Saturday, September 29, 2018

Bread & Puppet Theater presents "Grasshopper Rebellion Circus"

"Grasshopper Rebellion Circus"
Bread & Puppet Theater, 2018
Once We Were Young and Activist

Growing up during the late 1970s in suburbia, the hippie days were long past, as if they ever even were. A subject of mockery and disdain, moving into the Reagan era the very idea of public protest, of activism, just was not cool, man.

My brother, however, was very interested in current events. It was he, not my father, who wanted the national news switched on at 6:30 PM, every single night. Among other artifacts, he had a few Doonesbury anthologies lying around. These I read, and they soon became an obsession for me.

Gary Trudeau's comic strip Doonesbury documented (among other things) the student’s-eye-view of the college scene during the tail end of the Vietnam War. To understand the jokes I needed to understand the time, and so I began to read books and watch films to bring me up to speed, and slowly developed what you might call a bleeding heart liberal’s worldview.

In the year 1980 I was surely the only twelve year-old in Bay Village to have watched the motion picture Woodstock.

Interestingly enough, I still registered as a Republican when I turned eighteen. I thought that I was Republican the same way I understood myself to be Caucasian or Presbyterian. The first time I voted in a Presidential election I noticed I had voted for all the Democratic candidates and soon after officially changed my party affiliation.

"Grasshopper Rebellion Circus"
Bread & Puppet Theater, 2018
But though I leaned left, I was not what you might call radical. At Ohio U., I had an interest in social justice, but I still looked down my nose at those modern, Gen X hippies. The guys from Rocky River who cut the soles off their shoes who have never left Athens. The guys from Athens who eventually moved to Brooklyn. They would stage street protests about … whatever, and I just thought it was embarrassing. Surely there are better ways to get your point across than playing acoustic instruments and wave hand-painted signs and bleating cringe-worthy phrases ad nauseam.

We write letters to the editor. We produce plays for the people who desire to see them. And if we are truly serious about social change, we run for public office. But standing on a street corner screaming is just, well it’s gauche, isn’t it?

The tipping point for me was the Persian Gulf War of 1991. I was still at college and the outrage on campus in Athens, Ohio rivaled anything I’d ever personally experienced. I did feel there were those in the crowd who seemed excited at the possibility of Vietnam redux, complete with old-timey protest songs and tie-dye, sit-ins and peace signs. But I was against the war, too, I was opposed to the proposed New World Order that was being shaped so soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And so I participated in my first outdoor performance protest on January 16, 2001 (see: Desert Scream.)

That was before the 30-day war, before the parades, before Whitney Houston’s "Star Spangled Banner" topped the pop charts. America’s bright, shiny victory left me feeling hollow and dispirited and helpless. That was when I decided that I liked street protest. Because I saw the bravery and strength in shouting at the top of your lungs on a street corner in the face of seeming adversity. Maybe it wouldn’t accomplish anything. But it’s the only thing that could.

"Grasshopper Rebellion Circus"
Bread & Puppet Theater, 2018
Bread and Puppet Theater

Last week the circus came to town, the Grasshopper Rebellion Circus. The show was produced by Bread & Puppet Theater, a world-renown political activist street theater collective, founded fifty-five years ago. They set up camp on Wade Oval in University Circle, and I changed a physical therapy appointment to make the date.

It had rained for several days prior to the event, but this was a perfect early-fall evening, just a little cool. Jacket weather.

They used no electrical anything for their performance, which began at 5:30 pm. Natural light, no amplification. They performed live music, and used large hand-painted signs. Their voices, when they used them, were big, and they carried well. They had trained to speak in odd voices, as to best catch the ear. To be concise, rehearsed and clear.

The event was episodic, ideal for street theater. Our crowd had gathered here to settle in for the performance, we had chairs and blankets, but it could easily have taken place in Public Square or Times Square. If you were walking by you could stop for one or two scenes or plays, then move along.

The company was multi-racial. The musicians were almost all men, the actors predominantly women. There were child performers, too.

The crowd, while diverse in age, was mostly white. There were some old school, east side Baby Boomer liberals seated down in front, putting their wizened fists in the air. The Millennium age companion standing next to me in the back sniffed that he didn’t really like it, which surprised me. At the very least you could appreciate the music, the movement, the puppets. It was rough but entirely professional.

There were a few brief speeches about the current atrocities in Gaza, Yemen, at home, on the Supreme Court. There was plenty to see, laugh about, get angry at, question, delight in.

One scene stuck with me as familiar: A giant puppet of James Madison arrived and handed the citizenry the Second Amendment. With it emerged a multitude of AK-47s and the citizens stalked the stage, bearing their arms, until one by one they were shot and killed.

"The History of Western Civilization"
Guerrilla Theater Company, 1994
Photo: Mike Cantwell
One of Guerrilla Theater Company’s few entirely wordless performances was “The History of Civilization” which included with a struggle over a handgun which concluded with everyone dead and the sole survivor, witnessing the carnage he had created, on the apparent verge of suicide.

We didn’t produce a lot of purely physical pieces in GTC, we didn’t have a live band (we did have a DJ) but I was always proud when we did. I know I found it very challenging to compose something visual without having to conclude with dialogue.

The B&P performance was a touching reminder of the work we did in Guerrilla, the manner in which we, too, made political point. Obvious, broad, uncomfortable political points. And I noticed I missed political theater for its own sake, that this gathering of “Hippies With Dolls” (their words) was a rare treat, in our own yard.

It was also a reminder that you don’t have to be young to do this. You just have to care.

They traditionally conclude the performance by handing out bread and aïoli to any who choose partake, and walking up to receive some with the wife and the boy, I was reminded of last year, when we attended the Neo-Futurists and received some of those small pieces of pizza he was so looking forward to.

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