In honor of Michael Friedman (September 24, 1975 – September 9, 2017) here is my October 29, 2011 review of “Let Me Ascertain You: Occupy Wall Street, Stories From Liberty Square,” a one-night only musical presented at Joe’s Pub by The Civilians, the theater company Friedman co-founded. (It’s astonishing this was only six years ago, no?)
There is the man who was laid off a year and a half ago as the creative director for a children’s television production company, and showed up at Zuccotti Park a day ago after being evicted from his apartment. There is the firefighter from New Jersey who has served as a medic from the first day, September 17, treating protesters with handcuff injuries or pepper-sprayed eyes. There is the “downsized nurse from Yale New Haven Hospital” and the former banker and the IT worker and the seasoned activist and the gaggle of teenagers and the Vietnam veteran, a Tea Party sympathizer who sees the Occupy Wall Street movement as something he can get behind completely: “We’re all against corporate greed, I think. None of the bastards went to jail; they got bonuses instead.” These are among the protesters in Zuccotti Park depicted on stage in the one-night-only performance Friday night at Joe’s Pub by the Civilians, which calls itself an investigative theater troupe, best known for “In The Footprint,” its piece about the Atlantic Yards. The 80-minute show was the most moving work of theater I have seen all season.
“Let Me Ascertain You: Occupy Wall Street, Stories From Liberty Square” was part of the Civilians’ ongoing occasional series of documentary theater based on interviews. For this latest piece, artistic director Steven Cosson and the actors interviewed some 50 people at Zuccotti Park . From these, the most compelling were selected and edited. Some of the protesters told their personal stories; others talked politics; still others described some of the details involved in living in a tent city in Manhattan — how they eat, where there are facilities. The dozen actors impersonated this diverse group of individuals so straightforwardly and credibly that the audience seemed to be applauding the protesters more than the performers.
Michael Friedman, now best known for “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” but a long-time member of The Civilians, created several songs out of the interviews. He also led the audience and cast members in sing-along of “Dump the Bosses Off Your Back,” a ditty that dates back to 1911, and that puts radical lyrics on the standard spiritual “What a Friend We Have In Jesus.” Are you poor, forlorn and hungry? Are there lots of things you lack? Is your life made up of misery? Then dump the bosses off your back.
While there were plenty of good laughs in the mix, some of the humor in the show fell flat, most notably the jokey thread that this was Occupy Joe’s Pub. “According to the media, tonight’s occupation of Joe’s Pub lacks a clear agenda,” read a slip of paper handed out to everyone, which requested that we each write down one specific demand. A cast member read three of these on stage, none of them serious. The Civilians promised to grant the demands, given “our power as a non-profit theater company.”
This was meant ironically, but they clearly do have power, the power to inform and inspire.
It is too easy to point out another irony, the cabaret setting, where the menu offers a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label for $120, and among the cheapest food selections is a $10 plate of three deviled eggs with American caviar. It was no surprise that, when the audience was asked how many of us were living in Zuccotti Park, nobody raised a hand. Then, though, we were asked how many of us have been to the protest. Many hands went up.
If it were not already obvious, Occupy Wall Street is not a movement just of poor people. “We are the 99 percent,” the protesters say. According to a new report from the Congressional Budget Office , one had to make $347,000 in 2007 to be in the top one percent. (Over the past three decades, the report pointed out, the income for the top one percent nearly quadrupled, and its share of the pie increased while the share for the middle class decreased.) “I was one of the people on the side of: no demands,” said a protester/cast member, who explained she thought the focus should stay on the inequity. There are those who dismiss as stupid such signs as “End Wall Street,” this protester said. “That’s useless. Go down and make a better sign.” Some have wondered whether the Occupy movement will create a new aesthetic, the way the artistic reactions to September 11th promised to. But such speculation is for a later time. Right now, the Civilians are addressing a need, doing what theater does well, though too rarely. “This is not the definitive oral history of the movement,” Steve Cosson told us introducing the performance. “It’s just a few voices from it. We intend to keep going.” The performance was livestreamed. The Civilians were going to present it live in Zuccotti Park, but, Cosson explained, the park was suddenly without generators.