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Theater Preview: The People Speak


History is written by the winners, as the saying used to go. That was before 1980 and Howard Zinn's groundbreaking A People's History of the United States. In that book, Zinn presents a radical revision of our nation's history, beginning with Columbus' arrival, from perspectives that are underrepresented in the commonly accepted story of national unity and glory - blacks, women, American Indians, war resisters, laborers. When A People's History hit the million-copies-sold mark, Zinn recast the book as a play, The People Speak. It features roughly two dozen characters - some well-known, some obscure - united by their struggle against injustice in the myriad forms it has taken in the unfolding American narrative.

Starting this week, that struggle will be dramatized by local troupe Catalyst Theatre Company at Burlington's Waterfront Theatre. To the text of The People Speak the company has added live and recorded music and slide projections, hoping the multimedia dimension will enrich the historical contexts from which the voices emerge.

At first glance, The People Speak appears to have been conceived like 500 years' worth of Our Towns. Characters deliver monologues as they mingle but hardly ever interact. In this production, though, two factors add dynamism to a piece that could otherwise come across as static. One is a product of Zinn's vision, and the other is an addition from director Veronica Lopez.

First, the play offers a fascinating history lesson. Zinn has channeled some familiar voices, such as those of former-slave-turned-antislavery-firebrand Frederick Douglass, Helen Keller and Malcolm X. But even more compelling are voices emanating from the margins of history, such as that of Plough Jogger, who participated in the Shays Rebellion, an uprising of western Massachusetts farmers who were enraged by heavy taxation and foreclosure on their properties following the American Revolution.

Also from Massachusetts comes the story of Harriet Hanson, a worker in a textile mill who joined an 1836 walkout and strike. A more contemporary complaint is U.S. Navy Reserve corpsman James Lawrence Harrington's letter of resignation in response to heavy - and underreported - Iraqi civilian casualties resulting from the U.S. air strikes during 1991's Operation Desert Storm.

The Catalyst production has updated Zinn's text, with the playwright's permission, to include Cindy Sheehan's 2005 testimony against the latest Iraq war following the death of her soldier-son Casey Austin Sheehan.

Then there's Lopez's contribution, which fleshes out Zinn's themes with multimedia. Her production incorporates the live musical accompaniment of singer-guitarist Lyn Hardy, who leads the cast in song-and-dance numbers driven by such warhorses as "We Shall Overcome," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and "This Land Is Your Land." They also sing hidden gems from the archives of protest music, such as the Negro spiritual "Follow the Drinking Gourd" and the women union workers' tune "Union Maid." While some cast members have strong singing voices - Sheila Collins' version of "Motherless Child" scores Annette Urbschat's improvisational dance number to moving effect - loose choreography and a casual choral vibe invigorate the proletarian heart of this rendition of the play.

Lopez has also drawn visual elements into the production, thanks in part to filmmaker and Middlebury prof Deb Ellis, who co-directed with Denis Muller the 2004 film You Can't Remain Neutral on a Moving Train, a documentary about Zinn's life and work. Ellis shared with Lopez some of the slides that will be projected above the stage during the performance. Again, some images may be familiar - Mother Jones, an atom bomb - while others may surprise and shock. Lopez says she'll warn audience members about a photograph depicting a lynching.

But the more controversial image may be one showing flag-draped coffins arriving at the Dover U.S. Air Force Base from battles currently raging in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are precisely the kinds of images that Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly banned just weeks before the start of Operation Desert Storm, when he was secretary of defense under George H. W. Bush. "They're being handled like cargo, is the feeling of the photo," Lopez says.

Staging The People Speak is itself a political statement, and one Lopez is eager to make. "It lit the fire in my belly," she says. "It's The People Speak, and it just spoke." The play is hardly Lopez's first foray into theater that explores rents in the fabric of our democracy. In 1995, her Champlain Arts Theatre Company (CATCo) produced To Be Young Gifted and Black, about the life of A Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry. CATCo also staged a production of The Most Dangerous Woman, with Lopez playing activist Mother Jones in the one-woman show, and Inquisitions, Vermont journalist Greg Guma's drama about the Haymarket Square Rebellion of 1886.

At the helm of Catalyst, Lopez mounted the September 11 drama The Guys, based on the true story of a New York City fire captain struggling to write eulogies. Other recent productions include a work in collaboration with Toward Freedom, Guantanamo - Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, which tells the story of several innocent British citizens caught in the global police net after September 11. "I'm an activist and a bleeding-heart liberal," Lopez says. "I do what I do because I'm just trying to matter. I truly believe we all just want to matter."

A member of Lopez's cast seconds her view. Actor Rick Ames plays several roles in The People Speak, among them Frederick Douglass, early 20th-century poet and labor organizer Arturo Giovanitti, and House Un-American Activities Committee member Harold Velde. Offstage, Ames can often be found keeping a peace vigil at the top of Church Street.

"I certainly agree with a lot of this," he says of his latest theatrical project. "Even the [scenes] I'm not in, I feel very close to." Will the work help address societal ills? Ames has set modest goals. "I hope that my Republican parents will come to see me out of duty - I'm their son, and I'm an actor - and maybe change their mind," he says. "I'm always trying to get them to question authority the way I do."

Filmmaker Ellis notes that Zinn's focus on the tradition of questioning authority makes The People Speak a powerful play. "I think what always resonates for me is how there is continuity in the struggle to figure out what's right," she says. "Sometimes we feel like we're out there trying to do it for the first time . . . When I see this stuff, it just reminds me of the incredible courage that people have and that we're capable of that courage. If we don't have those models to remind us, maybe we forget it."

Or, as another famous saying about history goes, maybe we're condemned to repeat our mistakes until we remember our own latent power. In The People Speak, that potential is on dramatic display, the models brought to vivid life.