Before we get started with the standard review, allow us to apologize for the lull in activity on this site. Rest assured, Tara and I are still attending frequent art and performance events around the Philadelphia area. Sadly, we’ve been slacking on the write-ups. Look for some additional posts to be “back-filled” in the coming weeks–I can recall at least 4 show reviews that still need final edits and posting in this space. Now, on with the blog!
Voices of a People’s History of The United States (Plays and Players, 29Jan15)
What they say it is:
Through speeches, songs and more, Voices of a People’s History of the United States brings passion and power to the words that helped end slavery and Jim Crow, fought war and genocide, advanced gay and women’s rights, and singularly defined the American spirit. Excerpted from the book edited by Anthony Arnove and famed historian Howard Zinn that has been mounted in performances across the United States for over 10 years, a large cast of notable Philadelphia actors bring to life more than 400 years of activists. By giving public expression to rebels, dissenters and visionaries from our past—and present—Voices seeks to educate and inspire a new generation working for social justice.
With all due respect, I’m assuming that the production cost for this show must have been minimal. The set was simple risers and mismatched chairs, along with a backdrop screen where historical images were projected behind the players. Unfortunately, there were also three distracting poles that interfered with the projected images. I assume these poles were meant to keep the actors from falling off the back edge of the risers, since they had no other obvious ascetic function. The actors were mainly dressed in black and, without meaning to sound particularly mean, their stage clothes probably came from their home closets.
The presentation was somewhat more than a straightforward reading from Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” . . . but barely so. The players passed three ring binders between themselves as they each presented their assigned monologues. Perhaps the speeches were too much to memorize. It could be argued that the choice to use binders on stage were to create an intentional visual effect–reminding the audience that these are not the words of the actor but those of activists and historical figures? Or maybe, given that it was opening night, the actors simply weren’t ready to go off-book? Whatever the reason, I found the use of binders distracting and detracting from the performance.
I did take pleasure in watching ‘Sojourner Truth’ perform. Firstly, her piece was memorized- a bonus- and the source material was humorous. This actress was adept at presenting her piece but I also enjoyed the wit of the writing. Other speeches presented were interesting, but often angry- effective if you are inciting a crowd to action, but unfortunately lacking the spirit and energy of a mob mentality when being presented to a audience on cushioned seats and ignorant to the details of the argument being presented. It’s fair to assume we know the context for famous figures like MLK and Malcolm X, but more difficult to entirely understand speeches relating to factory labor movements or migrant workers.
The presentation was long, and if I’m honest, I admit that I eventually lost interest. Perhaps this show would work better as a shortened version, exploring specific issues in closer detail? A reworking of this nature might allow an opportunity to express more than excerpts from angry speeches?
First, I want to give genuine kudos to Tara for getting her write-up done before me. This isn’t always the case. ;’] We know you’re all still looking forward to our evaluation of Risk! from last April (stay tuned, loyal blog readers!).
Second, I’m gonna say that though Tara might come off a bit harsh in her review above, she’s mostly on-point with her criticisms. My complaints about the show are similar to hers, but I’d rather center my own review around the principle of cost vs. value. Even after purchasing discounted Funsaver tickets, our final bill for this show was $19 per ticket. That price isn’t a truly expensive night out, but one does expect a certain degree of quality when paying for an event. Unfortunately, as Tara pointed out above, the show certainly felt like it had been done on the cheap. Given that the (amazing) People’s History book espouses a legitimately populist, protesting, 99-percenter point of view, the text may justify some of the show’s DIY, low-budget shortcomings–but I don’t think it excuses the sale of a weakly developed production. Seeing the cast read the entire script from binders just felt cheap and unpracticed–after all, this wasn’t billed as a community meeting where we’re passing the hat to pay the heating bill . . . it’s a ticketed event. It’s worth noting that the show’s monologs are long, complicated pieces of recital….but the lack of memorization just seemed unforgivably unprofessional, and gave the impression that we were watching a dress rehearsal of players in need of more preparation time. Strikingly, even with bound scripts in hand, some actors still felt uncertain with the material, while others shone with rehearsed confidence. This irregular distribution of preparedness among the show’s own performers made for an uneven, occasionally uncomfortable, ride.
The fighting, frustrated, throw-your-body-on-the-gears spirit of the show did offer a few glimmers of personal inspiration, but these fleeting moments were pitted against my predominant sensation of boredom. Having read parts of the People’s original text, I’d come to the show expecting more Edgy History and less speech-quoting. Perhaps this was my own mistake, since the show is advertised as The Voices’of the People’s History (an entirely separate book from The People’s History of the United States). But I still found the repeating focus on specific social issues (a range of presentations on race, gender, poverty, etc) less interesting than the broader overview (or dirty political expose) that I recall from the text. For instance, learning about Bradley Manning’s release of classified documents was welcome and interesting, but contemporary updates such as this (many sketches, such as Manning’s, weren’t part of Zinn’s book) ended up taking away time that could have been spent on the very thing I came to see–a play based on the book itself. It’s excellent to see a show tackle complex issues of class, race, poverty, and social revolutions–but, unfortunately, much of the night played like a highlight reel of speeches and movements, and not much of a learning experience at all.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m a fan of celebrating heroes, history, and the need to keep the fire burning. I’m much less interested in paying for art that isn’t up to snuff. I left the theater wondering if the show’s weak production value was the result of the inevitably tough choice that faces too many artistic efforts: stage a passion project at a relatively cheap (and amateur) level . . . or don’t stage it at all. I’m guessing they opted for the former.
Admittedly, with a cast as large as our nation’s history (and an epic scope to match), A People’s History of the United States isn’t the kind of work one can tackle through traditional means. But this staging felt lacking on several levels, and wasn’t the sort of show I’d recommend to anyone with a serious interest in learning about the book or the issues involved. Instead, I’d say just to stay home and read Zinn’s awesome political writing, save the money you’d have spent on this show…..and then maybe take some revolutionary action on your own.