Last night, I was lucky enough to be part of the audience for a taping of a segment for "The People Speak," a new production based on historian and social activist Howard Zinn's classic A People's History of the United States. An impressive cast of actors, writers, and musicians are involved with the project, which takes various speeches, poems, songs, and articles written by ordinary people and historic figures, and gives them new life. The miniseries will be split into four parts, according to the themes of class, gender, war, and race.
The War portion of the series featured Josh Brolin reading from Dalton Trumbo's 1939 book Johnny Got His Gun, David Strathairn as Henry David Thoreau, the poet Staceyann Chin as a Hiroshima survivor, Viggo Mortenson singing a stirring a capella version of Bob Dylan's "Master's of War," and Danny Glover reading a Martin Luther King Jr. speech denouncing Vietnam. And those were just a part of the evening. Marisa Tomei gave one of the best performances, as a convincing and heartbreaking Cindy Sheehan, railing against her son's death in Iraq.
The night not only shed light on a less familiar side of historic icons (who knew Mark Twain was an outspoken opponent of war?), but spotlighted the entertainers on stage as something more than the roles they are best known for. Mike O'Malley, best known to my generation as the host of Nickelodeon's test of adolescent endurance GUTS, gave a rousing rendition of a speech Abbie Hoffman gave at UMass in 1986; Darryl McDaniels (he puts the DMC in Run DMC) enacted a Danny Glover diatribe against the war in Iraq; and Josh Brolin dispelled his image as the older brother in The Goonies by giving some of the most passionate readings I've ever seen live on stage. The night even included a performance of Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin On" by piano virtuoso John Legend.
Perhaps even more stirring than the performers' renderings of the pieces was the eerie commonalities that ran through history's greatest wars all the way to our current administration and war. It's chilling just how little the culture and policies of this country have changed, from the time of Columbus enslaving the Native Americans to Abu Gharib.
Though the project hasn't been officially picked up by any major network, the producer (Chris Moore, best known for his collaboration with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck on Project Greenlight) is optimistic that it will be broadcast in time for the election in November.