(This article originally appeared on Huffington Post on 3/19/17.)
Home/Sick, conceived and written by New York City’s Assembly Theater Project, challenged the audience to think even before the play began. One of the actors (Luke Harlan) asked the attendees, “By a show of hands, how many of you have ever attended a political rally? How many of you have ever attended a protest?” The response was overwhelmingly affirmative. A little later, he concluded the pre-show questions with, “Do you think the use of violence is ever justified? If you do, raise your hand”.
That last question commenced the formation of the moral nucleus presented in Home/Sick, an ambitious and innovative stage exploration of the infamous left-wing organization known as the Weather Underground. Also known as the Weathermen, the group started in the late 1960’s as an anti-Vietnam War movement: a faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Guided by unwavering ideologies of socialism, civil rights, and economic equality, the Weathermen’s larger goal was to eliminate divisions in society based on wealth and to fight American imperialism. Though they were Caucasian themselves, they spoke about the evils of “white privilege” even before there was a name for it. In their relatively short but tempestuous existence, the group was never afraid to “go big”: In response to the death of two Black Panthers during a police raid in 1969, they issued a “Declaration of War” against the United States government. Home/Sick chronicles the history of the Weathermen from their foundations to their unraveling after the end of the Vietnam War— and, in conclusion, their thorny legacy.
The story opens with Paul (Luke Harlan) playing guitar and singing Phil Och’s anti-war anthem I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore (“It’s always the old to lead us to the war, It’s always the young to fall; Now look at all we’ve won with the saber and the gun, Tell me is it worth it all?”). It’s 1968, and we meet the six young characters of Home/Sick, many of whom were based on real-life members of the Weathermen. As free-thinking idealists, the six (Paul, David, Tommy, Bernard, Kathy, and Anna) discuss their shared goals of global equality and talk about their favorite revolutionaries. (Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin, Angela Davis, and others are mentioned.) Throughout Home/Sick, their discourse ranges from common sense ideas of basic human equality and freedom to more thought-provoking philosophies, such as the notion of monogamy as a failed ideology (It’s viewed by one female character as yet another form of maintaining a repressive social and sexual status quo.). Their energy and youthful romanticism about changing the world is exuberant to watch. One of the activists’ first ventures, however, results in disappointment: An early event brings out, in the words of one character, “200 protestors and 2000 cops”. After that, things take a different turn when the increasingly restless group turns to more militant forms of action— specifically, bombings of government buildings and banks. At the same time, we see the characters’ atmosphere becoming more and more claustrophobic, with specific rules and stringent guidelines of behavior. Intentionally or not, the audience starts to feel a disconcerting aura. The tension peaks at the conclusion of Act 1, as the Weathermen make preparations for the bombing of a dance at the Fort Dix U.S. Army base. The audience knows that the Second Act is going to be, if you’ll excuse the pun, explosive. Ultimately, the six get bogged down by their own personal wars. Two characters, in particular, pay a very high price for their specific style of activism.
Home/Sick is an immersive experience— from the lovingly detailed, blindingly busy mash-up set design at the Clinton Hill, Brooklyn performance space Jack (The graffiti art on the walls declare such slogans as “Smash the State” and “All Power All People”), to the passionate portrayals by all six cast members, to the renegade directorial touches. Devised and collectively written by the cast members and director, the piece is meticulously researched for historical accuracy: Home/Sick sites 16 sources for its material. The characters’ hunger for social change may be timeless (and, given the current political atmosphere, more relevant than ever in 2017…), but the reproduction of the mindset of these 60’s and 70’s-era personalities—again, many of whom were based on or inspired by real people— is indeed a challenge. The cast meets that challenge with flying psychedelic colors. Edward Bauer expertly portrays the brooding, emotionally damaged David. Anna Abhau Elliott is equally superb and dynamic as the intellectual Kathy. Emily Louise Perkins has the complex role of Anna, and she handles her character’s evolution with ease and credibility. As Bernard, Kate Benson is a true force of nature: The audience can almost feel her hardcore idealism running through her blood and emanating from her skin. Luke Harlan as Paul and Ben Beckley as Tommy are equally fervent in their portrayals; it’s almost inevitable that their characters’ brotherhood of common cause will come to a testosterone-fueled butting of heads. In a creative and daring twist, the actors occasionally break character as well as “the fourth wall” to candidly share their own experiences with the audience— specifically, their own vision of equality in 2017, as well as how they relate to their characters from decades ago. It’s powerful stuff.
The creators of Home/Sick don’t establish who’s “wrong” or “right” in their telling of the story, or make any one character to be an absolute hero or absolute villain. The audience must make their own conclusion… and there’s enough food for thought presented in the play to keep the audience full for a long time. We also get to see the more vulnerable sides of all six characters. Even in the edgy atmosphere created in the piece, there are some moments of true tenderness: Elliott’s Kathy and Bauer’s David make for an idiosyncratic but endearing couple, while Benson’s severely portrayed Bernard, at the conclusion of the Home/Sick, reveals a dream which arguably makes for the most poignant scene in the play.
Home/Sick brings to life an American saga that’s not usually taught in history class. Needless to say, it’s a story ripe for rediscovery. In the hands of The Assembly, it also makes for amazingly provocative theater.
The Assembly’s Home/Sick, directed by Jess Chayes, runs through Saturday, March 25th at Jack, 505 1/2 Waverly Ave, Brooklyn, NY. Visit http://www.AssemblyTheater.org for more information.
(All photos by Nick Benacerraf.)