It's Happening Right Here, Right Now: Review of It Can't Happen Here at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre

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The cast of It Can’t Happen Here ran through the doors of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and handed out campaign signs to an unsuspecting audience. The signs were bright red and blue, sporting just the name “Buzz.” They rushed down the aisles, egged on the audience, and implored them to cheer and chant the name.
And, naturally, the crowd complied, wildly cheering as Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip made his way center stage.
Windrip (David Kelly), a cheeky everyman, is the populist candidate of the presidential election at the center of the show’s plot. Brash and informal, his character appeals to the downtrodden of 1930s New Deal America. Just a few scenes into the play during the rally, he threw his fist in the air and shouted a message similar to one the audience was all too familiar with: “Make America a proud, rich land again!”

Berkeley Rep’s choice to adapt Sinclair Lewis’ book It Can’t Happen Here against the backdrop of the current political climate is clearly no accident. But it would be a mistake to think of the play simply as a satire of Donald Trump, or as merely an opportunity for a light night out for Berkeley’s left-leaning residents to poke fun at the demagogue who has a very real chance of winning next week.
Because the play reveals something far beyond satire – how easy it can be to cheer on the enemy.
Despite Buzz’s slogan, the audience roared in approval. Our roles had changed from spectators to participants; our adrenaline was flowing, we wanted this to be exciting. I found myself looking around the theatre and could not believe I was no longer on Addison Street in downtown Berkeley, but at a rally for the first fascist president of the United States – and I was applauding with zeal.
“Demagogues, then and now it seems, have remarkably similar strategies,” Tony Taccone, the artistic director of the show, wrote in the program. “They wrap themselves in the guise of authenticity, taking on personas as truth tellers.”
It Can’t Happen Here was originally printed in 1935. Lewis wrote it in response to rising fascist politicians in Europe and the candidacy of “the Kingfish” Huey Long.
The play centers on one Vermont newspaper editor, Doremus Jessup (Tom Nelis), and his family as they follow the unfolding election, incredulous that a candidate like Windrip could make it so far. These initial scenes parallel many conversations occurring at dinner tables or in newsrooms throughout America today. But the play then raises the stakes, examining what these spaces might look like should the demagogue candidate actually win – something many progressives fear but also refuse to think through, instead joking that they perhaps might just move out of the country if Trump is elected.
As Windrip ascends to power, things begin to change quickly. The Jessup family hears talk of newspaper editors and professors losing their jobs. Universities are shut down. Minutemen line the streets with big guns and enforce strict curfews. Fear hangs thick and heavy in the daily lives of the Jessups.
Meanwhile, we see very little of Windrip after he wins the election. Instead, the focus is on the repercussions of the changing political climate on ordinary people like the Jessups.
“Lewis makes it clear that the personality of the demagogue is not the real issue; poverty, fear, and ignorance are what make us vulnerable to authoritarianism,” Taccone writes.
And Taccone, is in many ways correct, pointing out the consequences of capitalism. But what the play does not address directly is how anti-totalitarian forces can combat the persistent spiritual emptiness that results in part from those consequences, including how they can allow us to slide into a totalitarian state or be attracted to hate-oriented leaders or demagogues.
Because as the play shows, the danger lies not not just with the demagogue, but with the crowd that unwittingly cheers for them. The audience of It Can’t Happen Here was forced to confront this as we found ourselves greeting Windrip enthusiastically to the stage. As Pascal (Gerardo Rodriguez), the communist auto-repairman character, puts it, “Windrip is just something that was vomited up; he’s not the real issue. The real issue is what vomited it up.”
“This is a play about what happens when fear guides you. It’s about xenophobia, it’s about fear-based legislation, it’s about each man for himself, it’s about what happens when there is an economic imbalance in a country,” the play’s director, Lisa Peterson, writes in the program.

The way the play enacts these imbalances is jarring. Near the end of the second act, many of the play’s principal characters find themselves in one of Windrip’s concentration camps. Doremus, Pascal, and even the Jessups’ old gardener-turned-minuteman are all pushed into the shadowy darkness of a labor camp. Regardless of social class and political standing, they are all reduced to prisoners as they cower in their matching uniforms, just small ashen figures under the looming backdrop of the American Flag.
Despite the play’s ultimately hopeful conclusion, these images of totalitarian violence within American borders are haunting. It Can’t Happen Here serves as a chilling reminder of what lies just around the corner when fear overcomes a nation, when power is placed in the hands of those with the flashiest campaigns, and when hate speech and misogyny become normal – and accepted – parts of political discourse.
All of these things are already happening here, and we are closer than we think to living out the same plot line. And unless we begin to admit this, we might as well be cheering Trump right into the Oval Office.
Yeshe Salz, a student at UC Berkeley, is an editorial assistant at Tikkun.
Photo 1: David Kelly (Buzz Windrip) in the world premiere ofIt Can’t Happen Hereat Berkeley Rep.Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Photo 2:(l to r) David Kelly (Buck Titus), Gerardo Rodriguez (Karl Pascal), Tom Nelis (Doremus Jessup), and Mark Kenneth Smaltz (John Pollikop) in the world premiere ofIt Can’t Happen Hereat Berkeley Rep.Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre