Featured TheaterJanuary 31, 2019


On Dec. 4, 1969, Fred Hampton was 21 years and just weeks from the birth of his son.

But Hampton, a leader of the Black Panthers, never lived to see that happen.

Before dawn that day, police officers launched a much-scrutinized raid on the Chicago apartment that served as a headquarters for the local chapter of the controversial black-rights group. Hampton, who was sleeping next to his nine-months-pregnant girlfriend, was killed in what police called a shootout and critics called an assassination.

Now, five decades later, that room is the setting for a one-man show by Richard Bradford called “To My Unborn Child: A Love Letter from Fred Hampton.”

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Bradford portrays the slain activist in the moments just after his death, delivering a monologue about his life, his views and the Panthers to the son he never got to meet.

He’ll perform it from Feb. 8 to 10 at Passage Theatre in Trenton. The first show includes a presentation by Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale.

Bradford, a Philadelphia actor and playwright, says his goal is to give a voice to a too-little-talked-about civil-rights leader blessed with charisma and filled with a passion to help children who needed guidance.

“Even people who are down for the cause and the struggle — liberals, progressives — I talk to them about today’s events,” Bradford says. “And I bring up Fred Hampton, and they’re like, ‘Who?’”

“He did so much. He was so fortunate enough to have Martin Luther King and Malcolm X come before him. He was like a combination of both those people.”

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Hampton also wants to provide a new perspective on the Panthers, which he sees as a deeply misunderstood organization.

To some who witnessed the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s, the Panthers were a violent group who carried guns and killed police officers. To others, they were revolutionaries who carried guns because they were targeted by law enforcement and provided health care, food and support for the needy communities.

“They’re either mentioned as a violent group or they’re not mentioned at all,” Bradford says. “At that’s what’s worse — that they’re not mentioned at all.”

“When I was coming up, I was taught, ‘You have this violent group who hates white people,’” he adds. “But then you find out about the stuff they were doing for the kids and then you find out they were about a class struggle. And then you realize why they wanted to hide that message — because a class struggle galvanizes the masses. That’s something people can relate to.”

John Doyle, the director of the show, says Bradford’s play “re-frames” the Panthers’ story.

“It doesn’t flinch that there was a violent strain. We don’t try to sugar-coat the story,” explains Doyle, who is white. “But we certainly strip way the dark tales and let people see the really beautiful things that were underlying this movement on the ground level.”

Hampton was a rising star in the Panthers at the time of his death. As a teen, he was a youth organizer for the NAACP. Later, he brokered a peace agreement between street gangs in Chicago. He was also instrumental in the Panthers’ free breakfast program for children.

The FBI, fearful of the rise of the Panthers, opened a file on Hampton in 1967. Two years later, law enforcement in Chicago planned a raid on a tip the group was stockpiling illegal guns.

The raid left Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clark, 22, dead. Four others were wounded, as were two officers.

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The event was debated for years. Police maintained they were attacked by the Panthers and defended themselves. A federal investigation later showed the Panthers fired only one shot in the raid, while police fired dozens.

There were accounts that Hampton had been drugged by an FBI informant, though the Cook County coroner and FBI disputed that.

A coroner’s jury in 1970 found the shootings to be justifiable homicide. And none of the officers were convicted.

But in 1982, a civil lawsuit brought by the survivors and families of Hampton and Clark ended in a $1.85 million settlement with the city of Chicago, Cook County, and the federal government.

This play takes place in “a sort of limbo zone” immediately after Hampton’s death, where he is “able to speak to us, the audience,” while also addressing his unborn son, Doyle says.

“The bullets that kill Hampton are passing by this child and the mother,” the director explains.

Thinking about that inspired Bradford’s writing.

“For him to die on a night three weeks out from his own son being born, it’s kind of heartbreaking,” Bradford says. “It’s like: ‘What would I pass on to my son? These are the lessons I wanted to teach my son. These are the stories I wanted to tell him. We may be painted in a certain light, but I want you to know what really went on with the Black Panthers.’”

“He spent his short life loving all the children — other peoples’ kids. But he never got a chance to love his.”

Hampton’s son, Fred Hampton Jr., later became a political activist in his own right

Bradford, who hails from the Germantown section of Philly, fell into acting. He says about 13 years ago, when he was in his late 20s, he was “headed down the wrong path,” feeling alone, lost, stressed and depressed.

“I was breaking up with the girl I was with at the time,” Bradford recalls. “My life was just spiraling out of control.”

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Bradford had written hip-hop, poems and even little plays while he was in school. But he never really thought of being an actor. Still, he decided to walk into the theater.But he found himself in north Philly that day. Sitting in his car, he looked up and saw the Freedom Theatre, a revered drama troupe.

“Freedom Theatre kind of empowered me and helped me understand my situation as a black person in America — the things I wanted to speak out against,” Bradford explains. “I didn’t understand why I was in the streets doing the things I was doing and why I felt the system wasn’t fair. Freedom Theatre kind of gave me that stepping stone to realize the power of the arts.”

Bradford soon trained with acclaimed actor Johnny Hobbs and studied at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York. He also began working with Philadelphia’s Iron Age Theatre, where he met Doyle, the director of this show.

Iron Age often produced one-person monologues about historical figures and events. Doyle cast Bradford to deliver one of Hampton’s speeches.

“He’s not as well-known as many other figures from his historical period, but his message is very inclusive and very hopeful but still within the revolutionary spirit of the Panthers,” Doyle says of Hampton.

Then, Doyle asked Bradford to develop a show about Hampton. “To My Unborn Son” was the result.

Both Bradford and Doyle also see the play — and Hampton’s words — as being all too relevant today, in the wake of recent police shootings, the Black Lives Matter movement and the political divisiveness in the U.S.

“To some extent, our society has backslid from almost Utopian dreams that these folks in the ’60s had,” Doyle says. “We are still suffering through almost all of the practical violations of social justice in our world today.”

“Hampton, he really wanted the world to be different,” he adds. “I think his voice was stifled before he could really speak. And I just want people to hear this brilliant young man give us an opportunity to think about: Maybe there’s a thing we can do that will break the tide of sort of the divisions in our world, the anger, the violence, all of that stuff.”

And what if Hampton were still alive today? Bradford says he thinks Hampton would be “helping in the streets” and promoting candidates that don’t come from the two-party political system.

“We’d probably have a whole different society if Fred Hampton were still around,” Bradford says. “He’d be unifying the masses, bringing them together. It’d be a better society if Fred Hampton was still alive.”

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Brent Johnson
Brent Johnson

Brent Johnson is a pop-culture-obsessed writer from East Brunswick, N.J. He's currently a reporter for The Star-Ledger of Newark. Before that, he was a longtime entertainment and music columnist for The Trenton Times. His work has also been published by Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated On Campus and Night & Day Magazine. His favorite musical artists: Elvis Costello, Billy Joel, The Smiths, Roxy Music, Dave Matthews Band, The Beatles, Blur, Squeeze, The Kinks. When he's not writing, Brent is the lead singer in alt-rock band The Clydes.