Directed by Ralph Lewis and Barry Rowell
Before the New Deal, Works Progress Administration and Federal Theatre Project, there was “CAN YOU HEAR THEIR VOICES?” written by Hallie Flanagan and Margaret Ellen Clifford. The play, a carefully documented dramatization of a 1931 Arkansas drought, was, in its day, controversial in both form and content as it revealed a rural world of hunger and privation neglected by governmental bureaucracy. With today’s frequent, casual use of labels like “Communist” and “Socialist,” Peculiar Works Project mines this landmark agitprop play to uncover the meaning of such words in an earlier, yet similar era. The news media is constantly reminding us how our current economic situation is the worst “since the Great Depression” — what were the root causes for radical political movements then, and are there parallels today?
Flanagan and Clifford’s play was adapted from a short story by Whittaker Chambers, an avowed communist at the time, although later known for exposing Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy to the House Un-American Activities Committee. (The pioneering Flanagan herself was also later called to testify before HUAC in defense of the political leanings of the Federal Theatre Project.) Chambers’ true tale of desperate tenant farmers inspired a play that was ahead of its time: it predates John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath by eight years and Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty by four. Through today’s lens, Flanagan and Clifford’s dialogue in Voices often reads like a transcript from a political rally — whether Tea Party or Green Party — although it has its base in a depiction of real human poverty and suffering. Artistically, the play was also groundbreaking. It inspired Flanagan to experiment with techniques — documentary theater, multi-media — that later became integral to the Federal Theatre Project’s Living Newspapers. PWP brings this experimentation into the 21st century with its site-specific performance and digital projection, in addition to color-blind, gender-blind and age-blind casting of an 11-actor ensemble performing the play’s 35 roles. The cast will include (alphabetically): Tonya Canada, Patricia Drozda, Sarah Elizondo, Ken Glickfeld, Mick Hilgers, Christopher Hurt, Derek Jamison, Ben Kopit, Carrie McCrossen, Catherine Porter, and Rebecca Servon.
PWP’s production of Voices in the vacant storefront at 2 Great Jones Street in Noho fits perfectly with the company’s long-standing mission to “wake up” non-theater sites for theatrical performance. Although the temporary nature of this performance space is a sign of how far the NYC economy has fallen and the enormous glut of retails spaces that still exist all over town, it’s also in line with a recent popular trend of “pop-up” shops and galleries – in this instance, Pop-Up Performance.
Thursdays - Sundays at 7:00PM
Previews - June 3, 4, 5
Theater: A Pop-Up Space
Address: 2 Great Jones Street
New York, NY 10012
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