Theater archives

Speech & No Debate


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Culture Project shows are created more or less equal, that they are endowed by their creators with certain unalienable qualities, that among these are political engagement, leftist sentiments, and the pursuit of happiness—or at least self-congratulation.

Rebel Voices, adapted by Rob Urbinati from Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove’s book Voices of a People’s History of the United States, proves no exception. Like past Culture Project shows based on first-person accounts, such as The Exonerated
and Guantánamo, Rebel Voices features actors portraying the disenfranchised before a wholly sympathetic audience. (Sometimes, famous actors—Wallace Shawn, Lili Taylor, and a mess of Redgraves—are slated to appear.) On a bare stage, six performers and a guitar-toting singer recite excerpts from some of the most powerful speeches the powerless have uttered.

As the actor (Tim Cain) playing historian Zinn explains, “I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong. That the wrong people are in jail, and the wrong people are out of jail. That the wrong people are in power, and the wrong people are out of power.” This piece attempts to give voice to the voiceless. But it isn’t very rebellious: Who today (and certainly who in the Culture Project audience) doesn’t cheer Sojourner Truth or Frederick Douglass? Who would side with the villains of the piece, those attacking civil-rights sit-ins or busting unions with bullets?

Which isn’t to say that we don’t need reminding of the history of civil disobedience or the defiance of unjust laws. But the play doesn’t offer much to challenge our entrenched positions. It would be stronger if it included a few more authentically contrarian viewpoints, like Malcolm X’s call to violence or Eugene Debs’s belief that we ought not participate in World War I.

Adapter Urbinati, who co-directs with Will Pomerantz, hasn’t done much to shape the speeches. He does provide one nice scene where three ’30s female union organizers overlap, and he splits an Allen Ginsberg speech in two, but he makes few structural interventions. And while the staging is relatively clean, he and Pomerantz haven’t established a consistent style among the actors: Some strive to portray characters, others simply declaim the speeches. (The songs, performed by the charming Alison Moorer, are an unfailing treat.)

In the final speech, all the actors take turns reciting the words of Frederick Douglass: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Rebel Voices wants to show progress, but where’s the struggle?