It's one thing to read about those early, tense days of the Cold War in this country — the fear of Soviet agents embedded in the government; the scandalous efforts by Sen. Joseph McCarthy to root them out; the parade of people asked if they were now, or had ever been, a member of the Communist Party; the repercussions for those willing to spill names of "fellow travelers" and those who pleaded the Fifth.
It's quite another to have an all-in-the-family connection to that volatile history. That's what heralded American playwright Amy Herzog drew upon in writing her 2010 work "After the Revolution." It's partly based on the legacy of her paternal step-grandfather, Joe Joseph, a proud Communist hounded for his sympathies with the Soviet Union.
Herzog's grandmother, the late Leepee Joseph, who shared her husband's Marxist views, also inspired a character in "After the Revolution." And that character, named Vera, became a bigger focus in Herzog's 2011 play "4000 Miles," which, set several years after the first work, finds Vera's life upended when her young, free-spirited grandson unexpectedly arrives and settles in for a long stay.
Both plays are receiving their Baltimore premieres in a mini-festival presented by Center Stage.
"Amy's one of the hottest playwrights in America now," says Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah. "Whether one likes the plays or not, there is no denying that she is part of the American landscape and will be for a long time to come."
When he decided to introduce Baltimore to Herzog's work, Kwei-Armah didn't want to choose between "After the Revolution," which won her the New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award, and "4000 Miles," which earned an Obie for Best New American Play and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
So, considering that the pieces share a character and lots of resonance, Kwei-Armah figured it would be more rewarding to schedule both in repertory. It's the first time a company has done so.
"I didn't think of these plays that way," the New York-based Herzog, 35, says, "but I am completely thrilled and tickled that Center Stage is doing this."
Both shows — "After the Revolution" opens Wednesday, "4000 Miles" on April 8 — are being directed by Lila Neugebauer and feature a mix of Center Stage veterans and actors making their company debuts. Herzog is expected to catch the productions during the run.
"After the Revolution" is very much about the politics of then and now, as Joe Joseph's relatives (several based on Herzog's own) deal with unnerving revelations about his Cold War days, all the while caught up in their own liberal causes. The character of Joseph's granddaughter, Emma, heads a legal fund established to help exonerate Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer.
Amid this combination of Cold War and contemporary issues, Herzog gives the play's characters other personal baggage that heightens the drama.
"When I saw a run-through of the production, it just struck me as a quintessentially American story," Kwei-Armah says. "The political family is so American. And the ways families negotiate truths with each other is something all of us can relate to."
When Herzog was thinking about her family and the possibility of putting their experiences on the stage, she had plenty to work with, just from growing up around many a passionate discussion at home.
"It was volatile," she says. "It was a point of pride that my grandfather had been blacklisted, that he took the Fifth when he had to testify and didn't name names. The reason I guess I wrote the play was that I was interested in their pride. I think that there is a lot of pride left. My uncle has a very tangible pride."
A conversation with the uncle, Andrei Joseph, a retired teacher and union activist living in Massachusetts, quickly confirms that.
"There is a lot that hasn't changed" since the Cold War, he says, "like American imperialism, arrogant American presidents who believe they can kill anyone in the world, the need to dominate the world in nuclear weapons. We still struggle for a just world in which people are fed and clothed, have decent health care and don't have to worry about their children. That's socialism. Capitalism does not provide that."
For Andrei Joseph, 63, son of the man whose spirit haunts "After the Revolution," the causes his father believed in remain his causes. And if anyone wants to talk about the dark side of the Soviet Union, he's ready with a challenge to re-examine our own history during those years, to hold the United States to the same standard.
Hearing him speak with such conviction makes it all the easier to appreciate what's going on in, and between, the lines of "After the Revolution." After all, he helped inspire it. He's represented in the play by the character of Ben, Emma's father. (Andrei Joseph is scheduled to give a short talk at Center Stage before Tuesday's preview performance and attend opening night.)
"There is a certain amount of artistic license," he says. "But the play contains some moments and scenes and behavior and text taken from real life. Some of it is word for word and some Amy has invented. She was clever, and I say that in the best sense of the word. I respect her. And I think it's a remarkable play."
As she set about fashioning the drama, Herzog did not simply borrow from what she knew from family members.
"There was a huge research component that came out of a passion for discovering this history," she says. "I knew some of it, but not the broader historical perspective. I was really concerned when writing 'After the Revolution' to try to embed enough information in it. I think a lot of people of my generation or younger don't know about the blacklist, for example."
Although most famously associated with Hollywood professionals who lost jobs after being targeted by McCarthy or the House Un-American Activities Committee, blacklisting could affect employment and other matters for any American accused of having Communist affiliations.
Herzog has heard from those who remember all of this.
"There is a community out there that has a personal relationship with this history," the playwright says. "I can't tell you how many times people have come up to me to say things like 'This is my family' and 'We never talked about it.' It is incredibly gratifying for me to hear that."
Something that not all of Joe Joseph's relatives talked about is a major element in "After the Revolution." A mostly well-kept secret emerged in 1999, causing quite a stir in the family. It turned out that — spoiler alert — Herzog's grandfather had not been just a Communist who found much to admire about the Soviet Union. He had a hand in espionage, too.
"It's a complicated world," Andrei Joseph says. "It's a complicated history. It's a complicated family."
Herzog says that the spying had not been discussed openly.
"My grandfather had told only a couple of people," she says. "So it was painful for the ones he hadn't told. Despite these revelations, I'm very proud of who he was and who my grandparents were."
Given that current events easily conjure up images of another Cold War, with new tensions between the United States and Russia, new spying scandals and new targets for prejudice, "After the Revolution" might well gain a fresh relevance.
"I've been thinking about that a lot," Herzog says. "I hope people will make a connection to the paranoiac fear of the Cold War."
Herzog, who notes that "After the Revolution" and "4000 Miles" have taken on an elegiac quality since the death of her grandmother at the age of 96 in 2013, gets far beyond the politics in both works. She has much to say about relationships between parents and children, and the bonds, or barriers, between generations.
"4000 Miles" is infused with hints of the Joe Joseph saga and the political heritage shared by the extended family. Vera, now 91, is as much a leftist as ever, but not quite prepared for her neo-leftist grandson. Things aren't as tightly wrought and full of history as in "After the Revolution," but no less real and involving in this story of the pull and push of family.
"I think the main thing [the staging of both plays] does is allow people to follow the character of Vera," Herzog says. "People who connect so strongly to the politics of 'After the Revolution' will have to settle into a different rhythm for '4000 Miles,' which has less plot and is less idea-driven. I hope the texture of Vera's life will emerge with all its richness."
Herzog has not written the last about her family.
"I am working on a third play," she says. "It will have a few people from the two other plays and some you only heard about in those plays. Hopefully, it will be different work, as different as those two are from each other."
Amy Herzog Festival: "After the Revolution," currently in previews, opens Wednesday; "4000 Miles" begins previews April 1 and opens April 8. The two plays continue in repertory until May 24 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $10 to $59. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org.