“Who here has ever been to a political rally or protest?”
The cast of “Home/Sick,” a play about the radical student movement of the ’60s, asks the audience this question at the start of each performance. When the the theater collective The Assembly first staged the show in 2011, director Jess Chayes recalls, only a small handful of people would raise their hands. Now the show is being remounted in Brooklyn, New York, and Chayes is expecting to see most people responding affirmatively.
“I think we were all searching for what we wanted to do after the election, and ‘Home/Sick’ was the way we wanted to process what had happened,” Chayes says of the collective’s decision to remount the show. “We wanted to gather people together to talk about organizing, because I think a lot of us were newly motivated for the first time in a while to help work for change.”
To facilitate that conversation, the Assembly has called on some former Weathermen, along with younger activists, to take part in a post-performance conversation series called Making Our Ideal America: Conversations on Coalition Building. Former SDS leader Mark Rudd, Weather Underground co-founder Bill Ayers and former Weatherman Bernadine Dohrn ended up becoming lifelong educators (Dohrn also founded the Children and Family Justice Center; Ayers published his memoirs in 20013). They’re now sharing their perspectives on what went wrong with younger change-makers—and they’re re-experiencing their pasts via this theatrical production.
“Watching the show provoked two types of feelings,” Rudd says. “First, amazement and thankfulness that these young people ‘got’ it: the intensity of our motivation, the global connections, the personal responses.
“And that gave rise to the second, which was that they somehow were able to remind me of things I had forgotten, like the overwhelming noise of the times: the speeches, the chants, the music, the bomb blasts and sounds of war. It was no wonder we couldn’t think straight. No one could think straight with all the din going on.”
From the 1960s to 2017: A Dialogue
Given the collective’s goal, why tell the story of the Weathermen, which is a story about bringing down a mass movement, instead of a narrative of building a mass movement? It’s a question people have been asking. “I’ve been thinking about how do we take our fundamental values of tolerance, equality, inclusiveness, and equal protection under the law and how do we make those values into action, and how do we use them to take power. I think that’s something the play is asking and sharing a cautionary tale about,” Chayes says. “I hope that’s something the talkback series will help us get actual tools for.”
The Assembly did extensive research in creating the show initially, but decided not to speak to former Weathermen. “We wanted to put ourselves in their shoes and to embody them in a way, and we were afraid that with too much hindsight we would lose that first-time embodiment of them,” Chayes says. But since then, they have formed relationships with many former Weathermen, including Rudd. “From him, we learned to look at the Civil Rights Movement and how effective it was at promoting a nonviolent agenda,” Chayes says. “For the progressives in the ’60s and ’70s, it was all about anti-establishment, and I think what we’re learning from Mark is the importance of working within the system, the blessing that we do have a democratic system and that one of the most important things to do now is build coalitions.”
There have been other cross-generation insights. “I’ve learned that it’s lovely to hang out with very smart young people,” Rudd says. “I’ve learned how difficult their lives are, how hard it is to be artists and survive in this hyper-capitalist New York City. For example, a number of them are in couples, but no one that I’m aware of is considering children. They can’t afford them!”
Relationships like this one with Rudd and with other members of her parents’ generation has been one of the greatest results of the play for Chayes. “I came into the play being interested in the fact that just a generation ago, people thought that if enough of them banded together, they could change American society,” she says. “And that’s never something I never thought really until now in the last two months and looking around at the women’s march and wondering maybe there are enough of us. Maybe we can change things.”
The Assembly performs “Home/Sick” at Jack in Brooklyn, New York through March 25, and senior tickets are available. Click here to see our calendar listing.