Our first show of the season, Hair, is in the middle of the first week of rehearsals, and as the dramaturg, I’ve been privileged to see how this incredibly talented company led by director Melissa Rain Anderson is working to tell a story from half a century ago that is surprisingly relevant today. From the very beginning, many of us on staff here at Geva knew that the musical was speaking to us, but it wasn’t until I started investigating 1968, when Hair premiered on Broadway and the year in which our production takes place, that I understood why. There are a surprising number of similarities between the two years.
In both 1968 and 2018, demonstrations draw attention to racial and economic disparities.
To give you a sense of where we are in the Civil Rights movement in 1968, we are 14 years after the Montgomery bus boycott, 9 years after the Little Rock Nine, 7 years after the Freedom Rides, 5 years after Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech, 4 years after Freedom summer, 3 years after the assassination of Malcom X, 1 year after Loving v. Virginia, and in the year of MLK’s assassination.
And of course, in 2018, we have seen protests around Black Lives Matter, rallies against neo-Nazi violence, protests against the Muslim ban, protests about the imprisonment of undocumented children, and we’ve felt the reverberations of the Occupy movement from a few years ago.
In both 1968 and 2018, women have fought for control over their own bodies, and for fair treatment.
In 1968, women marched in support of legal abortions (Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, so abortion was still illegal, although 1-2 million women had them anyway). In 1968, women also protested the Miss America pageant and gender-segregated help wanted ads in papers, and Jeanette Rankin led 5,000 women in an anti-war protest in Washington, D.C.
In 2017 and 2018, of course, we have the Women’s Marches, which drew huge numbers of women and allies to march in support of women’s rights – things like control over reproduction, support of Planned Parenthood, equality in pay, etc. And the #metoo movement has sparked conversation and action around sexual abuse.
Both time periods featured activism from athletes.
In the 1968 Olympics, track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos medaled in Mexico City. All three medalists on the podium wore human rights badges on their jackets, and Smith and Carlos raised their gloved fists. Smith later said “If I win, I am an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
And controversy is still brewing around the national anthem at NFL games. Colin Kaepernick sat during the anthem in the 49ers 3rd preseason game of 2016, and said after the game: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Shortly after, he moved to kneeling, to show respect to the military, while still protesting.
In terms of politics, we see more similarities. In both time periods, after two terms with a Democrat as President, a Republican presidential candidate ran on the premise of restoring law and order – and won. Narrowly. President Nixon became our country’s 37thPresident, winning the popular vote by just 0.7%. And we will all remember that Donald Trump became our 45thPresident without winning the popular vote.
Further, in both years, the country is bitterly divided, and people with different opinions cannot see another point of view. Regarding our current situation, the Pew Research Center released a report in 2017 saying that the gap between Democrats and Republicans is larger now than it has ever been in our country’s history. Considering what we’ve been through in our country, that’s saying something.
And here’s something fascinating. After a series of liberal rulings involving Civil Rights and equality, a Supreme Court justice retires, to be replaced by a justice who adheres to a strict-constructionist (originalist) application of the Constitution. In 1968, it was Chief Justice Earl Warren who retired. Nixon replaced him with Warren Burger. Interestingly, since Warren’s retirement, all Chief Justices have been conservative, nominated by Republicans. And of course, this year, it’s Judge Anthony Kennedy who’s retired, and looks to be replaced by another conservative justice.
And of course, in both years, the country is engaged in a long, drawn-out war, with no victorious end in sight.
I’m sure this is just scratching the surface – a more serious investigation would turn up even more connections between the two years. And now, you’re wondering, how does Hairaddress all of this?
According to Hair co-creator James Rado, “We were trying to capture the essence of the movement – we really loved what was happening…We were exploring, we were open to changing and rewriting and finding out what worked for us. There was a storyline, even though some people thought there wasn’t – and we just knew this was a new form of the musical.” Hairwas the first concept musical, exploring themes and ideas rather than following an action-driven plot. And when the musical was revived on Broadway in 2009, director Diane Paulus commented on the optimism of the story. “I went back recently and told them they were playing it like it was ’70,” she said. “It was ‘Been there, done that, f@*! you’ as opposed to ’67, which is ‘Everything is possible. And we are going to convert you from the stage tonight.’”
Musical theatre historian Scott Miller suggests that “Hair shocks the audience (though that is not really its goal) by challenging what they believe, by showing how absurd, how offensive, how nonsensical, and in some cases, how dangerous are the behavior and language that society calls ‘normal.’” And the musical asks some very important questions, which remain relevant today (the questions are Miller’s, the parentheticals are mine):
- Why did we send American soldiers halfway around the world to kill strangers when there was no direct threat to our country?
- Why can’t we talk openly about sex?
- Why are some words ‘dirty’ and other words that mean the same thing acceptable? (Or, why can a male comedian call someone a mother f@$%, but a female comedian is censored for calling someone a c-u-next-tuesday?)
- Why are there so many offensive words for black people but hardly any for white people?
- Why are so many straight people interested in what gay people do in private? (Or worried that their religion is in jeopardy if they make a cake for the wrong kind of people?)
- If the Constitution guarantees free speech, why can’t we burn the flag? (Or take a knee?)
- Is it right to protest and refuse to follow laws which are unjust?
Finally, these words from Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered in his 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam,” ring true for me, and they epitomize the impact of Hair for me:
“We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says: ‘Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.’”