By Jim Farber, Staff Writer
Article Launched: 02/22/2008
1968. It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was, as
Bob Dylan would later write, a time when, "There was music in the
cafes at night and revolution in the air."
Everyone knows the headlines: "Martin Luther King Gunned Down in
Memphis"; "Robert Kennedy Assassinated in Los Angeles"; "Police Beat
Back Protesters at Chicago Democratic Convention"; "Medalists Raise
Black Power Salute at Mexico Olympics."
"The problem," says John Powers, principal writer and artistic
director of "Works in Progress," "is people who were born after these
events took place don't know much more than the headlines."
Exploring the lifelines and plotlines behind the headlines, says
Powers, is the theme of a new four-part theater series, "1968: Year
that Rocked!" which begins Wednesday at the George Nakano Theatre of
the Torrance Cultural Arts Center.
Performed by a cast of professional actors, each segment will feature
the actual words spoken by the people involved, drawn from speeches
and recorded conversations, threaded together by Powers and
accompanied by projections of historic material.
The way Powers sees it, there's a lot of resonance between where we
were as a nation in 1968 and where we are today in 2008.
Forty years ago we were mired in Vietnam. Now we're bogged down in
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that we don't know how to get out of,
Powers says. We're in the midst of a political campaign that's all
about change. And the Olympics are about to be held in a country,
China, that wants to show itself off to the world, but has real
issues regarding human rights, just as Mexico did.
As Mark Twain was fond of saying, "History doesn't repeat itself, but
"1968: Year that Rocked!" begins with "Memphis."
"Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis," Powers says. "But
why was he there? What was the sanitary workers strike all about? Why
did he go to Memphis when his advisers warned him against it? And
what was the role of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI?"
Those are the questions the production will try to answer.
In Wednesday's performance, Carl Gillard will take on the role of
Martin Luther King Jr., with Ian Tanza as FBI director J. Edgar
Hoover, Renard Ricks as the Rev.James Lawson of the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference, and Bill Wolski as Memphis mayor Henry Loeb.
Part 2, "Los Angeles," to be presented March26, will focus on the
death of Bobby Kennedy.
"RFK is assassinated in Los Angeles (at the Ambassador Hotel) after
winning the Democratic primary," says Powers. "Why was he running for
president? Why was he in contention with Lyndon Johnson, the man that
had been his brother's running mate?
"It was over Johnson's handling of the Vietnam War," Powers explains.
"But most people don't know that. Bobby was trying to reverse the
policy set in motion by his brother and extended by LBJ."
"Chicago," scheduled for April 30, takes place during the turbulent
summer of '68, says Powers, when violent confrontations took place
inside and outside the Democratic National Convention.
The performance, Powers says, will focus on the roles played by four
men: presidential peace candidate Eugene McCarthy; Jerry Rubin,
leader of the Yippies; David Dellinger, organizer of the National
Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam; and Chicago's
all-powerful mayor, Richard M. Daley.
The final chapter, "Mexico," will be staged May 28. It will trace the
violence and the politics leading up to and during the XIX Olympiad
in Mexico City.
It will recall the street war waged against student protesters by
government soldiers, and trace the steps leading to that famous
silent protest by two black American athletes, Tommy Smith and John
Carlos, as they took their place on the victory stand.
"We've come to see what they did as a Black Power salute," says
Powers. "But it was meant as a more complex protest. Their heads were
bowed in sorrow and they were not wearing shoes in sympathy with the
impoverished people of the world. There were many other specific
symbols they were trying to evoke. But the media focused on the Black
Power element and branded it as that."
While "1968: Year That Rocked!" is designed to provide an insightful
look back at history, the real goal of the series, says Powers, is to
provoke people to continually ask what's going on behind the scenes.
"If we do that," says Powers, "our grandchildren won't have to ask,
`Why didn't we know?"'
Jim Farber (310) 540-5511, Ext. 416 email@example.com