Writing history is a political act. Even a small edit can diminish the power of an entire group of people. That's one reason Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative presented Voices of a People's History at Broom Street Theater last weekend. Loosely based on Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, it directed the spotlight at marginalized individuals who've clamored for change over the past 300 years.
The performers began by noting that, out of respect, they were not pretending to be the characters listed in the program, which ranged from household names like Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony to lesser-known figures like gay activist Vito Russo and anarchist Emma Goldman. Instead, the line readings were meant to be meditations on these historical figures' letters and lectures, which had been hand-picked by the cast members. I appreciate the group's point about representation -- that it's important not to project one's own assumptions onto others, especially marginalized people -- but many of the performances still felt like acting. That didn't weaken the production much, though.
On closing night, the monologues brought the characters to life in a way that engaged a full house of viewers. A few audience members shouted out words of solidarity when digesting the words of people like Mary Elizabeth Lease, a populist agitator whose "Wall Street Owns the Country" speech could have been written in 2013, not 1890.
Without a program, it might have been hard to keep some of the speakers straight, but all of the monologues were powerful and passionately delivered. The words of union organizers like Vicky Starr and Sylvia Woods were especially moving as delivered by Glenn Friedan and Nita Sharma. And Sam Christian captured Allen Ginsberg's sense of humor with the 1956 poem "America."
Live music added weight to the performance; it also lightened the mood at the right moments. Hymns were cleverly pitted against rabblerousing folk songs, and an incredibly smiley rendition of "De Colores," a traditional Mexican tune associated with apostolic Catholics and United Farm Workers rallies, provided a touch of surrealism.