If you were among those at last summer’s DSA National Convention, you may have watched a virtual staged production of Marx in SoHo by Howard Zinn that offered eight Comrade Karls and explored the exciting possibilities about what constitutes “political education.” In this article, the play’s director de- scribes the process and ways in which local chapters can use the play in real time. —Eds.
Why does cultural work matter for movement building on the Left? Why produce a play for a political convention at all?
Cultural historian Johan Huizinga once said, “The eternal gulf between being and idea can only be bridged by the rain- bow of imagination.” A comrade of mine put this into plainer words: “You can point people to that bridge of imagination, but you can’t walk it for them.” They have to opt in. So how does one single, fragile, human psyche stand before the miseries of this world and choose to step forward? To fight?
In order to become agents of change, we have to become the heroes of our own narratives. We must engage in radical imagination—through art and music and theater and the humanities—to engineer ways across that bridge of imagination. Socialists have manifested this idea across the ages: the Berliner Ensemble, the Federal Theater, the Negro Ensemble Company, the Free Southern Theater, El Teatro Campesino, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and Bread and Puppet Theater. In June 2021, when I pitched my proposal to host a virtual staged reading of a play to the DSA National Political Education Committee, its members voted on which play to produce. Out of 15 choices, Marx in Soho received the most votes. I was thrilled by this selection, for reasons a previous director, Anthony Arnove, stated in his 1999 curtain speech: “[By the 90s,] people around the world were once again loudly announcing the death of social- ism. We were told that the U.S. had eliminated any ideological alternative to free market capitalism, as written by the New York Times…. But Howard Zinn, rightly as he did throughout his life, rejected all this as nonsense. He knew that capitalism again would go into crisis and that people would look for alternatives, as we have dramatically seen across the globe over the past many years.”
And this is where our story begins: Karl Marx has come back from the dead for one night only, and he has a lot to say. With permission from the folks at Howard Zinn’s estate, I decided to divide the title role into eight parts for eight actors. Each actor answered the casting call that I sent to DSA chapters across the country; each actor experimented with and rehearsed a unique take on the voice, mannerisms, and messages of Marx, and they all streamed in live, to the “stage,” from their homes across the country.
The reception of the show was evident in the livestream comments. There were ample “Bravo!”s, but the most promising statements were the ones in which an audience member connected the dots between theory and reality, as only the humanities can enable us to do. “The part about the Paris Commune really shook me, comrades,” wrote Jake E. He was referring to this part of the monologue: “[In 1871] the people of Paris formed not a government, but something more glorious, something governments everywhere fear, a commune, the collective energy of the people…. It lived only a few months. But it was the first legislative body in history to represent the poor. Its laws were for them. It abolished their debts, postponed their rents, forced the pawnshops to return their most needed possessions.” It’s moments like this that allow us to expand our own protagonism for a better world.
Because the show generated a buzz within the comrade-thespian populace of Portland DSA, Comrade du Bard is revitalizing Marx in Soho for an in-person event. Mark your calendars! This spring: a “Marx Crawl”! Eight Marxes, eight strategic street-stages in downtown Portland, with a DSA working group tabling at each location. Imagine being a DSA member at your table, talking with a pedestrian who isn’t really on board with your messaging. You have the option to say, “Don’t believe me? That’s alright. Why don’t you hear from Karl himself? He’ll be here in about five minutes.” Each Marx will also have the option of inviting audience members “on stage”—atop a traveling soapbox—to speak extemporaneously. It’s a living, breathing work of political education. It’s authentic and real and really fun!
As socialist-democrats, we are tasked with doing so much “un-fun” but crucial work in the movement. But by engaging in a radical theater practice, we can re-introduce ourselves to one another under a unifying goal that’s creative, impactful, and enjoyable.
If this message of engaging in a radical theater practice speaks to you, reach out to us via email at [email protected] gmail.com or here at tinyurl.com/Bardmail .
All the world’s a stage, and we are the players. For the bards! For the planet! For the love!