The Students for a Democratic Society, a left-leaning activist group founded in the early 1960s had become large and militant as the decade became turbulent with the witches’ brew of death, war and nuclear tension. The assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy and Malcolm X devastated America, cruel blows from which the country has never recovered. The Viet Nam War, with its ever-increasing violence and ever-growing army, radicalized students and much of the populace into protest, often on college campuses, often led by the SDS and others. In 1969, SDS fractured, split by a militant faction that eventually seized control. That faction called themselves The Weathermen, a name derived from a Bob Dylan lyric, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Influenced by Karl Marx and Russian revolutionists, they quoted Mao — “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” — and took inspiration from Che Guevara.
Their struggle included action on behalf of black civil rights, worker’s rights (notably the unionization of farm workers under the leadership of Cesar Chavez), and the fight for women’s rights. All these actions encountered vigorous opposition and there was physical conflict, often brutal and sometimes deadly (Kent State, 1970). The Weathermen devolved into a small band of dedicated revolutionaries determined to bring down the establishment by “direct action” that included the bombing of government buildings. Pursued by the FBI, they went into hiding.
The Assembly, a theatre group out of New York, has created a remarkable theatre piece that humanizes the Weather Underground and makes vivid the turmoil of those days. Six actors embody the Weather Underground, each actor taking inspiration from a particular member of that small, radical faction. Tommy (Ben Beckly), is the leader and the most strident in his passion, seconded by Bernard (Kate Benson). The two of them do most of the shouting, which smacks of authenticity. It can be painful to listen. Paul (Daniel Johnsen) seems a dedicated follower. Kathy (Anna Abhau Elliot) is an intellectual, a poet committed to the cause to the point of self-destruction. Anna (Emily Louise Perkins), a nubile eighteen-year old, is swept up into the passion of the moment. And awkward, nerdy David (Edward Bauer), driven by the ghost of his brother, dead in Viet Nam, makes bombs and falls for Kathy.
As a person who lived through all of those days, this extraordinary ensemble of actors, who have no personal memory of those times, get it right. They have done their homework; they have studied and learned. They play their hearts out with the enviable passion of total dedication. They sing and dance. They greet the audience as they come in, handing out files cards and pens, politely asking each person to write a statement telling what their ideal America would be. At intermission, the cast brings out pitchers of punch and cups and invites the audience to share it with them.
As the play progresses, each actor has the opportunity to step up to a microphone and make a revealing personal statement about him or herself and their relationship to the work or the process. It is an unusual and very gratifying peek into the shaping of a work of theatre art.
The characters are fire-breathing, dope smoking radicals who embody the arrogance of revolution. The tenor of the times is captured with its violence and sex and hyperbolic rhetoric. Some of this is hard to watch. One character, Edward, is put through a session of Maoist re-education when Tommy suspects him of being a loner who keeps himself apart from the group. Not sharing every last iota of himself is an unforgiveable, bourgeois offense. The scene is enough to raise the angst of a sensitive person. No doubt some audience members will be put off by the passion and the shouting. A few may leave at intermission. They make a mistake. There are terrific rewards to be had in the second act.
At the curtain call, all those file cards that people wrote out before the start of action are brought out and read to the audience. The comments were funny, touching, simple and complex, and often as topical as Tuesday.
I highly recommend this most unusual of shows. It will annoy you and reward you, make you think and remember, especially if you lived through those times. If you come with a play-going partner, you will have much to talk about at intermission and during the journey home.
Home/Sick, devised and written collectively by The Assembly, cunningly directed by Jess Chayes, is a joint production of Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and The Assembly. It runs through July 3 at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles.