Review: An Explosive World Premiere Tells a Little-Known Milwaukee Story of Anti-Immigrant Hostility

A world premiere by Martin Zimmerman chronicles one of Milwaukee's least-known historical events: the 1917 bombing of a police department and the subsequent indictment of imprisoned Italian immigrants who were conveniently linked to the bombing by a corrupt district attorney. The Not-So-Accidental Conviction of Eleven Milwaukee "Anarchists" is the season finale at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

The show opened this week at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio, a 99-seat black box theater. It seems that this play, about “the most explosive story you’ve never heard,” has piqued the public’s interest. Before it even opened, the play was nearly sold out. Additional performances were added that extend the play’s run through May 19.

Zimmerman, a playwright and screenwriter, is best known as a writer for the Netflix series Ozark. His plays have been produced at theaters across the country, including at the Goodman Theatre and Victory Gardens. He has received many writing awards, including the Terrence McNally New Play Award.

In Not-So-Accidental, four actors fill dozens of roles on a nearly bare proscenium stage. The audience sees only a large wooden trunk and a wooden kitchen chair (properties by Madelyn Yee). Inside the trunk are elements to help set the scene: a bowler hat, an American flag, etc. With the nearly bare set, much of the play’s success depends on the lighting (by Noele Stollmack) and projections (by Adam Hastings), as well as the actors.

Posing as a male Methodist minister is Kelsey Elyse Rodriguez (holding flag), accompanied by (from left) King Hang, Dimonte Henning and Elyse Edelman. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

As the play begins, the four actors attempt to recreate the event from before the bomb explodes to the fate of the 11 Italians who were eventually released and deported.

Little Is Known About the Defendants

Although the identities of the alleged Italian anarchists are limited to their names, gender and ages, a great deal more is known about others who played a part in this real-life drama, such as activist Emma Goldman and renowned attorney Clarence Darrow. In fact, Clarence Darrow first heard about the case from Goldman. At her urging, he swept into Milwaukee and won their appeal. But Darrow’s character doesn’t appear until the latter part of this 80-minute play.

As the play begins, each actor is bathed in an individual pool of light. They play “hot potato” with a small cardboard box (i.e., “the bomb”) while reciting facts about the case. Apparently, the bomb was first detected one morning by a couple of women outside the Italian Evangelical Mission Church, (which was located not far from where the play is being performed). The daughter first spied the box outside of the church, and she brought it inside to show her mother. After some discussion, they called the police to retrieve the box. When an hour passed with no police, they dispatched a handyman to carry the box to the nearest police station. The police accepted the box and later examined its contents in the building’s basement.

In telling this chapter of the story, one of the actors notes that about 10 bombings recently had been reported in a nearby area of the city. This prompted the women who found the box to alert the police.

More than eight hours after the bomb was discovered, it went off at the police station at 7:45pm. The shrapnel-filled bomb killed nine police officers and one woman who was in the station to make a complaint.

According to recent newspaper reports, the police death toll that night was the largest in American history until the events of September 11, 2001, in New York City.

Elyse Edelman. Photo by Michael Brosilow.


And yet, I assume that nearly everyone who attended this performance of Not-So--Accidental—most of them lifelong Milwaukeeans—had never heard this story.

"History Can Be Jagged and Bizarre"

The story of the bombing and surrounding events is told here in chronological fashion, but it also takes many twists and turns to get there. As one of the characters points out, “history can be jagged and bizarre.” That’s a good way to think of this production, under the able direction of artistic director Brent Hazelton.

The excellent cast, which includes many local professional actors, comprises Elyse Edelman, King Hang, Dimonte Henning and Kelsey Elyse Rodriguez. The playwright designates the characters as “one, two, three, four.” The four actors portray numerous characters (up to +40 people), as they represent both the historical figures who were part of the 1917 event, as well as contemporary characters who are relating the story.

The early scenes take on the atmosphere of an extended play rehearsal. Each actor voices his/her own interpretation on what actually happened before, during and after the bombing. Often with a dollop of humor, they quarrel and bicker with each other. For instance, when Edelman assumes the role of an immigrant Italian minister who played a big part in a related event, she uses an intentionally awful Italian accent. Another character cuts her off. “We agreed we weren’t going to use accents,” he says. She replies, “Well, I practiced my Italian accent, so I am going to use it.” She then starts her speech from the beginning.

The disagreements between the cast members serve to separate known facts from what can be inferred by the time period. For instance, as one of them points out, Italians in 1917 weren’t considered “white.” A few years later, US immigration laws strictly limited the number of Italians allowed to enter the country, supposedly “for the sake of maintaining racial purity.” (These laws affected ethnic groups who were the immigrants of the period such as Asians, Mexicans and immigrants from Mediterranean countries.)

As far as being considered anarchists, as the jailed Milwaukee Italians were, these weren’t necessarily people who wanted to overthrow the authorities (such as those who began the French Revolution). As one actor points out, to be called an anarchist, “all it took was being someone who wanted to start a labor union.”

The actors also briefly depict the daily lives of these “anarchists,” most of whom worked in a nearby factory doing backbreaking physical labor for 12 hours a day, six days a week. Sunday was their only day of rest.

So it’s not surprising that a Sunday parade through an Italian working-class neighborhood, led by the Italian Methodist minister as a way to recruit immigrants to fight in the US Army, was going to cause a stir. That event occurred shortly before the bombing incident. According to newspaper reports at the time, there was a brief shootout between armed locals and plain-clothes police officers.

The cast of The Not-So-Accidental Conviction of Eleven Milwaukee "Anarchists." Photo by Michael Browsilow.


The officers were providing security for the parade (although, as one actor points out, nobody knew they were officers without wearing their uniforms). As a result of the chaos, two Italians were killed and two officers were wounded.
The police then rounded up some 11 Italians (including a four-year-old boy) and booked them for murder. The events that follow would mystify anyone who is a fan of true-crime drama. After the bombing, in order to quiet down public unrest, the 11 jailed Italians were accused of being the bombmakers despite the fact that they were in jail when the bomb exploded.

Also, their defense attorney offered to represent all 11 of them collectively, and the trial began without him meeting with even one of the defendants. Needless to say, the accused were all charged in the bombmaking.

The Milwaukee Chamber production is not a dry retelling of historical events. Instead, the efforts of the director and, especially, Stage movement director Dani Kuepper, keep things lively throughout. Marching, dancing and other choreographed movements suddenly appear (and disappear) throughout the piece. Costume designer Amy Horst keeps things as simple as the staging. She adds only the barest additions to the casual clothing worn throughout (with the spectacular exception of a prizefighting robe for the actor playing Clarence Darrow).

Not-So-Accidental has a lot to say, and not only about the details of a specific historical incident. It concerns various themes: racial prejudice, fear, poverty, media bias, anti-radical bias, and inequities in the immigration system, the justice system and the control of power. The final few moments of Not-So-Accidental put all these things in sharp focus. Milwaukee Chamber is to be commended for mounting this challenging world premiere. It certainly has paid off.

The play's title seems to be an homage to the title of the Dario Fo play, The Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Fo's 1970 play is based on a 1969 bombing in Milan, in which 17 people were killed.

The Not-So-Accidental Conviction of Eleven Milwaukee "Anarchists" continues through May 19. The show runs 80 minutes without an intermission. The play is being performed at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. For tickets, visit milwaukeechambertheatre.org or call 414-291-7800.

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Anne Siegel

Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic; she's a former member of the American Theatre Critics Association, where she served for more than 30 years. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites, including Third Coast Review.