Howard Zinn, considered to be one of the most thought-provoking American historians, who presents history not from the perspective of those in power, but from the experience of “people who had been omitted from textbooks,” has been both praised and condemned, according to the reader’s perspective—from progressive to ultra-conservative.
The play parallels Voices of a People’s History of the United States, an anthology, edited by Zinn and Anthony Arnove in 2004. Voices is the primary source companion to Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
By allowing us to see the underbelly of the world’s richest and most powerful country (“we cannot depend on people in the White House”), we learn about individuals who, in their own way, shaped this country. Just as Bertolt Brecht did not write in praise of the pharaohs but the workers who built the pyramids, so Zinn shows us that without the slaves in America, the workers, women, and many marginalized groups, the US would not be what she is now.
Although Zinn died in 2010, his work continues to be read and studied widely and finds new audiences all over the US through performances of his work Voices. It’s now being presented in a new production at Plays and Players, directed by John Doyle, Iron Age artistic director. Bob Weick takes on the role of the brilliant, if much maligned Howard Zinn, supported by a cast of Philadelphia theatre artists.
Henrik Eger: What in your background as an American and as a theater director made you choose this provocative work?
John Doyle: I am interested in the intersection of theater and history. I am deeply connected to our revolutionary spirit and to the 20th century’s great social movements. I, like Thomas Paine, see myself as a citizen of the world as well as of America. This production speaks to that American sprint, while focusing on our global humanity and connectedness. I have and continue to love engaging in work that brings historical figures or situations into an active relationship with the audience—from the Juneteenth events [US Emancipation Day, commemorating the abolition of slavery in June 1865] to Bastille Day [French revolution, July 14,1789, re-enacted] at Eastern State. This type of work is in my blood.
Eger: If social justice is at the forefront of both Zinn’s Voices and your work, how do audience members respond to the challenges that you present to them, for example in Q&A sessions afterwards? Similarly, do audience members get educational materials to solidify their knowledge?
Doyle: Our young audiences have study guides and have had staff from Plays and Players visit the schools. The event feels a lot like a big community meeting. People engage and are commissioned by the cast to take action and join the movement. Zinn’s books are available for purchase at the productions from Wooden Shoe.
Eger: The VOICES project “also aims to change the way U.S. history is taught and understood, in the classroom and beyond.” Tell us about the progress of this project and what still needs to be done?
Doyle: Our educational system is focused on American exceptionalism over honesty. It has gotten lost in statistics that are driven by political agendas, rather than intellectual endeavor. I hear teachers misrepresenting Marx, King, Malcom X, and Unions because pundits have replaced scholarly engagement with “history.” This play and Zinn’s work challenge us to see the world not from the top but from those under foot. Progress is slow.
We are living in a time where standardized testing and entertainment news have prevented or made difficult access to important and neglected facts and ideas. The Zinn Education project is making serious efforts to make a difference. We hope that audiences of all ages who see this production will be affected.
Eger: Zinn presents documents from famous Americans like Frederick Douglass, Emma Goldman, Langston Hughes, John Steinbeck, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky, and many more. They’re all part of the canon of educated progressive intellectuals. How did you engage the audience who may not know gay poets like Allen Ginsberg, trade union organizers like César Chávez, and black authors like Alice Walker?
Doyle: Part of the magic of this piece is that we focus on bringing those unknown or lesser known figures to the fore. Using actors, music, projections and well-chosen and edited texts, we are able to give life to the obscure. Some of my favorite pieces in this production are names never mentioned in a classroom.
Eger: In traditional history books, documents from popular culture rarely get included like letters, diaries, and speeches of ordinary Americans. Zinn, however, includes them as evidence, for example, the defiant call to arms of Shawnee leader Tecumseh, a fugitive slave’s letter to a former master, and testimony of nineteenth-century factory girls on strike in the Lowell mills—history not dictated from above, but history grown organically, rising up. How did you make that process a reality in this production?
Doyle: This has been an organic process. Each member of the cast and production team brings ideas to the table and we respect them. It is an evolution, trusting in the hearts of the creators, no matter how young or old, to bring their special talents to the pieces.
Eger: Tell us more about the amazing cast you have assembled and their roles, including the significance of your color and gender-blind casting in this production.
Doyle: The diversity of the cast is extraordinary. Each member brings both an appreciation for the contact and a set of special skills. We have used actors in gender and racially appropriate roles in some places for clarity’s sake, for example Kathy Simpson portrays Sojourner Truth; Mary Tuomanen presents Helen Keller; while Damien Wallace plays Malcolm X. However, there are other roles where the juxtaposition of the gender or racial contract is meaningful to the text, for example, Bi Jean Ngo as Frederick Douglass, or Gabriella Sanchez as Cesar Chavez.
The work is about our humanity, our unity—not our differences, like gender and ethnicities. We are focused on making challenging and illuminating choices, presented in five different groups: On race and gender; The ignored and marginalized; Class and economy; War, race, and poverty; and Economy and revolution—all beginning with excerpts from the Declaration of Independence. The text has informed these choices.
Several of the cast members have been in our previous incarnation of the show. They have a perspective that adds depth to their performances, for example, Bob Weick as Howard Zinn who opens and narrates the show.
Eger: Anyone else who contributed to this production at Plays and Players in strong ways?
Doyle: Carly Bodnar has acted as my assistant director; her insights can be seen in the work on the stage. She is thoughtful and inventive. Certainly I have to mention Bob Weick’s contribution to the work. He helped filter the pieces, edit them, and spent hours reading the piece aloud to determine its actual length. He is a wonderful collaborator. Amber Emroy, producer and associate artistic director, guided so much of the tone we have included her at the Plays and Players performance. Lucas Fendley is adding live music to underscore the narrations. There are many others; indeed, the entire team has had influence on the production.
Eger: Unlike many other plays that set out to entertain or to inform, Zinn’s Voices sets out to “inspire a new generation of people working for social justice.” How close do you think we are in reaching Zinn’s goals in liberating the people and building a more humane future right here in Philadelphia?
Doyle: The energy among the cast of this production illustrates the power of Zinn’s vision in Philly. There are examples throughout the city of people standing up for social causes, speaking out for victims of injustice and banding together to live more humanely. Zinn believed it was one small step at a time. With each production, each small action, we can turn the tide.
Eger: Is there anything else you would like us to know about this production?
Doyle: It’s unique in the succession of productions of Voices of a People’s History all over the US. We have pushed the theatricality of the work. We underscored cinematically the notations, adding more of a dialogue sensibility to some of the texts. And we staged the piece with a stronger sense of community over individual readers who, traditionally, stand alone on stage. All these elements energize the work.
The piece is crafted to take the audience on a journey. Each piece is connected to the one before and after, building on their ideas and arguing for Zinn’s thesis. In this production we included an accordion, electric guitar, poetry, and passionate recitations of great works. It gives me chills.
This week is the anniversary of Zinn’s death. I can think of no better way to honor his memory than to draw all Philadelphians into this production. [1714 Delancey Street] January 29-31, 2015; playsandplayers.org.