Hair in the Pudding
On Stage and Off, Brown Students Relive 'The Age of Aquarius'
They were still in their diapers when John F. Kennedy was shot, just learning to read and write when the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy took place, and came of age during the "Me Decade" of the '70s. Yet, the members of the Brown University production of Hair--who call themselves "The Tribe"--translate the message of the 60's musical into every facet of their lives, both on stage and off.
The Brown production of Hair is an All-American rags-to-rags success story. Two days after it opened last spring at the Production Workshop. Brown's equivalent of the Loeb Ex, people began lining up at 9 a.m. to pick up the free tickets distributed 10 hours later. Only slotted for six performances, the story of Hair would have ended there, were it not for a mysterious donor who gave the group $4,000 to take the show on tour.
Deciding to take the risk, the directors contacted theaters all over the East-coast, only to find that most were already booked for the summer. Their search finally led them to the tradition-steeped stage of Harvard's Hasty Pudding Club. Despite limited publicity and the fact that Boston theater is usually slow in the summer, Hair almost immediately became a hit, drawing audiences of all ages. Three months later, the musical has become the longest running show in the history of the Pudding. Although 17 of the 19 cast members are planning to take full course loads at Brown, the "Tribe" hopes to keep the show going through December.
Cast members believe their success is largely due to the continuing relevance of Hair's message. Co-director Shaun Clarke, a 1982 graduate of Brown, notes that the show opened as the Falkland Islands crisis ended, and spanned the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. "What Hair does is give people hope that we can change," he says, adding "The time for Hair is now, just as it was then."
The actors themselves live and breathe this message. Following in the footsteps of their '60s predecessors, the 20 Tribe members spent the summer living communally in a house in Somerville, where they slept five people to a room and all used one bathroom. At night, cast members would read passages aloud to one another from such books as the Autobiography of Malcolm X and Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
To understand and capture the conflicting passions of the decade, cast members spent hours sitting in a dark room listening to an album of major radio news broadcasts of the 1960s. One actor recalled listening first to "the hope of JFK's election, all the way through to the shattering blows of Martin Luther King's and Bobby Kennedy's assassinations. The '60s was a time of frustration and disillusionment."
Similarly, Clarke strove to make his actors feel what it is like to be a killing machine. Although most of the troupe members were five or six at the height of the Vietnam war, Clarke has a clearer memory of the war because both his brothers fought in it.
On a darkened stage, Clarke had the actors imagine that they were on a night patrol in Vietnam and had been separated from their group. Upon encountering a Viet Cong soldier, "many of us were upset to find that we shot immediately, within the first twenty seconds," actor Jon Linden says. Adds James Lynch, another cast member. "It was pretty strange if you didn't shoot and got killed like me."
The production has changed a lot since it first opened July 15. Originally, the co-directors aimed only to entertain. But as the summer progressed and the actors grew into their roles, the focus shifted to the political message of the show. In August, Ken Myers, general manager of the original Broadway production, came to Boston to advise the troupe and with his help the cast reinterpreted the production, trimming the show down so that it more faithfully followed the original '60s stage version. Although the theatrical parts of the show were not updated, co-director David Yazbek, in his own words, "funkatized" the music, adding bass and drums and inserting a strong reggae beat. "Musical tastes have changed a lot since 1967." Clarke says.
The most important thing now for both the cast and the directors is to "really get the feeling across to the audiences." Clarke says commenting on the "numbness" and "total self-concern" he sees in many Brown students. "It's easy to put on blinders," he adds. "Hair makes us question more."
The show opens with a staged anti-war demonstration during which characters yell angry chants at the audience. The same messages are repeated more subtly through satire as the show continues. We want to "assault, but not alienate the audience, to make them understand our concern," Clarke says. But he continues, "I hope there's a lot that bothers the audience. We don't want it sugarcoated... One of our cast members wears a button that says 'We are an angry, loving people. "That's very true."
To get the message across more strongly to the audience, the cast of Hair encourages the viewers to join them on stage. Clarke recalls that during the nude scene in one performance back at Brown a man from the third row shouted "I can't take it any longer," stripped off his clothes and joined them onstage. During the final number. "Let the Sunshine In," the whole audience is invited up. Last Tuesday, they reached their goal and got the entire audience on stage. The cast refuses to bow at the end of Hair because they feel that it widens the gap between the audience and the actors which the cast has worked throughout to bridge.
Now that school has started the students will be commuting from Providence to Cambridge in a beat-up tented van. At just the students had hoped Brown would allow them to enroll part-time, but the university refused, encouraging them instead to take the semester off. Most of the students decided to take full course loads anyway, because they can't be certain how long the show will last. Since classes just started at Brown last Monday, the cast members still aren't sure what they're in for, but Clarke expects only one or two to drop out of the production.
The Tribe opted to remain at the Hasty Pudding Club rather than returning to Providence because of the larger audience pool in the Boston area. Also, as one cast member notes. "There's a special gleam to doing Hair, which broke a lot of conventions, in this place, which is steeped in tradition."