If you can remember the ‘60s, goes the old saying, you probably weren’t there.
Movies and television would have us believe the ‘60s were all about peace, love, flower–power and something they used to quaintly call the generation gap. News programs put Vietnam, assassinations and violent upheaval (racial, social and political) on top of the list. For some people – most likely the ones who can’t remember – it was the innocent heyday of experimental drugs.
They’re all right, and they’re all wrong. The decade was a volatile chemical mix of innovation (mostly good), ideology (both good and bad) and insurrection (depends on who you ask). With excellent music, of course.
The stage play Hair, although it’s far from perfect, is a fairly accurate window into a moment in time that’s too often obfuscated by the stark blacks and whites of the history book. Its characters are stereotypes, but they cover a lot of real–life ground.
Written by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, Hair opened on Broadway in the spring of 1968. It’s the story of a “tribe” of young people who live in New York’s Central Park, and panhandle on the streets. They’re teenagers, for the most part, who’ve either rejected the Mom–and–Dad world, or are evading the draft, or just don’t feel like squeezing into a cookie cutter.
Of course, Hair is also an award–winning musical. It gave us “Easy to Be Hard,” “Aquarius,” “Let the Sunshine In,” “Good Morning Starshine” and the ubiquitous title song, all of which became big pop hits in the day and are still part of the lexicon of musical theater (playwrights Rado and Ragni wrote the lyrics, which composer Galt MacDermot set to music).
Michael Wainstein, the head of SCAD’s performing arts department, is directing a student production of Hair that opens March 12 in the Lucas Theatre.
“The mark of a great play is a play that transcends the period in which it’s written,” he says. “And I think Hair does it just like King Lear does it. Hamlet does it. All great classics, there’s something universal about them that allows them to exist through the ages.
“So it’s a period piece in its look, but not in its theme. Because there’s always going to be a war, there’s always going to be young people trying to find their voice. So Hair will always resonate.”
Zach Allie plays Claude, who’s received his draft card and is having a hard time burning it in protest. Claude is the troubled centerpiece of Hair, and it’s his story that propels what little actual plot there is.
“You can adapt it to any day, even today,” Allie believes. “It’s relevant today with what’s going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even thought the draft isn’t activated now, if you’re 18 and you’re a male you sign up for the Selective Service.”
For Allie, “becoming” Claude was easy enough. “We’ve had all these arguments with our parents about becoming individuals,” he says. “I’ve argued with my parents about numerous things, just like every teenager does. I took that and put it right into the situation Claude’s in, in the show.
“You do a lot of research and you make it as real as you possibly can. Because I wasn’t even a thought in my parents’ heads during Vietnam.”
The yin to Claude’s yang is Berger, the narcissistic “leader” of the ragtag group.
“He’s just a screwed up guy looking for a good time,” says Wainstein. “There were a lot of hippies in the ‘60s that weren’t necessarily in it for the ethical, honorable reasons. It was just fun, a good way to get high and get laid.”
For B. Todd Johnson, who’s playing Berger, the charismatic leader is “probably the most selfish person in the tribe.
“He doesn’t really do what other people want to do. In my mind, Berger was kind of a tormented youth. I think he just learned how to fight for himself, and to protect himself.”
Still, all of Berger’s enthusiastic talk about free love, and drugs, and contempt for the American political system, combined with his outlandish sense of humor, make him a natural focal point for the others in the group. In a way, Berger embodies everything they want to become.
“Really,” says Johnson, “it’s about freedom of expression, freedom to be an individual, and the freedom for everyone to choose a better lifestyle. And to be a community, to not hold on to so much anger and conflict.
“I think what people will be taking away from Hair is the beauty of all human life – everybody has their own individuality, but we are all connected. No man is an island.”
Into the mix comes Sheila, a moderately radical NYU student who’s dropped out of a rich family.
At the time, says actress Tiffany Beavers, “A woman was a mother and a wife, and those are her duties. At an early age, Sheila saw the oppression that her mother might have seen from her father. She saw that women were supposed to embody that role.
“I think that there was a rebel inside her that said ‘Look, we’ve got to break these barriers and stop looking at the world as a horizon. There is another plain.’”
In the Hair universe, Sheila is “hung up” on Berger, who won’t give her the attention she craves. To her, Berger is the antidote to the poison pill of conformity her parents have prepared for her.
“I was studying world mythology and I discovered that hair is a symbol of peace,” Beavers says. “These men, they didn’t need to cut their hair and act masculine to be a man. They were just trying to be humans, whether their organisms grew out or not.”
More than 150 students auditioned for the 24 roles in Hair, says Wainstein. He was looking for strong singers who could act, he explains. Even though there’s a lot of dancing – the choreographer is SCAD’s Vincent Brosseau – Wainstein considers the movement more or less organic.
“It’s not a ‘dance’ show,” he says. “But the movement never stops. Even though it looks crazy and free, which is the way that we approached it, we’ve been slowly forming it – so that we’ve taken the crazy free and giving it shape and specificity, and setting things.
“But the audience won’t notice it – they’ll think we’re just being crazy and free.”
The famous nude scene that traditionally closes Act One has been dropped. “In this day and age of the Internet and telephone cameras, I just think it would be a really bad thing if a bunch of our students were naked on YouTube,” Wainstein explains.
Naked or not, the cast has come together, become something of an honest–to–goodness tribe of their own. Many of them, Johnson explains, have been students together, and worked in the school’s theater department, for several years.
“The more that we bond as a tribe, the better the production is,” he says. “Because everybody is onstage the entire time.
“We spend a lot of time together outside of rehearsal. You’ve got to have a total awareness of who everybody is, and build relationships with all of them. Because all of those relationships translate.”
For Allie, “a tribe simply means a family. You don’t have to be blood related to each other, but ... when you wake up in the morning, who are the first people you think about? Who do you want to go do something for? It’s your tribe. It’s the people you have worked so hard to make a voice out of.
“Having those outside relationships, and building on them in a different way, inside it’s made it feel more real. And not just a cast and a show.”
Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.
When: At 8 p.m. May 12–14 and 20–21; at 3 p.m. May 15 and 22
Tickets: $20 general admission, $15 with senior, military or student ID, $5 with valid SCAD ID. Free with valid SCAD ID for May 12 only
Phone: (912) 525–5050