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.
His 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. Philadelphian Bob Weick takes on the role of the brilliant, if much maligned Howard Zinn, supported by a cast of Philadelphia theater artists.
Henrik Eger: What in your background as an American and as an actor made you choose this provocative work?
Bob Weick: My roots are here in Philly, Kensington—working class, Irish Catholic. I came of age during the Vietnam War era, with all the social strife that surrounded that difficult and promising time. I had uncles who were priests and aunts who were nuns. The Church, at that time, was very active against the war. That background certainly shaped my world view. But in a way, I did not choose this work, it chose me.
Long before I engaged with the work of Howard Zinn, a kind soul, Dick Nepon, handed me a copy of Marx in Soho, “This would be a great role for you.” Knowing little about Zinn and next to nothing about Marx, that small act kick-started a new chapter in my life. I did not recognize it at the time, but my life and work was changed at that moment.
The actor inside of me was terrified by the prospect of solo performance, but at the same time felt driven to do work that could perhaps have an impact on society. I wanted to play my part, to contribute to intelligent dialogue, and to wrestle with important ideas. With the help of [Iron Age director] John Doyle, and then encouragement from Howard Zinn, I found meaningful and challenging work. What more could an actor ask for?
Eger: Tell us about your work with Zinn and what impacted you the most about interacting with him?
Weick: Howard [Zinn] loved the Iron Age Theatre production of Marx in Soho, encouraging us to run with it. As time went by, as his new piece, Voices of a People’s History, developed, we saw another opportunity to engage audiences with important ideas. Voices, unlike my solo piece [Marx in Soho], brings a large number of people together, and it is great to share the stage with other committed actors and designers. This cast [at Plays and Players] just tears up the material—goose bumps all around.
Howard was an extraordinarily warm individual, and his enthusiasm and support was wonderful. His most profound ideas stay with me to this day: History matters. Your actions matter. You have a role to play in this crazy world, although it can be hard at times to fight the good fight. Choosing to work with thoughtful people—whatever the results, immediate or long term—makes life both interesting and rewarding.
Perhaps my fondest memory of Howard [Zinn] was sharing the green room with him before a show in Boston, just talking about our families and life in general. Or maybe the time I was trapped in my hotel room near his home because of an ice storm. To my surprise, he walked over to visit me at the hotel to share a meal and hang out.
Eger: How did audience members in those days respond to Zinn and his work? Could you give a few examples?
Weick: Well, I’ve seen it all. I received hate mail and threats and even had one venue in Texas shot up and vandalized—bullet holes in a dressing room is a unique experience for an actor. Marx in Soho is the only piece I’ve ever done where I can feel open hostility as I enter the stage. However, over the course of the play, something happens: ideas begin to resonate; the audience can become unsettled, unsure. I can feel it when it turns.
The post-play discussions are always fascinating. The most hostile audiences are ready and willing to talk after the show. Those who see the work never quite read the news the same way. Some audiences even react as though I’m a rock star, which is fun and rewarding, but going into conservative bastions I like the most.
Eger: Before you became an actor, you were a farrier, working with horses. What made you replace the smithy for the stage? And what, ultimately, made you dedicate your professional life as an actor representing Zinn’s work?
Weick: I still shoe horses, though I now do it part time because of my touring schedule. Also, it’s demanding physical work, and I’m not a kid anymore. In short, I like to shoe-horse and I love to act. And I plan to continue both careers.
Eger: What criticism have you encountered of this play which makes history come alive?
Weick: None for Voices. Of course, no one makes a point to stick around after a show just to tell you they hate what you did.
Eger: You are a popular actor and Barrymore nominee who performed Zinn’s compendium work, Marx in Soho over 250 times all over the US. Is this production of Voices at Plays and Players also going on a national tour?
Weick: We have decided to dedicate ourselves to reaching new audiences, and this seems an exciting possibility. We are in the process of developing a framework to assist with university productions. [Director] John Doyle and I will work on shaping and guiding the theatrical framework and process, while using college students, faculty members, and alumni as the core company. We want to work with them to choose texts that serve as companion pieces to their classroom studies. Some local professors will be seeing the show this weekend with an eye to produce local campus productions this fall.
Eger: History is almost always written from the perspective of the victors and the ruling class. Very few historians take a different path, like Zinn, who presents American history from a “We the people” perspective. Could you give an example or two?
Weick: The key idea we learn from Howard’s work is that all the progress we have enjoyed in this country only happens when people organize, take to the streets, and demand it. Democracy does not come from the top. It comes from the bottom.
The American Revolution was in many respects forced on the Founding Fathers. They were responding to strong messages and demands from average citizens. Similarly, FDR was pushed into the New Deal by an engaged and enraged public.
