The Production

Based on interviews and trial transcripts, Top Secret tells the inside story of the Washington Post’s 1971 decision to publish the pentagon papers. The play recently concluded a 10-day, 3-city tour in China. Read More

From the Blog

Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers Opens at New York Theatre Workshop

On March 9, Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, the documentary play by Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Aarons opened at New York Theatre Workshop’s Fourth Street Theater.

Reportedly, Washington Post reporter George Wilson, who played a key role in protecting the Post against the Justice Department’s efforts to enjoin publication, was at the opening.  Wilson is the latest of several Pentagon Papers participants attending the NYTW production.  At a March 7 preview, Linda Amster, a New York Times researcher who worked on that paper’s Pentagon Papers series borrowed the microphone during the post-show discussion (audio available here) to share her memories of the dramatic and passion-filled weeks she spent working on the project.  On Tuesday, March 16, Daniel Ellsberg, the RAND analyst who leaked the Papers to the Times and the Post will share his perspective in a post-show discussion sponsored by the Columbia Journalism Review.

Responding to the opening, theater critics found the play an informative rendering of events that continue to resonate today, with Peter Santilli for the Associated Press writing that although “[i]t has been nearly 40 years since the story played out in the national media, [] the perennial struggle by the press to illuminate government secrets never seems to get old.”  The New York Times’s Charles Isherwood agreed that Top Secret provided an “intelligent and informative” dramatization of a “historic chapter in 20th-century journalism” that “continues to resonate today, as the desire of the government to keep its secrets and the responsibility of the press to monitor its workings come into frequent conflict,” although he took issue with both the presentation of the play as a radio drama and with its focus on the Washington Post‘s perspective.

Huffington Post calls Top Secret: Battle for the Pentagon Papers an “Important Stage Documentary”

In this review on the Huffington Post, David Finkle contextualizes the current New York Theatre Workshop peformance of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers within the recent ascent of staged documentaries, noting:

. . . we’re living in the age of the stage documentary. . . . The intent behind these stage documentaries is to inform audiences on the truth behind significant events while appearing to be more entertaining than actual newsroom accounts.

About Top Secret, Finkle highlights several “nuggets” found in the show that “the concerned citizen doesn’t want to be without,” including:

. . . [the] story of how The Washington Post, under the command of publisher Katharine Graham (Kathryn Meisle) and editor Ben Bradlee (Peter Strauss), sought successfully to obtain a copy of the purloined artifact and to publish its contents after The New York Times had been stopped by court order.

. . .

[the story of] a court case won as the direct result of the astonishing memory of Post reporter George Wilson (Matt McGrath) . . . [and] Bradlee’s determination to get his hands on the Pentagon Papers and to publish as much of it as he and staff warranted vital for readers’ enlightenment.

Although noting that Post editor Bradlee supported publication in part, of course, protect the public’s right to know, Finkle is also finds informative the play’s dramatization of Bradlee’s other compelling motivation: to defeat the “humiliation of being scooped by The New York Times on what was essentially a Washington story.”

As Finkle says:

He was going to find a way to right the imbalance, and he did. In other words, in his campaign there’s the element of “boys with their toys.” Intriguingly, that’s not too far removed from the king-of-the-mountain games being played by Nixon and his coterie in the Oval Office. And just maybe those apparently unavoidable male inclinations explain why the situations leading to the Pentagon Papers disclosures served in no way as a deterrent in, say, the George W. Bush administration, where men at their power maneuvers thought little or nothing of lying as a means to justify their long-planned ends.

While applauding it for raising these important questions and modern day resonances, Finkle claims that documentary theater is not really “theater.”  As he puts it: “Although billed as plays, these theatrical entries aren’t that. They’re news reports outfitted with theatrical accoutrements. . . ”

What do you think?  Is a documentary play based on real events and transcripts, with actors portraying real people, not really a “play”?  Why or why not?

Finkle notes The Exonerated as another recent documentary “play” in this genre.  Exonerated creators Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen will join Top Secret playwright Geoffrey Cowan and Tectonic Theater Project member and co-creator of The Laramie Project Greg Pierotti for a talkback following the Friday, March 12 performance of Top Secret. Perhaps they can explore this question.

Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers Performance and Discussion Celebrating Leroy Aarons

The Sunday, March 7 performance of Top Secret was followed by a panel discussion honoring the late Leroy Aarons, a Washington Post reporter and bureau chief and founder of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) who was also one of the co-creators of Top Secret.

Click below to hear the audio from Sunday’s post-show discussion.

Audio: Top Secret 03.07.10 Caldwell, Kaiser, Miller, Alba Panel Discussion

Oriol R. Gutierrez Jr. of the NLGJA posted this reflection on Sunday’s performance and discussion, including the following reflections on Leroy Aarons and on Sunday’s event:

Leroy Aarons, the late founder of NLGJA, was a man of many talents. He fused his interest in the theater with his expertise as a news man by co-authoring the play “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers” with Geoffrey Cowan, who most recently was dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

Originally a radio play on NPR, it has been adapted for the stage at LA Theatre Works. In collaboration with New York Theatre Works in the East Village of Manhattan, it is making its first off-Broadway run through March 28.

