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The Cauldron of Fire

SMA Podcast April 27, 2020 119 7

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In May 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee, known as HUAC, began a crusade against the motion picture industry. HUAC had recently become a permanent congressional body, thanks in large part to Mississippi congressman John E. Rankin, a virulent racist and anti-Semite, who claimed that a Communist plot to overthrow the government of the United States had its “headquarters in Hollywood.” Over the next decade, scores of actors, directors, screenwriters, and other movie people were summoned before HUAC and ordered to disclose whether they now or in the past had been Communist Party members, and to give up the names of fellow members. Ten men, including screenwriters Ring Lardner, Jr., and Dalton Trumbo, defied the committee and went to jail. Others refused all questions on Fifth Amendment grounds, and were blacklisted, unable to work for any of the studios. Many cooperated by giving up the names of their friends.

This dark period in American history is the backdrop for The Cauldron of Fire, a dramatic monologue which received its world premiere in January 2018 at the San Miguel Playhouse. The play takes place in January 2018, in the Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, apartment of Helen Goldman, a former Hollywood screenwriter. Helen is a woman of Russian-Jewish descent born in New York City in 1920. Now 97 and one the last survivors of the Hollywood blacklist, she has arranged a fateful meeting with another survivor, a director. Goldman was a non-cooperator who went to prison; the director, meanwhile, named names, and continued with his career.

Fredric Dannen wrote the play specifically for theater veteran Lola Smith. Lola has been performing on stage since the age of four and a half. A New York native, she joined the fabled Bird-on-a-Cliff Theater Company in Woodstock in 1946, working alongside luminaries such as Jose Quintero and Theodore Mann. After marrying banker and sometimes actor Martin Smith, Lola relocated to Brazil, and performed with a thriving English-language theater company in Sao Paulo. On returning to New York in the late 1960s, she continued acting with an Off-Off-Broadway regional theater group. Lola settled in San Miguel in July 1986, and almost immediately became an assistant to Robert Somerlot, head and co-founder of Players Workshop. She joined the Players Workshop board, starred in over twenty-five of the company’s productions, and directed as many.

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