Based on a true story, the play takes place on the night leading up to — and two days after — the massive Black Tom Island explosion in New York Harbor, when over two million pounds of explosives bound for England were blown up by German saboteurs.”
Premiere Stages founding artistic director John J. Wooten directs Damian Buzzerio, Mason Hensley, Jenna Krasowski and Bart Shatto. Casella is best known for his Off-Broadway play The Irish Curse, which has enjoyed international productions.
Casella said that the fictionalized play focuses on four people: “a young Slovakian couple who are hard-working immigrants, a dedicated Polish priest who befriends them, and a Pinkerton agent has been tasked with finding out exactly who caused the explosion.”
He explained, “Set first in the couple’s meager apartment, then moving to the priest’s church office, the play is part mystery, part thriller. Its themes are very current: terrorism, immigration, and nativism. Black Tom Island also has a bravura role for a female actor, that of the passionate, smart, fiercely religious young Slovak wife, who slowly begins to understand she doesn’t know her beloved husband as well as she thinks she does.”
Casella answered a handful of other questions in the days leading up to the Oct. 11 launch off the play, which is the recipient of the 2017-2018 Liberty Live Commission, a partnership between Premiere Stages and Liberty Hall Museum. The collaboration “supports the development of new plays that explore the complex history of New Jersey.” Over the course of two years, Garden State playwrights are given dramaturgical and artistic support, along with a $1,000 commission, to create an original play to be staged at Liberty Hall’s property.
Get ticket information and learn more about Black Tom Island at the Premiere Stages website.
Tell me about the play’s title.
Martin Casella: The title Black Tom Island comes from the name of a small island that used to be off the coast of New Jersey, about a half-mile from the Statue of Liberty. It was the center of, and was destroyed by, the terrorist bombing of 1916. It was named — allegedly — after a freed slave named Tom who used to fish on the island. It was purchased by the LeHigh Valley Railroad to be used as a storage area for its rail lines.
How did you come across the true story? What about it leapt out at you and said, “This is a play!”?
Martin Casella: I attend Our Lady of Czestochowa Catholic church in Jersey City. There are stained glass windows there dedicated to the victims of the Black Tom Island explosion. The dedication itself is in Polish — as the church originally served the Polish community of Jersey City. After I saw the stained glass, I began researching the story. It’s very dramatic: in 1916, German spies, working for the German ambassador in Washington, blew up the storage facilities on Black Tom Island, destroying two million pounds of explosives and ammunition being sent to England so the Brits could fight the Germans during The Great War.
That part of the story was exciting, but the detail that caught my attention was the fact they had bribed a Slovakian immigrant named Martin Kristoff to help them; they paid him what amounts to $10,000 in current dollars to carry a satchel and let them onto the railroad causeway. Reading that, I thought, there’s the story! What makes someone — especially an immigrant who risked everything to come to America and had such glorious dreams — do such a thing? Why commit a horrific act of terror against the United States? That question ended up being the big theme of the play — what creates a terrorist? As my college writing teacher taught me: “No one does nothing for no reason.”
Do you mix fiction and fact?
Martin Casella: I do mix fact and fiction. All of the details in the story are true: about the spies and their working for the German ambassador in Washington, the hows and whys of the actual explosion, the damage, the aftermath, and the official investigation after a number of LeHigh Valley Railroad executives were jailed for illegally leaving explosives on a train car.
Because the explosion took place at 2 AM, only 10 people died, including a guard on the island and a baby who was thrown from his crib as the ground shook. The Statue of Liberty was also damaged during the explosion. The outstretched arm holding the torch was so structurally compromised by the tremendous blast that visitors have not been allowed up there since 1916.
What is fiction is that Martin Kristoff did not have a pregnant wife. He didn’t have a wife at all. He lived with some distant cousins. Who found him the morning after the explosion, crying in his room, muttering “What have I done?” I thought giving him a pregnant wife, who loved America, would amp up the tension and conflict. I got that idea from listening to interviews with the immigrant father of the young Muslim man who attempted to blow up the 23rd Street PATH train station in Manhattan in the summer of 2016 — exactly 100 years after the BTI explosion, almost to the day. The distraught father was weeping, saying over and over again that his son had been radicalized while he was visiting family members in the Middle East. The father said he called the local police and the FBI, warning them about his son; he claimed they did nothing about it. Hearing that interview was also a turning point.
