I think we have to be extremely careful, and much much slower in assessing what we think, feel or say about Donald Brooks' THE DEATH OF JOE CINO. It is, maybe,
the one and only truly unbelievable theater event of all of our last 15 years of ferment. Grotowski, Living, Open -- everybody is left quite thoroughly behind in the face of a
concept like this. That anything so monstrous and shocking should really have happened in a public theater defies the imagination.
The fact of its being and secondly the violent reaction to its being, raise incredible questions. As to who we are and where we're at. For one thing: The direct action taken
against this show by people who have not seen it, is deeply disturbing -- the worst of all possible betrayals. It plunges us back into McCarthyism and all those thousand
years of know-nothing censors -- the people who waged, successfully, campaigns as to what we could see, hear or read: without having seen, heard or read it themselves.
Have we reached the first really triumphant point of possible honesty on stage, and screen only to have some of the very people who fought for this freedom for so long,
completely invalidate it when the knife thrusts home?
I really don't know what the show is all about. Only the last ten minutes hit me viscerally (the death scene and its fantastic accusations against the living). I do not know
Donald Brooks. I think the real title of the show is THE DEATH OF DONALD BROOKS. Given the particular world into which it sprang, the show itself seems like a
pretty suicidal gesture. The brilliance of the production has not been much mentioned. I thought that the extraordinary direction pretty much made up for the sleaziness
of the writing (and I'm not speaking of the subject matter but the writing as a separate fact). Where has Mr. Brooks directed or not been asked to direct? What provoked
an assault on where we live that hit us with such an astonishing brutality in this year of 1969 -- when we thought we were pretty well beyond such an emotional reaction?
I hated this play. Yet I wonder if it is not the ultimate necessary step right now. What does it mean when somebody gets on stage and says and does terrible things about
people you love? Maybe the highest function of art is to upset the audience. HELLO DOLLY does not; FORENSIC AND THE NAVIGATORS does. This play upset me
immeasurably. Where am I and where is it? I still can't think clearly about it some weeks later. We must think longer about it and where it puts us. -- John Herbert
McDowell, ABEL, November, 1969
Letter to the Editor -- Village Voice
Has Off-Off-Broadway reduced itself to the level of the Salem witch hunts, or the more recent McCarthy paranoia?
The August 28 issue of The Village Voice carried an ad taken by La Mama Experimental Theatre Club stating that "any and all Persons involved in a recent project in the
Playbox Studio shall not at any time henceforth be involved in any projects at the La Mama." The production in question was "Superfreak."
It appears as though La Mama and several other off-off-Broadway personages have lost their perspective as to what the theatre is about. I can only feel sorry for them that
they deem it necessary to so childishly threaten those who are involved in an artistic endeavor on just personal grounds. ...
... To the La Mama ETC and those other less brave people who were only willing to state their views during performance:
Your so-called threats are just so much popcorn and carry the same weight. I would not work in so stifling and destructive an atmosphere as you have announced yourself to
be. Art is not dictatorship but freedom. I would not sacrifice my freedom to create under any circumstances. -- Arthur De Mario, West 76th Street, NYC -- September 4, 1969
The Village Voice, August 21, 1969
A play by Donald L. Brooks, directed by the author, presented by and at the Playbox, 94St.
Marks Place, NYC
by Michael Smith
Donald L. Brooks has mixed memory and fantasy strangely in "Superfreak!," his pageant
about the Caffe Cino, some of its progeny, and its irreplaceable progenitor, Joe Cino, who
committed suicide three springs ago. One impulse is quasi-literal, the other crudely symbolic
and moralizing; one side of the stage at the Playbox dimly documents the look of the Cino's
serving counter, the other is dominated by a spiderweb.
Don Signore begins by impersonating Cino's standard introduction to an evening's
performance; then dons a plastic mask to become an expressionistic, anguished Ringmaster;
and still later moves onto a third plane as, his beard obscured by makeup, draped in tatty drag,
he parodies Neil Flanagan's great performance in Lanford Wilson's "The Madness of Lady
Bright," one of the Cino's hits. There are more fleeting echoes of other past theatrics,
including a touchingly wispy girl dancer, a raving Pope, and a frighteningly demented dracula,
as well as a lame, long mockery of "Dames at Sea." The targets of these satiric references are
easy enough for me to guess -- though they must be totally opaque to the uninitiated. Brooks's
own inventions are more grotesque: particularly a hideously masked creature that passes
through hawking drugged apples. As long as the fantasies and album-leaves keep swirling,
"Superfreak!" is an interesting diversion; even second-hand these theatrics haven't all lost their
But when it gets "real," especially in its extended, grisly depiction of Joe Cino's death, the play
is vulgar and insulting. I don't mean that the subject is sacred and untouchable. What is? Nor
can it be said that Donald Brooks's feelings are less valid than anyone else's. But it's too bad
that Brooks, who obviously is impelled by strong feelings about all this, has left them so
incoherent. He reveals only his hatreds and disdains, resonates only to bad vibrations, leaving
out the good dreams he must once have had. There is a meanness of spirit to the play -- a
tendency to present only the crassest motivations, the most self-dramatizing emotions, to see the
events of these lives as a series of gestures, melodramatic to make an impression, vicious for the
sake of style -- and one must protest that this is a quality projected onto the history and
personages rather than found in them. Brooks has an eye for freaks but he can't seem to see
people; "Superfreak!" is oozy with death but misleadingly empty of life.
Signore is terrific as the second Lady Bright, not so good as Joe Cino. The actor's portrait is
tentative, tight, corny; Cino himself was radiant in joy, fierce in sorrow, generous, authentic.
Cino loved "magic time"; Signore makes is sound cute. Mark Russell is strikingly good as a
nude stud, delightful as Lena Horne. Arthur DeMario is a frenzied classical vampire, Margaret
Rooney a frantic Carmen Miranda, Frank Emerson a pedantic intruder from the audience. As
director, Brooks has spilled out a cornucopia of gimmickry. But for its bitter portraiture and
nasty imputations of blame, "Superfreak!" might have been an impressive tribute to an
inspiring theatrical ambience.