Eger: Adam Cahnman, blogger of Cahnman’s Musings, condemned A People’s History of the United States as a “discredited book.” What is it about Zinn’s approach to history that gets certain sections of the American population upset with his work?
Weick: Challenging popular mythologies, whether historical or religious, always upsets those who, for whatever reason, are heavily invested in upholding old myths. Reality can often be much less comforting than fantasy.
Eger: When one can’t argue with some of the worst aspects of exploitation and discrimination in US history, some commentators drag in religion—for example, the claim that Zinn’s Marx in SoHo “is written with an antiChrist spirit.” What responses did you get from your audiences who saw a production of Zinn’s work?
Weick: Some right wing fundamentalists, political or religious, take offense at the play. Some even walk out and it’s ridiculous when they do. Some folks just don’t get it. I have performed Marx for the Sisters at Catholic Workers and for other church groups. They love the message of the play, the call for peace and justice.
Marx was an atheist. The script is honest about that and addresses this and other subjects with humor, goodwill, and a little exasperation. Let’s face it: the play is a fantasy. Marx comes back to present day Philly to clear his name and comment on what has happened since his death. A fascinating premise—with funny moments and an important message.
Eger: You received the highest praise and deepest condemnation of Zinn’s work: “Bob Weick is an excellent actor; in terms of staging and theatrics, his performance was flawless. The ideas behind his performance, however, remain evil. Cahnman’s Musings urges readers to pray for the Lord to lift the veil of deception from Mr. Weick’s eyes.”
Shall we all start praying now—before fundamentalists protest outside Plays and Players?
Weick: Ha! That’s some review! I never saw that one. Well, all are welcome to attend or protest. I’m a big fan of protest, but let there be a dialogue without dogma. While I can’t help but smile at the above comments, it’s not really funny. Dogma is a killer, and the stakes in society are high. We have to respect Marx’s call for dialogue, the dialectic. Fundamentalism, whether religious or political, kills.
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?
Weick: I love the post-play Q&A sessions. I’ve never met hostility after a performance. Both Voices and Marx in Soho spawn dialogue and the exercise of critical thinking. After seeing the play, audiences no longer reject Marx out of hand. They feel like they have met him. And they like him.
Eger: Do audience members get educational materials to solidify their knowledge?
Weick: We do offer educational support, bibliographies, and links to resources. There are also the Zinn Education Project and the Teaching for Change organizations that provide support to academics.
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?
Weick: Well, there are also ongoing initiatives to present Voices. The work is never done, and that’s ok. There is always a need for vigilance. We need to be engaged with the issues of the day. Democracy requires it. As Marian Wright Edelman said, “Democracy is not a Spectator sport.” From what I have seen, more and more people are using Zinn’s work. Sales of his books are still strong.
Eger: Aware of the plight of millions of Americans, Zinn lists as the motivation for his work the fact that “people who seem to have no power [. . .] have a voice no government can suppress.” Given the access that millions of Internet users now have to social media, what do you think are the chances that more Americans will wake up to these vital issues and take action?
Weick: Social media is a great tool for organizing and for sharing information, but people in our society are trained to be submissive, to be obedient. Add to this a natural instinct among people to focus on their daily lives and families. Face to face contact is critical in developing meaningful relationships.
But a time always comes when folks shut down, rise up, take a walk together, march in protest, meet for coffee. Keep it real. Keep it personal.
Eger: There was such a demand for Zinn’s work that Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Chris Moore produced a film with Zinn and Arnove in 2009. It featured dramatic and musical performances by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Danny Glover, Morgan Freeman, Pink, Sean Penn, and many more. How deep do you think is the penetration of Zinn’s work in the American psyche, given the status of these celebrities?
Weick: I find it hard to assess in terms of numbers. Millions to be sure. Having known celebrities involved certainly raises awareness.
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?
Weick: Philly was born in revolution. I suspect it will play a role in the much needed change, especially as the number of people who are aware of the pending environmental disaster and of economic inequality is growing.
As I travel the country, I see clearly that there are pockets of resistance to the status quo everywhere—even in Texas [he grins]. But these resisters are often unaware of each other. Those of us who care must continue to reach out to others, be willing to speak out, be willing to defend the idea that all people in all countries have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If any government is obstructing these goals, it is the right and responsibility of the people to alter their governing bodies. You can quote me on that!
Eger: It has been observed that Zinn’s dialogues don’t preach, but are filled with mischievous humor.
Weick: No! [he grins] To receive these gems, you have to see the show. Howard is a great storyteller and has a great sense of humor, as you’ll see.
Eger: Is there anything else you would like us to know about this production?
Weick: Come one and all. Prepare to be offended. Prepare to be moved. Prepare to laugh. Prepare to sing along with us. Come and see for yourself. Judge for yourself. And then let’s have a pint up in Quig’s Pub and explore how we can work for peace and justice—and live our brief lives with joy.