On Saturday night at the OccupyMN protests, the crowd is centered around a makeshift array of plastic tents, ringed by seated protesters with arms linked and then an outer shell of standing participants. People scatter off and glom on. There are enough people so that when the chanting gets loud, you can hear them from the street, barely, but still not enough to feel really safe in numbers. It’s easier to sit at home and share protest videos on Facebook and write about it than to be sitting out on a lawn in front of a government building. As Risa, the long-suffering waitress in August Wilson’s play about Pittsburgh in 1968, Two Trains Running, which is currently playing at the Penumbra Theatre, says “You got to do something.”
That Wilson’s play about those tumultuous years is playing right now, as this new protest movement is trying to gain traction, feels fortuitous in a way. It is not that the two things are equivalencies, that our times are the same or that the methods of confronting outrage and injustice should be the same. What is good to know that the conflict and ambiguity of moments of change, which theatre lets us explore in a systematic way, remain omnipresent and are not to be feared. When critics charge that Zuccotti Park and Government Plaza are not Tahrir Square or that 2011 is not 1968, they miss the point. We have unresolved issues. Like Memphis Lee, proprietor of Lee’s Restaurant, scene of all the action in Two Trains Running, run off his property in Jackson in 1931, we still have the deed to that land, and we’re going back to collect. James Craven growls it from stage like the megaphone amplifies it in the People’s Plaza.
This is not intended to be a review of Penumbra’s production itself- the acting in the show is magnificent, it is playing to sold out houses and deserves every ounce of acclaim it can get. Histories of injustice grind out of each of the characters’ voices. Life and death are present, as is foolishness and love. Two Trains Running wrings the tears out of you because the stories are personal. These are human beings facing human times. When people criticize the Occupy Wall Street movement for not having a clear list of demands, it is because that in a movement dedicated to hearing all voices, one PR strategy isn’t possible or even desirable. Hambone’s insistent cry of “He gonna give me my ham” is as succinct a demand as “Unfuck it all”, and in the world of the play and our world, just as idealistic. It is the simple demands that we be given our due and treated with dignity that can be the most maddening when unmet, and the most uniting in their call to action.
That action is direct, but also non-violent. Two Trains Running has the threat of personal violence all over it, but it is the systemic violence that gets the most attention. Retiree-turned-philosopher Holloway talks about the history of slavery, turning people into property and how suddenly, now that white people have to pay black people, there’s no work and black people are lazy. Some of the first words out of the organizers mouths regarding the people sitting in and around the tent structures, waiting for the possibility that police will descend upon them to clear them out, is that they pledge to be non-violent. “We will not resist arrest,” they say, because the system is designed for confrontation and violence that creates a self-sustaining cycle. When the authorities can claim that a group is violent, they can more easily exercise authoritarian power over it, as Saturday saw in New York City as the protest movement attempted to expand and was met with violent resistance from the police system, which is why the act of non-violent protest and the act of theater are so critical. As actor Abdul Salaam El Razzac, who plays Holloway at Penumbra, said in an interview with the Star Tribune, “Kids need to have a safe place to express their rage, and the stage is better than taking it out on somebody’s property.”
On stage and on the plaza, it’s heavy. The sky is heavy, the anticipation is heavy, hopes are heavy. No-one is particularly light. When one man took the megaphone to bless the “angelic troublemakers”, he does not mean some silly mischief. He means a Ginsbergian soul’s anguish, he means those “who know that all they have is their bodies, and who put their bodies against the wheel to stop the machine.” That’s the kind of weight we’re talking about. That’s what we talk about in with theater too, putting our bodies and voices out there to try and articulate something greater than ourselves. We’re talking about Memphis saying “Freedom is hard. You have to put your shoulder to it, and hope your back doesn’t break.” It takes people, and a whole lot of love, wherever and however we put it together, up until the moment we die. Aunt Ester might have something to say about that, history always does. May we live long enough to love eachother that much.
Addendum, 1:05am 10/16/2011: As I post this, Hennepin County Sheriff’s officers are removing the tents. there is a strong chant of “We are the 99%” and there has been one arrest. Watch the live feed here. Better yet, head down there and put your body on the line.