Tag Archives: John Kennedy

Remembering Tom Hayden as activist who helped shape the 1960s

When news broke that Tom Hayden had died, many remembered him as the Vietnam War protester, former husband of Jane Fonda or the California legislator. But classmates and fellow activists at the University of Michigan still think of the impassioned and eloquent student who more than anyone shaped a signature document of the 1960s: the Port Huron Statement.

“He was intensely alive, hardworking, indefatigable and courageous,” said Todd Gitlin, who later wrote “The Sixties,” “Occupy Nation” and several other books about activism. “He exhibited this capacity to put a name on things and invoke the possibility of changing the world.”

Completed in 1962, the Port Huron Statement was the manifesto of the Students for a Democratic Society, one of the leading youth groups and representatives of the New Left for much of the decade. The statement’s language had an urgency and historical consciousness that recalled the Declaration of Independence and other foundational American texts, beginning with its opening statement: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”

A 25,000-word rejection of the so-called silent generation of the 1950s, the statement captured the hope and anxiety of the new decade, the awareness of material comfort and the distress over a society the students viewed as complacent, unjust and misguided. The Port Huron paper linked the civil rights movement to the nuclear arms race and other causes and advocated participatory democracy, whether through voter registration, peaceful protests or through candidates who would challenge political machines.

“When we talk about the ‘spirit of the ‘60s,’ you have to think of the Port Huron Statement. It was idealistic and aspirational, but also practical. And one of the extraordinary things about it was its elevation of political language,” Gitlin said.

Authorship of a group statement is often disputed, but friends of Hayden, who died Sunday at 76, agree that his was the essential voice and liken his role to that of Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. Both documents were critiqued and altered by quarrelsome peers, but both needed an individual capable of synthesizing and making poetry out of collective ideals.

“He was the best writer among us and was able to articulate so well all the ideas and philosophies we had been debating,” said Sharon Jeffrey Lehrer, another University of Michigan student who worked on the Port Huron Statement.

“A lot of work was done on that statement after Tom first wrote it,” says former SDS member Robert J.S. Ross, a research professor of sociology at Clark University. “There were a lot of sentences pulled out, and others pulled in. Everybody had a hand in it. But Tom was channeling us all.”

The statement was widely circulated and championed, but it was tested as the decade’s traumas accumulated, from the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to the growing and seemingly endless U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. By the mid-1970s, the SDS had broken apart, and many young people had despaired that peaceful change _ or any change _ was possible.

But Hayden’s friends say that he never gave up on civic engagement and that the document remains vital, even if few current students have read it.

“I was on a panel with Tom once that was well publicized and had about 70 there. And half of them were old,” Ross said with a laugh. “But I think the statement really speaks to democracy being an active, not a passive process. And in that regard I see it as a living document.”

Lehrer, who became a leadership coach and co-owner of an art gallery in Northern California, said Hayden was deeply committed to democracy.

“What stands out for me about Tom, fifty plus years ago, was his commitment to a lifetime of participatory democracy,” she said. “I remember him getting up and saying he wasn’t only going to be in activist for this period (as a student). I can still see him saying that, and I remember saying, ‘Right on.’ “

The Reps’ ‘Assassins’ aims to make a statement

Good theater makes a compelling statement, while great theater carries with it truths that stand the test of time. That’s the measuring rod that Mark Clements, artistic director for Milwaukee Repertory Theater, uses frequently.

Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” – a musical revue featuring history’s most infamous U.S. presidential assassins – received mixed reviews when it first opened in 1990. But its characters’ search for sudden celebrity and the show’s celebration of the country’s growing gun culture has more relevance today than ever before, Clements says. The Rep opens its 2012-13 season Sept. 4 with the controversial work.

“In the 22 years since it was written, I believe that the statement the piece makes has grown in importance,” says Clements, who also is directing the production. “It’s deeply rooted themes force the audience to look into the mirror of our society, one which nurtures and maybe even encourages the kind of disenfranchised people we encounter in the show.”

The disenfranchised characters are many, and some are better known than others. From Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth to Kennedy’s killer Lee Harvey Oswald, from Charles Guitreau, who shot James Garfield, to Leon Czolgosz, who murdered William McKinley, the stage is occupied by social miscreants who believe their right to happiness includes license to kill a U.S. president. In fact, “Everybody’s Got the Right” is one of the show’s signature numbers.

The narrative structure is a series of vignettes built around the slim history that’s available about the characters. The book by Sondheim collaborator John Weidman, adapted from an original work by Charles Gilbert Jr., uses both fact and conjecture to good effect in what Clements describes as a complex work.

“It’s a very rich, very nuanced and very apt satire,” Clements says. “There are definitely elements of comedy in it, but there is so much more to it than that. It’s hard to label it as purely a dark comedy.”

Central to the show, which won five Tony Awards during its 2004 revival, are the guns used by the assassins. Jim Guy, prop master for the Milwaukee Rep, did a thorough search for the types and vintages of the actual weapons used in the crimes. Acquiring the weapons turned out to be easier than first thought.

“The Rep’s prop department actually had several of the harder-to-locate guns in stock from previous productions,” Guy says. “For the others I have been working through trusted vendors with whom I have been doing business for some time to locate or supply guns that duplicate or very closely resemble the ones noted in the script.”

The most difficult guns to replicate, he said, were the ones with which most of the audience is already familiar – the single-shot derringer with which Booth killed Lincoln and the bolt-action rifle used by Oswald to shoot Kennedy.

The Quadracci Powerhouse’s excellent acoustics allows Guy to load the weapons with less than full powder behind the blanks, which reduces the weapons’ recoil. Still, gun safety remains paramount in a production like “Assassins,” he says.

“Safety instruction is absolutely necessary every time a gun is used on stage because no two live performances are the same and nothing can be taken for granted,” says Guy, who teaches courses in firearms safety for the stage nationwide. “Before an actor touches a gun, the gun and ammunition undergo a series of tests in the shop and on the set to make sure that they are safe for the cast, crew and audience.”

As to the controversial final scene in which the assassins line up and fire their weapons into the audience, Guy is not tipping the director’s hand.

“The scene hasn’t been completely blocked yet, but serious discussion is already underway to make sure that the scene is absolutely safe for the audience and cast and generates the response that the director is after,” he says.

Regardless of how Clement’s version of the play ends, its themes ring true for the times, particularly following this summer’s mass shootings in Milwaukee’s Oak Creek suburb and in Aurora, Colo.

“No matter what your viewpoint on the right to have guns may be, the laws currently in place are not working,” Clements says. “Now is the perfect time to have a discussion about guns in our society, and I will be happy if ‘Assassins’ can be a catalyst for that conversation.”

The Rep’s season at a glance

Quadracci Powerhouse

“Assassins,” Sept. 4–Oct. 7

“The Diary of Anne Frank,” Oct. 23–Dec. 2

“Sense and Sensibility,” Dec. 11–Jan. 13

“Clybourne Park,” Jan. 29–Feb. 24

“A Raisin in the Sun,” March 12–April 14

Stackner Cabaret

“Gutenberg! The Musical!” Aug. 24–Oct. 14

“Blues in the Night,” Oct. 19–Dec. 23

“Mind Over Milwaukee,” Dec. 28–Feb. 24

“Ring of Fire,” March 1–May 5

Stiemke Studio

“The Mountaintop,” Sept. 26–Nov. 4

“How the World Began,” Jan. 16–Feb. 24

“Rep Lab,” March 1-4

Pabst Theater

“A Christmas Carol,” Nov. 29–Dec. 24