Playwright Dennis Richard leaves it up to the audience to argue conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination. His play, Oswald: The Actual Interrogation, onstage in its regional premiere at Casa Manana Fort Worth November 9-17, just sticks to the facts. Or as many as Richard could find about the hours Lee Harvey Oswald spent in Dallas police custody after his November 22, 1963, arrest for shooting the president.
Richard will be in town for opening weekend of the production in Fort Worth. The play's already had successful runs in Los Angeles (where 61-year-old Richard lives), New York and Chicago. A London staging is in the works. At Casa Manana, actors Ben Williams and Ed Dixon star as Oswald and the police detective who led the questioning. The cast also includes Dallas actors Bob Hess and William Jenkins. We caught Richard by phone to do a bit of our own interrogation.
There aren't many plays about the events surrounding the JFK assassination. What sparked the idea for your play Oswald: The Actual Interrogation? It had nothing to do with the 50th anniversary of the assassination. I had been researching since 2010 and came upon one conspiracy theory after another. When I found the website that had proof the Beatles did it, that was quite enough. I've always been interested in what happened to Oswald after he left the School Book Depository building.
Was there any written record of what Oswald said to police after his arrest? There were no notes, no stenography, no audio, nothing. Captain J.W. "Will" Fritz [who conducted the interrogation] had hand-scrawled seven pages of notes for when he was interviewed by the Warren Commission. They were in the Warren Commission report. The play confines itself to the actual interrogation of Lee Harvey Oswald before conspiracy theories had a chance to take root.
I had to find information that wasn't readily available. And with no transcripts, audio or video to work from, I had to piece it together from historical accuracy. The majority of things written about the JFK assassination [for the stage or screen] have some kind of conspiracy element to them. I didn't have that luxury. Even by having the hints that Lee Harvey Oswald was up on the sixth floor and fired three rifle shots, people could say that I am also a conspiracy theorist because I have Oswald doing that.
We're so used to watching by-the-book police procedures on shows like Law & Order that it's hard to believe things were so loosey-goosey with the arrest and questioning of a presidential assassin. No one was prepared in Dallas in 1963 for the assassination of a president. No police department today, it can be argued, is prepared for something like that.
You have to remember it was mayhem in the Dallas Police Department that day. Oswald was paraded in front of everyone several times. There were over 200 reporters outside of Captain Fritz's room. They had the mayor calling, the FBI and Secret Service going in and out. There was this 24-year-old kid [Oswald] in a white T-shirt who seemed to have been trained in interrogation techniques. Throughout the weekend Oswald didn't break at all.
Did you talk to some of the players in that real-life scene? Over eight months, I read 11 books to piece together what happened during that interrogation, which went on from 2:30 p.m, Friday, to Sunday morning when Oswald was shot in the police station. I just devoured everything from the Warren Commission to books by various people who were in and out of the interrogation.
I also talked to retired Detective Jim Leavelle. He was the fellow handcuffed to Oswald on Sunday morning [when Jack Ruby shot Oswald]. He remembered so much -- he's 91 today, and he's coming with his granddaughter to opening night at Casa Manana. He and I talked about his memory of it all. He was in charge of Oswald. He remembers Lee Harvey Oswald having "eyes of ice." That was very, very intense.
See also: The Life and Death of Dallas Theater Center's Jack Ruby, All-American Boy
Was that two-man confrontation the genesis for dramatizing all this? I wanted to present the world falling apart outside against the world inside that Fritz and Oswald were experiencing together. My instinct as a dramatist was to write drama. But I couldn't do that without rewriting history. Over 90 percent of what Lee Harvey Oswald says in my play is documented as having been said or is believed to have said.
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How are audiences reacting to your play? Reactions have been very good because older people who were alive at the time are very interested in revisiting this. There's nothing known until my play about the interrogation. It's a missing piece. A lot of young people, their biggest devastation was 9/11, but they have done their own studies of the Kennedy assassination. They know a great deal. I've had a lot of people say to me that the play has inspired them to research the assassination. The play is a catalyst for that.
Oswald is just the latest in your long play-writing career. What's next? I've written more than 45 plays since 1971. I've already done a film script of the Oswald play. And I have The Game Against Bobby Fischer, in which he plays himself in chess, in rehearsal in Malibu. Another of my plays, Diagram for Murder: A Thriller in London, will be produced in January in New York City.
So 'fess up. Did Oswald do it alone or was he, as he insisted, just a "patsy"? I don't show him firing the rifle. If I did then I would have stepped over the boundaries of advocating the fact that he did this. I leave the audience knowing what the police had on him. I had to deal with the fact that he appears to be the one to have done this. And here he is this weekend after his arrest being questioned and interrogated by Captain Fritz. And here is the mounting evidence the Dallas Police Department had against him. You the viewer are entitled to make up your own mind. I don't take a stand one way or another.
Oswald: The Actual Interrogation runs November 9-17 at Casa Manana, Fort Worth. Tickets through Ticketmaster.