By Stephanie Meditz
For the first time, Arthur Miller’s unpublished screenplay “The Hook” will be staged at the same geographic location as the true events on which it is based.
On weekends from June 9 to June 25 at 8 p.m, Brave New World Repertory Theatre will present the screenplay’s American premiere as adapted for the stage by Ron Hutchinson and James Dacre onboard the barge at The Waterfront Museum in Red Hook. The show will also host a preview on June 8.
A Brooklyn Heights resident, Miller penned “The Hook” after he learned the true story of Pete Panto, a longshoreman and activist who worked the docks of Red Hook in the 1930s and was killed by the Mob for fighting corruption in his union.
The titular hook thus refers both to the literal hooks used by longshoremen to hoist crates and goods onto ships and to the neighborhood of Red Hook.
At the beginning of the Red Scare, Columbia Pictures insisted that Miller ascribe corruption on the docks to communism rather than the Mob, and he refused.
“Miller never wanted it to be produced. It languished for seventy years in the archives of the University of Austin, Texas until…an English set designer went to Texas and got the archives,” director and BNW Rep co-founder Claire Beckman said.
When Miller scrapped the screenplay and director Elia Kazan used his idea in the film “On the Waterfront,” they moved it to Hoboken, New Jersey rather than Red Hook, where Pete Panto lived and worked.
“The Hook was Miller’s idea. That really would’ve been stealing his intellectual property because he’s the one who went down to the Hook and did all of the investigation and interviews,” she said. “What I’m trying to do as…the founder of a Brooklyn-based theater company and a Brooklynite myself is right that wrong and bring the story back to the community, literally…where it took place.”
Although there was a strong shipping industry in Hoboken, it was far from the actual docks on which Panto fought corruption.
“He really mobilized men and stood up against this machine, and that happened in Brooklyn,” Beckman said. “Pete Panto was born in Brooklyn, he was the son of immigrants. And it’s important to me, especially because he finally, just recently got a tombstone because his body was in an unmarked grave for many, many years… and he’s sort of being celebrated this year,” Beckman said.
Beckman first read about “The Hook” in Miller’s autobiography, “Timebends.”
She had been waiting for the rights to “A View from the Bridge” until, in 2017, Waterfront Museum captain David Sharps connected her to designer Patrick Connellan, who had just designed the set for the UK production of “The Hook.”
Connellan then connected her to Ron Hutchinson, an Irish playwright and adapter of “The Hook” who was coincidentally moving to Brooklyn.
“We met in Brooklyn and we read the play on the barge in the middle of the winter around a pot bellied stove,” she said. “And I cast the show with actors randomly…just so we could hear it. And it was the first time it had ever been read in America. And on the water, no less.”
They held a staged reading of “The Hook” in 2019 and were set for a full stage production in 2020 until the COVID-19 pandemic struck, followed by the Omicron variant in 2021.
“This has been a long time coming and we’ve had many, many very devoted supporters waiting patiently for this production, so everybody’s really excited,” Beckman said. “As an industry, theater has been hit really hard by the pandemic.”
The barge at The Waterfront Museum will leave doors open during performances of “The Hook” to ensure a safe, well-ventilated environment.
Beckman has also directed and acted in several Miller plays, including the role of Catherine in “A View from the Bridge” and later Beatrice, protagonist Eddie Carbone’s wife.
“He’s probably my favorite American playwright,” Beckman said. “I’m absolutely in love with his work.”
When she met Miller and he autographed her copy of “A View from the Bridge,” he wrote “I hope you did it good.”
“I feel that I had his blessing, in a way, even though he never lived to find out that I was going to do this American premiere,” she said.
Beckman believes that the Miller estate granted BNW Rep the rights to “The Hook” precisely because the production would take place in Red Hook.
“They know that that would mean a lot to Arthur Miller, who is now gone,” she said.
Now entering its twentieth anniversary season, Brave New World Repertory Theatre’s mission is to make theater more accessible to Brooklyn communities, including actors, writers and audiences.
“It’s very important to me to celebrate both our favorite 20th century Brooklyn playwright and this Brooklyn hero, Pete Panto, who has gone unrecognized for a long time because his story was overshadowed by a story that became about Marlon Brando and Hoboken,” Beckman said.
Beckman said that “The Hook” is the culmination of the twenty years of work in BNW Rep to build a closely knit community of artists with experience working together.
“Part of the mission of our theater company is to examine plays of social justice,” she said. “I have a diverse cast, and I have had to address and figure out how to address issues of race within the context of his play.”
Despite the different social context in which Miller lived and wrote, Beckman considers him a social justice writer of his time.
“I share a kinship with [Miller] I think, because I also am somebody who is driven by a desire to right social wrongs, to address social inequity, to address social justice issues, and to be able to do that in the borough I live in,” she said. “It’s an extreme privilege and a joy.”
Tickets are available for $35 or $18 for students and seniors at https://bravenewworldrep.org.