Rob Urbinati may be preaching to the choir with his unembellished adaptation of the cries of political dissent collected by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove in “Voices of a People’s History of the Rob Urbinati may be preaching to the choir with his unembellished adaptation of the cries of political dissent collected by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove in “Voices of a People’s History of the United States.” But the rebel choristers who faithfully flock to Culture Project will find ideological comfort and camaraderie in the anguished voices of angry Americans — from Frederick Douglass to Cindy Sheehan — who have found themselves politically disenfranchised in what Zinn calls a “topsy-turvy” world where “the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power.”
The supercharged oratory of the speeches, letters, poems, songs and petitions must stand on its own in the spare theatrical setting of stools and music stands. Identifying photographs, along with the odd still image, are projected onto a screen on the back wall, and spotlights are put to good use. But there are no true staging effects and the performers stay on book. Whatever moves you comes from what you hear.
Even more than the themes of dissent and rebellion, the call for political change is what unifies the impassioned contributions that make up this program of readings. In the opening words of Zinn (Tim Cain), the issue is not so much civil disobedience as “civil obedience,” the mindless acquiescence of American citizens in the criminal misadventures of their government. “It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners,” Zinn admonishes.
Rousing the faithful are exhortations from the historical likes of Douglass (Cain), petitioning the nation to liberate its slaves in 1852; Susan B. Anthony (Morgan Hallett), demanding rights for women in 1871; and Chief Joseph (Opal Alladin), pleading for the freedom of the Indian nations in 1879.
There is inspiration, as well, in those rare moments when the protestors could savor a political triumph: a sober Daniel Ellsberg (Thom Rivera) articulating the anti-war convictions that led to his exposure of the Pentagon Papers in 1974; an exultant Martin Duberman (Rivera) flush with gay pride during the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969.
The most moving voices, though, are the unknown ones. There is a special poignancy to Depression era voices — so many of them belonging to women — who fought for the rights of overworked and underpaid factory workers by organizing unions. “When you worked in the auto factory, no one cared what your name was,” according to one labor organizer. “We were wage slaves.”
Lenelle Moise, who gives vivid life to one of these embattled unionists, also brings her intensity to two portraits of modest militants from later eras: Anne Moody, who participated in a particularly ugly civil rights sit-in at a Mississippi lunch counter in 1960, and Patricia Thompson, who has a chilling story to tell about racial politics during Hurricane Katrina in 2006. Opening another vein, Cain is quietly devastating as Larry Colburn, a Vietnam veteran testifying to the atrocities he witnessed at My Lai in 1968.
Aside from the heart-stopping treatment singer-musician Allison Moorer gives to Sam Cooke’s “Change Gonna Come,” the most electrifying moment in the show comes when guest performer Staceyann Chin delivers Sheehan’s anti-war manifesto. Moving from the dignified grieving of a mother who has lost her son in Iraq to the furious outrage of a woman who has made up her mind to challenge the powers that be, Chin gives clear and passionate voice to the show’s ultimate message: “It’s up to us, as moral people, to break immoral laws.”