Ann Arbor playwright David Wells’ work brings John Lennon’s deportation case to the stage.
By Suzanne Chessler
Featured Image Courtesy of Golden Record Media Company
David Wells, an Ann Arbor playwright, read the book John Lennon vs. the U.S.A. and became fascinated by Lennon’s 1970s immigration battle. He decided the story and its relevance to current issues merited theatrical attention.
Research prompted a meeting with Michael Wildes, son of the book’s New York author Leon Wildes, who represented the famous Beatle confronting deportation.
The Wells-Wildes conversations about the case and the friendship between the senior attorney and Lennon yielded a two-person play, Mazel Tov, John Lennon. The production, featuring Phil Powers as Leon Wildes and Forrest Hejkal as John Lennon, runs through April 21 at Theatre Nova in Ann Arbor.
The “mazel tov” in the title stems from the Jewish lawyer’s perspective shown on stage. Wells’ understanding came from Jewish community ties developed during his high school years in West Bloomfield.
“This is essentially a play about immigration as a political tool and presidential abuse of power,” explains Wells, whose plays have been recognized through the Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, National New Play Network Showcase and Wilde Award for Best New Script.
The play is based on the actual events of the trial and all of Leon’s maneuvering to keep Lennon in the country.
Before Wells marketed his script, he sought approval from Wildes and his son.
Michael Wildes especially likes the elements that connect lawyer and musician. He recalls Lennon visiting his home and is glad a family friendship continues with Yoko Ono, Lennon’s widow. He also recalls Lennon’s interest in the observant Judaism practiced by his father.
“No other place has the dialogue deteriorated worse than in immigration,” Wildes adds. “We, as Jews, because of our own biblical journey, need to remind ourselves how important this is to America’s DNA.”
Wells, who studied playwriting and screenwriting at the University of Michigan, takes audiences back to the Nixon years, the start of voting for those age 18. He links the attempt at deporting Lennon with concerns about Lennon’s influence on the youth vote.
“Leon sued the government with [regard to the] Freedom of Information Act, and it was revealed the government had a policy of preferred action for deportation,” Wells says, adding the Obama administration used that as the basis of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). “Dreamers are a direct beneficiary of Leon Wildes’ work on this case.”
Michael Wildes explains the case evolved out of events in Ann Arbor after a Lennon appearance. His song in support of writer-activist John Sinclair, it is believed, helped gain Sinclair’s release from a prison sentence resulting from marijuana charges.
Leon Wildes talks of the successful litigation. “It showed me the work I had been doing was much more important than it was recognized by everybody else,” he says. “It would affect very important parts of our lives.”
Mazel Tov, John Lennon runs through April 21 at Theatre Nova, 410 W. Huron, Ann Arbor. $22. (734) 635-8450. theatrenova.org.