Saturday night I went to see the Raw Stages production of "1968." For those of you unfamiliar, Raw Stages is a collaborative between the History Theatre and the Playwrights' Center where new scripts are read aloud, reader's theatre style. The live readings are followed by conversations between the audience and the playwrights, creating a dialogue between the two and providing a mechanism for audience comments and feedback. The 1968 reading was, in a word, excellent. The performance was also well researched and well executed.
A series of vignettes were laced together with transition scenes in which the actors read news clips, lyrics, and television slogans from the year.
Each vignette presented a different perspective of a 1968 milestone. While I don't want to give too much away, I will say that I thought the stories provided an interesting and thought provoking retrospective without being the least bit cliche or "expected." Though it would be impossible to be entirely inclusive in what was only a two-hour window, the selection of stories reached beyond the normal boundaries you'd see in a period piece of this kind.
Since it was a live reading only there were no props, no sets. I thought that worked strikingly well for this production. Instead of being literally shown something during the transition sequences, subtle spoken cues called images from my own mind into the context. For example: one vignette created a dialogue about the sanitation worker's strike that surrounded the death of Dr. King. At a critical moment the narrator notes that the younger actor holds up a sign to which, after a pause, the older actor responds. For me the conjured images of the sign in my mind evoked a very intense reaction. We knew what sign they meant, though they showed the audience nothing.
This was a recurring theme for me throughout the performance as one vignette slipped into the next. I can only imagine how much more powerful these triggered images and thoughts were for others in the audience that lived through these events as they occurred. I wonder about those even younger than I, and if they will have the same reaction. In situations like this I always think of my nieces. If they were in my seat, would they think "Sign? What sign?" or would they breathe heavily as I did, understanding the burden and intensity the scene represented?
The reading of 1968 highlighted the death and subsequent funeral of Bobby Kennedy. The themes between the readings for his memorial and recent Tucson tragedy were eerily and depressingly similar. The parallel was definitely noted by the audience, whether or not it was a deliberate effort on the part of the playwrights.
After the reading people from the audience gave their feedback. Unanimous was the enthusiasm for the actors, who all did a fantastic job. One woman discussed her experience: she was in college in 1968, politically active and very much an idealist. She said she remembered thinking that she and her friends were going to change the world - something that definitely resonated with me.
The last scene, though poetic, left me feeling a little unresolved. I thought a lot about the common thread between 1968 and 2008. Many people viewed the 2008 election with a huge amount of anticipation. While we didn't think one election would necessarily change the world, there was certainly a lot of optimism and... shall I say... "hope" surrounding it?
Maybe this is just the idealist in me speaking, but I think the production could have left the viewer, especially the younger viewer, with a call to action. Progress takes hard work, sacrifice, passion and struggle. Perhaps I would have liked to walk away with a strong message ringing clear: we can still be catalysts for positive change. Then again, perhaps that's something that should be implied, and not directed.
While most shows that go through Raw Stages incubate for a few more years, "1968" is on the fast track. It will open in conjunction with a new exhibit at the Minnesota History Museum: 1968. It will feature a smorgasbord of music from 1968 in addition to the performance. I'll be eagerly looking forward to this - not just to see how the script developed, but also for a second round of inspiration.
Monday is Martin Luther King day. Though we don't observe the holiday officially at my workplace, I'll be observing it on my own. I'll leave you with an excerpt form one of my favorite pieces of writing, philosophy, prose. (For the record, though still relevant, this was from 1963.) This work speaks to me in my own struggle to "be the change I want to see in the world," an ideal easily lost or clouded through the fuss, distraction and chaos of everyday life.
But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
-Letter from Birmingham Jail