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American History X

Ashland's series stages the events that shaped us

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IN THE AIR 'Party People,' running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, looks at the Black Panther party.
  • IN THE AIR 'Party People,' running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, looks at the Black Panther party.

“No matter where we look,” says playwright-director Allison Carey, of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, “the accelerating pace of change is evident. Change is everywhere. It’s the mechanism of progress. Our American History Cycle was created to explore moments of change in the story of America—small moments, big moments, planned moments, unplanned moments. Our goal is to just take those moments of change, put them up on the stage—and see what happens.”

Carey is the Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s fledgling American Revolutions new play program. Alternately titled The United States History Cycle, the ambitious project adds a bold new layer to OSF’s long-established commitment to the development of new plays. Launched four years ago, American Revolutions was envisioned by Carey and OSF’s Artistic Director Bill Rauch as a cycle of 37 new plays that would look at moments in American history when everything changed, for good or bad, and the course of the country was shifted in ways both large and small.

“Shakespeare wrote 37 plays,” notes Carey, sitting at her desk in the OSF office complex, in Ashland, Oregon. “We decided we would commission 37 plays for the American Revolutions cycle.”

Since announcing the project, Carey—who co-founded the Los Angeles-based Cornerstone Theater Company with Rauch—has selected 16 playwrights for the Cycle, a list that includes some of the best, most-innovative and accomplished playwrights in America, including Pulitzer-winner Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive), Bill Cain (Equivocation), Naomi Wallace (One Flea Spare), and Pulitzer-winner Rober Schenkkan (The Kentucky Cycle). The first of the plays to be produced for the stage in Ashland was American Night, created by the L.A.-based theater troupe Culture Clash. Using a series of loosely connected sketches, the play examined the contributions of Latinos to American history, and was a strong audience favorite at OSF. The following year, Tony Taccone’s Ghost Light was staged, examining the relationship between Bay Area director John Moscone and his father, the late George Moscone.

Currently running (through November 3) are Party People, by the bold New York performance troupe Universes, and All the Way, by Schenkkan. Both focused on events of the 1960’s, each play is a personal examination of the costs of trying the change the world for the better. All The Way takes place during the first year in the White House of Lyndon B. Johnson, immediately following the assassination of JFK. Party People, which mixes hip-hop, music, dance, some unexpected comedy and remarkably intense drama, takes place at an accidentally reunion of members of the Black Panther Party and The Young Lords.

Scathingly honest and breathtakingly humane, Party People is based on true stories of former members of each group, tapping into the powerful revolutionary fervor of the times, looking at both the constructive and destructive choices made by the members. Especially relevant given last month’s allegation that former Black Panther Richard Aoki was an FBI informant, the play dramatically charts to growing paranoia and suspicion—with members accusing one another of leaking information—that eventually destroyed the Black Panthers.

The current one-two shot proves that OSF’s American History cycle is seeking do much more than simply chronicle specific moments throughout the story of our country. These plays are shaping up to be a kind of surreal, multi-voiced American autobiography, each chapter a fiercely personal response by the playwright to the question of how desperate decisions by flawed human beings have sparked the changes that have carved out the shape of America today.

A similar spark is taking place amongst the growing ranks of playwrights Carey is recruiting.

“That spark,” Carey says, her hand resting on a stack of scripts, “is ignited by the combination of artistic passion from the writers and a strong, exciting topic. That’s the energy that powers the engine every play needs to really get going.”

Though a total of 37 plays may end up being commissioned over the ten-year stretch set for the project, Rauch has indicated that not all of the plays will end up on stage at OSF. That number may be closer to ten.

“Some of the plays will be stage at other companies,” Carey explains. “That’s already happened,” she adds, pointing to a recent production of Frank Gallati’s The March at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater. The play, an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s sprawling Civil War drama, was co-commissioned by Steppenwolf and OSF.

Appropriately enough for a project focused on the power of change throughout history, American Revolutions has changed quite a bit since Carey and Rauch first sat down to discuss the idea over four years ago.

“Our first notion was that this cycle would look at American leaders, so maybe we’d have a play for each president,” she says. “George Washington, the play. Abraham Lincoln, the play. That was a lovely idea, but as we talked to playwrights, it became clear that in terms of capturing the true spirit of the United States, to suggest some sort of moral equivalence between an English monarch and an American president was exactly the wrong thing to do. In America, our leaders are elected to serve the people. That’s the intention, anyway, of our form of government. So we lost the idea of having a bunch of plays named after presidents, and we came up with something a lot more interesting.

“We decided to ask the playwrights to consider the moments in our history where people stood up and said, ‘The world needs to change! Someone needs to try and make this a better world for the future!’ Those are the moments we are interested in.”

Carey admits the end result will be a bit inconsistent. Already, the majority of the plays staged have focused on the last 30 years of history.

“We’re never going to tell the complete history of the United States,” Carey acknowledges, “but hopefully we will end up with this amazing impressionistic quilt, a weird beautiful quilt that audiences will recognize as their country.”

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