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Thursday, August 31, 2017

The People Spoke

By Nora Tjossem

Sitting in the red plushness of the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, facing the proscenium arch, the weight of tradition climbs into your lap and takes its seat. But on Tuesday night, March 24, it was not the legacy of Pina Bausch or Robert Wilson that sat with us. It was the history—fraught, inflammable, and frighteningly present—of the United States of America.

The People Speak uses the work of historian Howard Zinn to bring life to the revolutionaries that have ignited social justice movements in the United States. “I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy,” Zinn once proclaimed. Directed by longtime Zinn collaborator Anthony Arnove and performed by a lineup of actors, musicians, poets, and writers, the words of some of the most radical and transformative voices in this country’s history are unearthed from the oppressive, topsy-turvy status quo and given a stage worthy of their present import.

“We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake,” Brian Jones intoned, “The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused.” Those galvanizing words of Frederick Douglass, no less trenchant now than on the Fourth of July, 1852, set the tone for an evening of revolutionary history brought to life. Douglass gave way to John Brown (spoken by David Strathairn) mingling his blood with those in chains, who then gave way to Susan B. Anthony (Maggie Gyllenhaall) taking on a judge in court (Peter Sarsgaard) for voting.

For our era of overwhelming, rapid-fire content, The People Speak provides a reprieve—not from the issues at hand, but from the panicked intuition that we are the first tasked with solving them. The event is not an opportunity for experts onstage to tell us what to do; they are there to fill the air with revolutionary voices from generations recent and long past.

As Frances McDormand took the microphone, she looked to her left at Arnove, who emceed the evening’s readings. Off script and in devastating rhetorical, she asked of the upcoming selection, “When was that Anthony?” He replied, “1890.” With a level 90 degree turn of the head back to the audience she delivered the words of Mary Elizabeth Lease to us here, in 2017: “Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street.” The words cut through time, space, and lifespans to land with their full weight on the ears of the packed opera house audience.

The evening continued with speeches, letters, poems, and musical acts including a gorgeous “What’s Going On” from Martha Redbone channeling Marvin Gaye, and spirited punk rock renditions of Langston Hughes and Allen Ginsberg from Stew, Heidi & The Von Trapped. Staceyann Chin brought down the house with Angela Davis’ rallying cry from the recent January 21st Women’s March on Washington. Aasif Mandvi brought laughs with a sly reference to the Park Slope Food Co-op, care of Moustafa Bayoumi’s 2010 “My Arab Problem.” The energy of the room was subdued to contemplative silence with Marisa Tomei’s reading of Chelsea Manning’s statement on sentencing, which quoted Zinn: “There is not a flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”

The People Speak at BAM demonstrated a gathering, not in the spirit of self-congratulatory wokeness, but in the spirit, very much alive, of those revolutionaries responsible for preserving precisely the rights we presently feel under attack. For 90 minutes, the opera house held a conference of voices that had never spoke to one another before, had not had the opportunity to mingle causes and recognize the decades that would calcify between them. America, as Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States makes abundantly clear, was never great. America has always been and continues to be a work in progress, and our America (for yes, he insists, it is yours) is no exception.

As the crowd swarmed the steps of the opera house, flyers exchanged hands, people grabbed bikes, hailed cabs, and headed to the subway. In the dark, pedaling to the rhythm of Talib Kweli’s wireless, a capella rendition of Public Enemy (“fight the power... FIGHT the power”), I imagined hundreds of other bodies, still clutching programs, rocking on subway cars to Helen Keller’s socialist mantra that “it is your business,” or treading sidewalks to the memory of a land taken by force and paved for the powerful. Fight the power, we echoed. Fight the power.

Relive more moments from The People Speak on

Nora Tjossem is the Education Coordinator at BAM.

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