While I was doing research, reading everything I could get my hands on (excluding any novels based on the event; my lawyer warned me to keep away from any other fictional versions of the story), I realized I would have to fictionalize some of the characters to focus and sharpen the story. The characters of the Polish priest and especially the Irish Pinkerton agent were composites of real people. During the research I found a theory claiming it wasn’t just German spies who were involved in the sabotage; there was a secret Irish immigrant clan in Manhattan that hated the British government and supported the Germans in their nefarious deed. I was able to work that into the story, as well.
What was the research process like?
Martin Casella: There is so much out there about the explosion. New York Times stories from the following days are available and were quite useful. As were eyewitness who gave interviews to the various New York City newspapers then. I found an interview with Kristoff’s landlady [that] she gave the press many years later, which was also helpful. For a major incident that caused over two billion dollars’ worth of damage [adjusting to the currency of now] and was heavily covered by the press at the time, so few people know about the story. I want to change that.
In what ways does the incident reflect current tensions, or the current America, if at all?
Martin Casella: In so many ways! It’s about homegrown American terrorism, sabotage and bombings, it’s about a foreign country interfering in American politics (in 1914, the German government sent spies and a lot of money to America to win it over to their side in the Great War), it’s about immigrants being treated badly (in 1916, if people thought you were an immigrant, you were spat on, demonized, told to go back to your own country, and to stop taking jobs away from American citizens), it’s about a time when America was afraid and suspicious of foreigners and their influence. The two lead characters in the play are suspected of being criminals just because of their accents. The priest in the story is accused of giving sanctuary to anarchists. There’s talk of strikebreakers and strikers being beaten by police and Pinkertons.
It’s Trump’s America only with Gibson Girl hairstyles, hobble skirts and handlebar mustaches. An audience member at one of the recent developmental readings stood up at a Q&A and said, “I know it’s taking place in 1916 but it feels just like 2018 to me!” When the audience member said that, John Wooten, the play’s director, turned to me and gave me a thumbs up. That had been our goal since I told the Premiere Stages team I wanted to do with Black Tom Island what Robert Altman did with “M*A*S*H”: tell a story set in the past but make it truly resonate with issues we are dealing with today. Altman’s past was the Korean War but his today was obviously the war in Vietnam, which was taking place when M*A*S*H was made.
Can you share a little about the performance space for the world premiere? How did it come to be there, and what does the Carriage House at Liberty Hall Museum space mean for the play?
Martin Casella: One of the joys of having Black Tom Island produced by Premiere Stages and Liberty Hall Museum is the space where the play is performed. Since the museum is a co-sponsor of the Commission, the play is done on the grounds of the museum, inside their 1882 carriage house. For two weeks the carriage house is transformed into a working theater with professional sets and lights. The theater only has about 85 seats, and since the play is a small, intimate drama with four people set in 1916, a cozy room from 1882 is the perfect space for the play.
How did the play come to Premiere Stages?
Martin Casella: A few weeks after I found out about the Black Tom Island explosion, my agent Elaine Devlin contacted me about the Liberty Live Commission. Since being a resident of New Jersey is necessary to apply, she thought I might be interested. When I said I was, she said I had to supply them with a pitch for an original play set in New Jersey about a relatively unknown event from Jersey’s history. Did I have one? I laughed and said as a matter of fact I have the best unknown story about New Jersey ever! I submitted my proposal, was chosen as a finalist, met with John and his team (Heather, Courtney, and Nick), and then went off on a long-planned trip to Spain. Second day there I got an email from John, offering me the commission. I had a great Spanish celebration that night in Madrid!
You’re best known for you play The Irish Curse. Does the new play have humor, as The Irish Curse did? Is humor a part of your writing in general?
Martin Casella: The Irish Curse is a fast-paced, outrageous, contemporary play with lots of topical references and racy, borderline obscene dialogue. Many theaters won’t do it because of the subject matter — masculinity and penis size — and the offensive language. But it is very funny, sells out everywhere it’s done, and the quote every theater uses in their adverts is from the New York Times about how funny the play is. There is some humor in Black Tom Island but it’s not a comedy. Generally, I write what in Hollywood they call comedy-dramas. The subject matter is serious but there’s lots of character-driven humor. I can’t write dazzling sitcom style humor; I like to think my humor is sneakier, and based on irony rather than snark. But even in my most serious plays — like my recent play The Report, about a tragic accident in London during World War II — there has to be some humor in the beginning, something that allows the audience to relax, and feel “Oh, please, don’t hit us over the head with tragedy before I get comfortable in my seat.”