A special sold-out matinee performance was held on Sunday, March 7, in honor of Roy. Joshua Boneh, Roy’s partner, was in attendance, as were many of Roy’s family, friends, colleagues and admirers.

A panel discussion was held after the performance to discuss Roy’s legacy. Esteemed journalist and author Charles Kaiser, one of the founding members of the New York chapter of NLGJA, was one of the panelists.

. . .

Wonderful acting made sure a good time, as they say, was had by all, capped off by a gathering at a local wine bar after the performance for those in attendance.

I strongly encourage NLGJA members to see this play. It’s a testament to Roy’s talents, but it’s much more than that. It’s a reminder of the important role that the news industry plays in our democracy.

Sunday’s post-show discussion at NYTW featured several people with distinct perspectives on Leroy Aarons and his work.  Earl Caldwell, a renowned former New York Times journalist and contemporary of Aarons, is currently the Scripps Howard endowed professor of journalism at Hampton University and host of the “Caldwell Chronicle” radio program.  Caldwell, who was the first black journalist to write a regular column in a major daily newspaper, also played a unique role in journalistic history, when his refusal to disclose the sources his New York Times reporting on the Black Panthers was one of three cases considered by the Supreme Court in Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665 (1972).

Also on the panel was Charles Kaiser, Author, Full Court Press and Founder and Former President, NLGJA NY Chapter.  Kaiser is a renowned commentator on gay issues in the media.

Also participating in the discussion was Rebecca Miller, who acted in the Golden Globe nominated 2009 Lifetime movie Prayers for Bobby.  Prayers for Bobby was based on a book by Aarons which told the true story of a religious, suburban mother struggling to accept her son after she finds out he is gay.  Miller described the numerous emails and letters the cast of the film recieved from teenagers and families across America who received help from the film in working on issues within their own families and community.

Monica Alba, a recent USC graduate, also spoke, describing the impact of a USC journalism course Aarons designed to introduce journalism students there about reporting on sexuality and gender identity.

**Note: In the post-show discussion Sunday, an audience member spoke about a July, 1967 article Aarons wrote for the Post about events in Plainfield, NJ that month that included riots and the death of a policeman.  Click here for access to that article, in which Aarons describes the successful efforts of Donald McDonald, a black NJ government employee, to stave off further violence.

Publishing Secret Government Information Today: Managing Editors of NY Times and Washington Post discuss current practices following performances of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers

In Top Secret, audiences watch as the Washington Post‘s managing editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham reject their lawyer’s advice to hold off one day on publishing Pentagon Papers material and approach the government to allow officials an opportunity tell them what information from the Papers might be most damaging and necessary to keep secret.

In two recent talkbacks following Top Secret performances, however, the current managing editors of the New York Times and the Washington Post shared with audiences behind-the-scenes stories of how their papers did just that:  ie, approach the government for just such a conversation prior to publishing two of the most important recent news stories that revealed secret, security-related government programs.

In a talkback on March 6, New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson shared the story of that paper’s decision to publish its 2005 stories on the NSA wiretapping program. Rather than publishing those articles without informing the government about its information, as was done with the Pentagon Papers, Abramson described how her paper, after uncovering the program, went to the government for comment and, thereafter, listened to government officials’ requests that the paper not make this program public — including a request made directly to her by then-President George W. Bush. Abramson’s paper eventually did publish its story and make this information public.

Marcus Brauchli, managing editor of the Washington Post, described a similar series of events surrounding that paper’s 2005 stories regarding secret CIA-run prisons, called “black sites,” in European countries.

Does the fact that these papers sought pre-publication comment from the government  represent a retreat from the position of the Post and the Times at the time of the Pentagon Papers’ publication? Or instead, is it that the Times and the Post were enabled to take this responsible approach to publication only because the court precedent in the Pentagon Papers case made it so the papers knew that the ultimate decision to publish was theirs, even if the government requested continued secrecy?

Listen to Abramson – along with fellow panelists Carl Bernstein, legendary investigative reporter; Norm Pearlstine, Chief Content Officer, Bloomberg L.P.; and Geoffrey Cowan, Top Secret playwright and Director, Center on Communication Leadership & Policy – here:

Audio: Top Secret 03.06.10 Abramson, Bernstein, Pearlstine Panel Discussion

And listen to Brauchli – along with fellow panelists Brian Ross, Chief Investigative Correspondent, ABC News; Tim Weiner, Pulitzer prize-winning Journalist and Author, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA; and Carroll Bogert, Associate Director, Human Rights Watch – here:

Audio: Top Secret 03.04.10 Brauchli, Ross, Weiner, Bogert Panel Discussion