Dramatizing Revolution: Howard Zinn’s ‘Marx in Soho’ – Progressive.org

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Actor Bob Weick has taken Howard Zinn’s drama, Marx in Soho, on the road all over the United States. As part of an effort to commemorate Marx’s 200th birthday year, Weick’s show aims to bring to life Marx, his family, and fellow revolutionaries of the nineteenth century. I spoke with Weick about the play, his motivations, and audience reactions to the performance.

Henrik Eger: Have you experienced any resistance to Marx in Soho?

Bob Weick: Some professors, willing to bring the play to their campuses, were denied support or funding for the project. Even theater companies, often beholden to capitalist funders, shrink back from bringing Marx to their stage for fear of economic backlash.

Q: Could you give an example?

Weick: I received hate mail and threats and even had one venue in Texas shot up and vandalized. Bullet holes in a dressing room is a unique experience for an actor! Marx in Soho is the only piece I’ve ever done where I can feel open hostility as I enter the stage. However, over the course of the play, something happens. I can feel it when it turns.

The post-play discussions are always fascinating. The most hostile audiences are ready and willing to talk after the show.

Marx in Soho is the only piece I’ve ever done where I can feel open hostility as I enter the stage.

Q: Last year, a conservative state representative in Arkansas introduced a bill to ban books by Howard Zinn from all Arkansas public schools.

Weick: Zinn’s work directly contradicts the American mythology of exceptionalism. The ruling class of this country seeks to reinforce the notion that only elections are how we progress as a society. Howard’s history lesson of organized social movements as the true source of all progress is particularly threatening.

Additionally, Zinn’s work challenges our foundational belief that we live in a democracy. We don’t. Yes, it’s a representative form that has evolved into an oligarchy. As Marx says in the course of the play “because they kept a legislature, because the people voted, they thought they had a democracy. A very common mistake.”

Q: How did your background shape your evolution as an activist and an actor?

I didn’t have the capacity to do anything [growing up] except to root for Muhammad Ali to beat Joe Frazier. Later in life, the theatre, and most significantly the work of Howard Zinn, helped me find my voice and a way to act—not only on stage, but in the world.

Zinn’s name first came up in Catholic circles in relation to his support for the Berrigan brothers, and later with the Camden 28. [There was] Zinn’s seminal work A People’s History of the United States. Then a kind gentleman, Dick Nepon, handed me a copy of [Zinn’s play] Marx in Soho. That simple act changed my life. It eventually led to a working friendship with Howard.

Q: What emboldened you to become an actor with a mission?

Weick: I did not grow up in an intellectually curious or political household. Fortunately, my wife and daughters, all well-educated and independent thinkers, stirred my philosophical development. The house filled with new books and magazines, Zinn’s of course, but also Chomsky, Chris Hedges, and copies of The Nation and The Progressive.

I took that Zinn script off the shelf, and began to inform myself about the powers that yielded these economic and psychological results, and which create and shape the inhumane systems that govern and rule over us.

Q: “Inhumane systems”?

Weick: Capitalism, long revered in this country as a symbol of freedom, was actually enslaving people and, at the root, was responsible for the untold suffering of millions. When I step on the stage as Marx, I directly challenge that system.

Q: Quite a few references in Marx in Soho address contemporary problems, especially the presidency of Donald Trump. I was wondering if you were improvising some parts.

Weick: The whole premise of the play is that Marx has come back to our present time and place.

So, yes, I ad lib. There is so much in the news these days that can be attached to this drama—but most of the play is the original work by Zinn.

Q: Zinn presents American history from a “We the people” perspective. Could you give an example from the play?

Weick: The first one to come to mind is the American railroad system. Seen as a wonderful achievement of science and engineering, little mention is made in our history books about the abusive conditions faced by immigrant laborers, without whom this project would never have been possible.

During the play, Marx rails against financiers and politicians: “Your government gave away 100 million acres of land to the railroads, but looked away as Irish immigrants and Chinese immigrants worked 12 hours a day on those railroads. They were dying in the heat and dying in the cold, and when the workers finally rebelled and went on strike, your government sent armies to smash them into submission.”

Q: How do audience members respond to Q&A sessions?

Weick: The majority of Americans associate Marxism with totalitarianism, with “Stalinesque” style dictatorship. I’m often asked to expand on the Marxist understanding of freedom. and why capitalism works against true freedom. The majority of questions deal with my personal journey from typical liberal ideology to my socialist position.

The play also provides the fictional opportunity to meet Marx and encourages further exploration. In general, after attending the show, more people tend to view economics and politics through a different lens.

Q: Is there anything else you would like us to know?

Weick: I like to end with a sense of abiding hope—hope eloquently captured by Howard Zinn himself:

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness [. . .] If we remember those times and places [. . .] where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act [. . .] The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

A calendar of upcoming performances of Marx in Soho can be found at www.ironagetheatre.org. For more information, contact Bob Weick at MarxInSoho@gmail.com or Iron Age artistic director John Doyle at ironagephilly@gmail.com.

Henrik Eger, Ph.D., is the author of a number of books, dramas, poems, and stories and editor of Who is Afraid of Noam Chomsky? with a foreword by Chomsky. Born in Germany but living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Eger is the editor-in-chief of Drama Around the Globe and writes for a wide range of publications.