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Rebel Voices

This vibrant stage adaptation of Howard Zinn's Voices of A People's History of the United States champions a range of marginalized perspectives. logo
Morgan Hallett, Opal Alladin and Lenelle Moise
in Rebel Voices
(© Ilya Popenko)
Historian Howard Zinn is well known for championing marginalized perspectives, including those of Native Americans, slaves, and union workers. In Voices of A People's History of the United States, edited with Anthony Arnove, he collected first person essays, court transcripts, and speeches by a wide range of individuals that provide a different way of looking at U.S. history than what is often taught in schools. Playwright Rob Urbinati's stage adaptation, Rebel Voices, now being presented by The Culture Project, brings these voices to vibrant life thanks to a committed cast.

The style of the piece -- which is co-directed by Urbinati and Will Pomerantz -- is largely presentational, with actors carrying around their scripts, and usually speaking directly to the audience. Urbinati and Pomerantz prevent things from seeming too static by having the cast move around, sitting on different chairs or other surfaces. At times, the performers even come into the house, making the audience feel even more a part of the action. Projections by Gisele Parson, identifying the individuals that the actors are embodying -- often with photos -- are also useful.

The various historical and contemporary personages are enacted by a permanent cast of six performers -- Opal Alladin, Tim Cain, Morgan Hallett, Lenelle Moise, Allison Moorer, and Thom Rivera -- plus a special featured guest performer. Performance poet Staceyann Chin was the guest at the preview performance I attended, with future guests to include actors such as Danny Glover, Larry Pine, Wallace Shawn, Ally Sheedy, Lili Taylor, and Harris Yulin. Cain is the clear standout in the permanent cast, delivering powerful speeches by Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, and even Zinn himself. One of the most moving moments in the production is his enactment of Vietnam War veteran Larry Colburn's emotionally-charged account of the war atrocities that American soldiers committed during that conflict.

Moise also excels in her roles, particularly when she embodies Sojourner Truth. She joins with Hallett and Alladin for an interlocked series of speeches about unions and rent control that nicely demonstrates how a number of the voices included here were involved in the same fight, from different vantage points. Curiously, Rivera doesn't say anything for the first half of the show, but does a fine job with his pieces, such as Martin Duberman's account of the Stonewall Riots and a Spanish-language testament by Orlando Rodriguez (translated onstage by Alladin), whose son was killed in the World Trade Center attacks, but who argues against war and revenge.

Interspersed between the various monologues are songs that Moorer sings to the accompaniment of her acoustic guitar. Her rendition of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" is absolutely sublime, and her interpretation of Woodie Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" is also quite strong. She does less well with Patti Smith's "People Have the Power" and Bob Dylan's "Masters of War." However, her soulful voice is an important contribution to the production's overall aesthetic.

Chin was required to perform some of the drier, journalistic pieces within the show, but also got to do a rousing speech by Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in the Iraq War and whose fiery anti-war rhetoric points an accusing finger at President George W. Bush.

This particular speech, as well as a couple of others, are not included in Voices of A People's History of the United States, as they were written after the book's publication in 2004. However, Zinn did approve of the additions, as they address more recent events such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the continuing war in Iraq. They help to demonstrate how the tradition of rebel voices persists, and if the show continues to be performed in the coming years, perhaps even more voices will be added.

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