Is there a play or screenplay of yours that is similar to, or wildly different from, Black Tom Island? Is this play a departure for you?
Martin Casella: Many of the plays I’ve written were, like Black Tom Island, based on real-life events. I generally like character-driven plays with people in turmoil, yet somehow managing to keep their heads and sense of humor. In addition to The Report, which won the FRINGENYC Outstanding Playwriting Award, and is scheduled to be done in London next year, there’s another real story in a play I’m working on called Miss Maude. It’s the story of how Life Magazine photographer Eugene Smith spent four months in the backwoods of South Carolina in 1951, photographing Maude Callen, an African-American midwife. I saw the photos at an art exhibit and knew I had to tell their story. The films I’ve written tend to be the same: stories about normal people and their complicated emotional lives. Black Tom Island, on the other hand, is much more plot-driven. As I said, it’s a mystery and a thriller; in that sense it is nothing like any of my earlier plays.
Where do you live now? Where did you grow up? Was theatergoing part of your childhood?
Martin Casella: I live in Jersey City in a small neighborhood called Van Vorst Park. I love it there. It’s full of great little shops and old brownstones and wonderful neighbors. It is very close to Manhattan (where I lived for 18 years) but feels a million miles away from the hustle, craziness, and tourists. It’s quiet. Writers need quiet.
My “origin” story is that I was born in Las Vegas but we moved to Los Angeles — where my parents were both from — when I was two. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, in a family where almost everyone worked in the movie industry. Most of my family, three generations of them, still do. I fell in love with theater in junior high school. My family occasionally took me to see national tours of big musicals (Coco, Two Gentleman of Verona, The Wiz, the original Follies) which I loved. But the first play I saw was The Trial of the Catonsville Nine at the Mark Taper Forum. It was political, dramatic, and about Catholics protesting the Vietnam War. The war was going on when I saw the play. I was fifteen and utterly hooked on theater from that night on!
You were an assistant to Steven Spielberg in the 1980s. Explain a little how that happened, and how you transitioned to dramatic writing. Were you always a storyteller? Was screenwriting an early goal?
Martin Casella: When I graduated from college — Cal Arts — I had a degree in acting. And I found that after graduation I never wanted to act again. So my dad got me a job working as transportation assistant on “1941,” Mr. Spielberg’s follow-up to “Close Encounters.” When principal photography ended, I worked on the miniature shoots as an assistant director. So I worked closely with Steven Spielberg. Plus my office was next to his. At the end of “1941,” he asked me to be his assistant on “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in England and Tunisia. I just about passed out.
The next two years were wonderful. But the hours were long, so I started writing a play during early mornings at the office by myself. As a kid, I wrote poems, short stories and a play about Scott Fitzgerald. Plus I had told my mom the plot to every movie I had ever seen. It seemed I was a storyteller, and had been since I was about five. That’s what I loved doing. Telling stories. I’ve learned over the years that storytelling is my way of dealing with and processing what’s going on in my life. So, while working on “1941” and “Raiders,” I wrote two new plays and really wanted to get them done.
When “Raiders” was finished, I left Steven Spielberg and his team to start a theater company with a group of people with whom I went to college. We produced my first play Mates at a small theater in L.A. It was — magically — a huge hit, with great reviews and sold out houses. The production moved to a theater in Hollywood, ran for six months, and won awards. I got hired to write a screenplay for director John Milius after he saw my second play. Then I got an agent, and suddenly was writing a movie for Disney. It all seems sort of unbelievable now because I had always loved movies and had wanted to write them since I was ten years old. Then one day, I wake up and I’m writing a movie for Warner Brothers and Disney and CBS. And then I got hired to write for “One Life to Live.” The hardest writing job I ever had in my life was writing for daytime drama. No contest. An 80-page script every week!
What’s next for you?
Martin Casella: I’m talking to a producer who wants to do the Miss Maude script. A director in L.A. has asked me to write a film script based on The Irish Curse. There are two animated feature films I’ve written for an English production company that are about to start shooting. And I’m working on two cool theater musicals: one about a teenage boy who becomes a pop star singing sensation, with a score by actual pop music writers. The second musical is called Mary Modern; it’s about cloning, and deals with the question of whether it is possible to recreate a great love who has died. It’s fun, scary and swooningly romantic. I’m just loving working again with composer/lyricist Keith Gordon. The future is full of lots of fun projects!