A People’s History Comes Alive On the Stage
By Chip Gibbons
The Culture Project in New York is currently putting on Rebel Voices, a new play based on Howard Zinn’s Voices of A People’s History of America. Not living in New York myself I miss out on a lot of exciting things. However, I recently happened to have the privilege of seeing a preview of the play the night before it opened (thanks to good timing and luck I happened to be in the city on that night)
America has a rich history of dissent, one that is often ignored by mainstream versions of history. Zinn, on the other hand, has made a career of documenting American’s tradition of protest and nowhere is this history captured with more spirit than in Rebel Voices. The play consists of a permanent cast of six and a revolving cast of guest, including Danny Glover, Staceyann Chin, and Zinn himself, reading famous speeches, petitions, letters, etc. If one has ever thumbed through Voices of A People’s History he/she knows how the pieces Zinn selected are not only well-written, but both inspiring and informative. Each of the actors dix an incredible job at bringing to life the selections which include works by Frederick Douglas, Malcolm X, Sojourner Truth, Eugene Debs, and more.. However, if one is expecting an elaborate stage set and props, I must warn you the stage itself is very minimalist consisting only of the actors and stools, however, the actors do move around a bit. This setting does not in anyone take anything away from the play, as it is the readings that are the focus..
The play contains many antiwar speeches, including Eugene Debs’ infamous Canton, Ohio speech. For those of you not familiar with your history, during Word War I the Espionage and Sedition Acts made it illegal to speak out against the war, as President Woodrow Wilson believed “dissent, in time of war, was a significant threat to morale.”
A wide-ranged of people were prosecuted under this act from anarchist Emma Goldman to members of the radical labor union Industrial Workers of the World, but the group that was hit the hardest was the Socialist Party of America, America’s largest third party at the time.
On June 16, 1918 the party’s forbearer and perennial Presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, was in Canton, Ohio to visit three Socialist who had been imprisoned for speaking out against World War I. After his visit, Debs went across the street where he gave on of the greatest antiwar speeches of all-times, one that would earn him a 10-year prison sentence (he would later have his sentence commuted and invited to the White House for lunch—by a Republican president).
What terrible thing did Eugene Debs say? It went a something like this:
Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. In the Middle Ages when the feudal lords who inhabited the castles whose towers may still be seen along the Rhine concluded to enlarge their domains, to increase their power, their prestige and their wealth they declared war upon one another. But they themselves did not go to war any more than the modern feudal lords, the barons of Wall Street go to war. [Applause.] The feudal barons of the Middle Ages, the economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt. And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose–especially their lives.
Another great historical commentary on war comes from the North Star, the paper of escaped slave turned abolitionist Frederick Douglas. In 1848 the North Star, in reponse the Mexican-American war, stated that people of peace had no party, as one party (the Democrats) had started the war and another party (the Whigs) funded it. The more things change…
The North Star and Debs are joined by contemporary peace activist, such as Cindy Sheehan and Camilo Mejia. The performance also includes a soldiers testimony about the My Lai Massacre as well as a first hand account of the bombing of Hiroshima intermingled with a US Government Report on the bombing (which stated that it was most likely that Japan would of surrendered regardless of the use of atomic weaponry).
Voices against war are not the only historical acts of protest included in the play, as voices from the abolitionist, civil rights, women’s rights, labor, and gay rights movements are also heard. Although the subject mater of their speeches can often be weighty and depressing, their victories are inspiring.
Whenever one becomes weary about the future of American, just remember at one point we had slavery, segregation and women (or even those who did not own property) could not vote. That’s no longer the case, because of activist who worked tirelessly against seemingly impossible odds. We still have a long way to go, but we’ve also come along way.
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