In the 1960s and 1970s activists organized on behalf of a variety of social and political causes: from racial equality to environmental regulation, economic justice to women's liberation. Such fervent activism generated a variety of methods, strategies, and tools to sway politicians and public opinion. Rooted in the 1930s, radical theater gained popularity as a rousing way to educate about pressing issues and public concerns. Often centered on class and racial inequality, radical plays serve as a lens through which to study activism in the period..
Read pp. 28-30 of document 1A and p. 1 of document 1B for a basic introduction to some of the general principles of radical theater. How did those in radical theater conceive of themselves in relation to mainstream theater and politics? How would you place these activists in relation to the history of social and political clashes of the 1960s?
Read document 3, pp. 4-6 and 9-10. Considering these motivations, when else do you think radical theater could have arisen in the course of modern United States history? In other eras? Outside of the US? Homework project--research examples of politically driven theater (from the political right or the left), bring to next class to consider their relation to larger social, economic, or political unrest.
Using document 7B have the class act out and discuss a portion of a JOIN play. Four volunteers are needed to play Donna Lee Down and Out, Narrator, Miss Dogoody, and Dr. Piss Ain't Worth It. Act out (or read) the first three pages of the play--stop before the narrator speaks on page three. Briefly recap for the class that "Dr. JOIN it" steps in, believes Donna, tries to take care of her serious medical condition, but Donna dies. Discuss as a class what this play was likely trying to accomplish: what did JOIN care about, who was their audience, what themes did they emphasize? Based on what you have seen here, could a play be a useful way to gain support for a social or political movement?
The 1960s and 1970s are often thought of in terms of their radical social and political movements. Backlash, as a response to these movements, however, was equally important. Read documents 10B and 13A. How do these authors react to radical plays and university strikes? Do these documents fit with your conception of political culture in the 60's and 70's?
Read document 22 pp. 18-19. What were the experiences of women in these theater groups and did they differ from those of men?
Using document 24, divide the class into groups of 3-4 and have half of the groups read "Something's Burning" and "Untitled," while the other groups read "The Picket Sign" and "We're Marching Out to Knife and Kill." As a class compare and contrast the songs. Which seems likely to be more powerful? Are any of them unclear or difficult to understand? Are some of them too forceful or not forceful enough? Do the songs make reference to specific events? Are there particular benefits, drawbacks, or challenges to using these songs as historical sources?
Sometimes we have a tendency to think of events, processes, and social movements of the past as having definitive start and end dates; while doing so is practical and useful, it can mask continuity and our ability to track change over time. Considering two writings from theater activist Melody James: p. 1 of document 7A (written in 1967) and the program notes from document 33A (written in 1982). Do you see continuity or change over this fifteen-year time span? Does the author talk about the same issues? Use the same language? Offer similar solutions? As we study history, what does it mean when we consider the perspective of one individual over time?