By Kara Garbe Balcerzak, playwright & co-producer of Patriot/Traitor
The heart of Patriot/Traitor is a political and philosophical debate about how far governments should go to keep their citizens safe, and what responsibility citizens have to hold their governments accountable. The plot revolves around Colleen, a federal employee, who crashes Gene and Mary’s camping trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area to get help delivering classified military secrets to a journalist. Along with Hannah (Mary’s sister) and Riley (Colleen’s husband), the group is plunged into an escalating debate about whether the documents should be released to the public. Every moment that passes makes Colleen and Riley more afraid they’ll be caught and stopped before they can release the information. How far will they go to make Gene’s family do what they think is right?
The classified information discussed in this play relates to the military’s drone program, and while that program is shocking when you look at it deeply, in many ways that’s immaterial to the larger issues raised by the play: What, ultimately, is government’s role? How transparent should we demand our government to be? When federal employees leak information, are they whistleblowers or lawbreakers? How many sacrifices are we willing to make—collectively and personally—in order to see our highest ideals enacted?
We have these debates (to varying degrees of factuality and sophistication) in online spaces all the time, but those conversations are almost always derailed by insults and personal attacks made possible by the anonymity and dehumanization endemic in so much online communication.
Theatre is the perfect vehicle to bring the humanity back into these conversations. The Patriot/Traitor cast does a great job bringing these characters to life. Mary’s rule-following nature is charming in one scene when she discusses wearing goggles to protect her eyes while cutting onions, helping us understand why, later, she is predisposed to being outraged that the government isn’t following its own policies around drone warfare. Unlike disembodied comments on the Internet, these characters’ perspectives aren’t easily dismissed as belonging to nutjobs and idiots, because we’ve already seen their humanity in the opening scenes of the play. And in between political debates, we learn more about their personal histories and perspectives as the play unfolds. Hopefully, getting to know these characters will help audiences consider each character’s perspective with more openness than many of us bring to our online debates.
Colleen and Riley, the two characters determined to get these secrets to the public, were named in homage to Coleen Rowley, the former Minnesota FBI agent who served as a whistleblower after September 11 by revealing systemic problems within the U.S. intelligence community. But as far as their actions go, Colleen and Riley are most closely modeled on Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Like Manning and Snowden, Colleen and Riley are in possession of classified material they believe should be made public. And like Manning and Snowden, they believe that exposing the information they possess will have a profound impact on government policy and public discourse.
While writing the play, I asked friends, colleagues, and acquaintances how much they knew about Chelsea Manning. And, surprisingly to me, most people I talked to had no idea who Chelsea Manning was. Some people recognized the name but couldn’t place it. (Mentioning Bradley Manning, Chelsea’s former name, didn’t help much.) That experience fueled the argument I gave one of my characters, Hannah, who argues that it doesn’t matter whether or not Colleen and Riley release the information, because most Americans won’t pay attention to it anyway.
On cynical days, I think Hannah is right, and that in the end, we’re more interested in our own individual happiness and comfort than we are in doing what’s right for other people. But on other days, I agree with Gene, who argues that our government needs the freedom to do whatever it takes to keep people safe. And on yet other days, I agree with Riley, who argues that we must do whatever we can to live up to our highest ideals.
I hope that, like me, audiences will find something relatable in each character’s perspective. And, even more than that, I hope the collective experience of watching this play will lead audiences to carry on this important conversation outside of the theater (and outside of their computer screens).
Patriot/Traitor is playing at the Ritz Theater Mainstage as part of the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival, August 3 – 13. Tickets are available here.
Kara Garbe Balcerzak studied creative writing at the University of Virginia and Minnesota State University Mankato. She is the recipient of grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and Blacklock Nature Sanctuary. Her play If Only: Parallel Worlds Collide at HarMar Mall was produced in the 2016 Minnesota Fringe Festival. Kara also writes fiction and memoir, and she is the author of a dozen nonfiction children’s books.