"Today, when the foundations of our democracy are under assault, we want to reconsider the promise and peril of radical activism and dissent." Taking note of the political climate, theater collective the Assembly has remounted their enthralling ensemble show, home/sick, first staged in 2011, at Jack in Brooklyn, blurring lines of art and activism.
A one-room space, Jack is a perfect venue for the collaborative piece, in which six performers (the original six) take audiences through a heavily researched but artistically embellished chronicle of radical activist group the Weather Underground from its founding in 1969 as a splinter group of Students for a Democratic Society to its final fracturing a decade later, with the jailing of two members.
The show is worthy of its lofty accolades -- it was chosen as a New York Times Critics Pick when it opened -- but its electric charge doesn't stem from its accurate accounting of history. After all, the history of the group is public knowledge, and for youngins and those who aren't familiar with the story, a timeline of events is included in the program.
Rather, to borrow a phrase of the era, "Bring the War Home," the six-piece character study brings the inner workings of the extremist group home to the audience, exposing their insecurities, romances, quarrels and calls to mom and dad. Taken individually, they are disillusioned youth like so many others during the time. Together, they spur each other to action, transformed into a brilliant, intoxicating and volatile cocktail.
We meet the group as they are about to split from the Students for a Democratic Society. An 18 year old, Anna (played by Emily Louise Perkins with a ferocity belied by her wide, doe eyes), moved by their anti-war rally at Columbia University, shows up to get involved. It's easy to see why she wants to -- intellectual Tommy (Ben Beckley), ferocious leader Bernard (Kate Benson), poetic Kathy (Anna Abhau Elliott), and cool guy Paul (Luke Harlan) are angry, passionate, intelligent young people who spend their days arguing about political theory and debating the merits of famous revolutionaries. Add pot and liquor to the mix, and it's a heady brew indeed.
But they aren't playing games. They are the self-proclaimed Socialist revolution, and will "end sexism, racism, and imperialism," even if it means sacrificing their own lives. When David (Edward Bauer) arrives, haunted by the war for painful, personal reasons, the group is cemented, and they role themselves up, day by day, toward the pinnacle of their revolutionary action: bombing government sites.
But sloughing off the System is no easy task, and we watch the actors navigate desire for one on one intimacy and struggle to give themselves over completely to the collective. Caught up in the fervor, tucked away in the clubhouse of their own design -- Anti-War sentiments, slogans, and doodles cover the wall in bright pastel chalk -- it's easy to lose track of the severity of their work. They're fugitives, and that's not just pot induced paranoia; at any moment, the government could come for the merry band of rebels.
Though the Assembly clearly came to admire the group as they researched -- studying films, poetry, original mission statements as well as later published autobiographies by members of the group, fictional works from E.L. Doctorow and Philip Roth -- they push beyond simply valorizing them, and seem content, mostly, to explore inwards, considering what drives a person to extreme, violent action.
Audiences perch on homemade risers surrounding the stage, looking down and in to the action, which bleeds beyond the fourth wall. The division between the actors and the characters is slippery; is it the actor or character greeting us before the play, milling about between the risers, dancing at intermission?
Throughout, each actor steps out of the narrative to share a personal revelation they had while creating the play. One shared a surprising connection to the Weathermen through a high school teacher, another recalls trips to Vietnam as a teen, another wrestles with her own privilege.
We can't all be revolutionaries, and we aren't all capable of zealotry or even starry eyed idealism. But we will all witness injustice in our lives, in big ways and small. Home/Sick backs us against the wall as if to say: what are you going to do about it?