Rocker Tom Morello brought the house down––and the crowd of 800 to their feet ––with rollicking renditions of Bruce Springsteen and Woody Guthrie songs at a Los Angeles event celebrating the publication of the 10th anniversary edition of Voices of a People’s History of the United States (Seven Stories Press). Co-edited by the late Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, the hefty volume contains quotes by indigenous people, slaves, abolitionists, suffragettes, labor organizers, agitators, anarchists, communists, feminists, and dissidents of many stripes representing the marginalized.
This updated version of Voices adds passages from whistleblower Chelsea Manning, anti-surveillance Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gleen Greenwald, anti-globalization activist/author Naomi Klein, and other resistance figures. A host of Hollywood heavyweights, including Kerry Washington (Scandal, Django Unchained), Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny) and Benjamin Bratt (Traffic), read various quotations from Voices during the Nov. 13 show at Downtown L.A.’s Japanese Cultural & Community Center.
Introducing the talents participating in the sold-out performance, Arnove noted sadly that the occasion was “bittersweet” as this was the first edition since 2004 of Voices––a companion book to Zinn’s classic text A People’s History of the United States––to be released after the historian’s 2010 death at age 87. But Arnove, who co-produced the Oscar-nominated documentary Dirty Wars and compiled the additions for this third edition of Voices, asserted, “I am very confident that Howard is very much with us in spirit… and I also feel that Howard is with the strikers who are striking at the docks at L.A.’s port and with the Walmart workers who are sitting in today––and at Ferguson, Missouri.”
Singer/songwriter Joe Henry then kicked off the event with a moving performance of a 1971 Bob Dylan song about prison guards killing Black Panther and so-called “Soledad Brother” George Jackson.
Nuyorican actor Ramon Rodriguez (HBO’s The Wire) then read a passage from Voices by historian and Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, extolling the virtues of the so-called “New World’s” Natives and decrying their brutal treatment and enslavement by Spanish colonizers.
Kerry Washington (Scandal) read testimony by Civil Rights activist and former cotton picker Fannie Lou Hamer about her efforts to register to vote in segregated Mississippi. Washington was the only thespian to return for a sort of encore as Sojourner Truth, reenacting the ex-slave’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” 1851 speech to women’s rights advocates debunking religious arguments against gender equality. Washington wittily pointed out, as Sojourner Truth, “Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with him.”
In what may have been the show’s canniest casting, Vietnamese-American actress Hong Chau (Treme) delivered boxer and Muslim Muhammad Ali’s eloquent explanation why he was resisting the draft and refusing to fight in Vietnam, with defiant words as timely today as they were in 1966: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home to drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?" Ali’s greatest fight took place outside of the boxing ring.
Actress Alicia Witt repeated the 2013 courtroom statement of Chelsea Manning (the former U.S. soldier who exposed American war crimes in Iraq by revealing classified documents to WikiLeaks, then under the name Bradley Manning): “I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society. I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have a country that is truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal.”
Jesse Williams, who portrayed Civil Rights and peace activist Rev. James Lawson in The Butler, poignantly read Zinn’s famed 1971 antiwar speech, riffing on the notion of civil disobedience: “Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country.”
On a day when reports emerged that Obama might take sweeping executive action regarding immigration reform, Benjamin Bratt depicted undocumented immigrant Gustavo Madrigal-Pina, criticizing Obama and U.S. immigration policies.
Tom Morello, cofounder of the band Rage Against the Machine and rated the 26th greatest guitar player of all time by Rolling Stone, provided a moving musical interlude, belting out “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” The acoustic guitar of Morello, who belongs to the Industrial Workers of the World, bore the words “Arm the Homeless” and a decal with a hammer and sickle. Morello dedicated the song to Iraq War veteran and antiwar leader Tomas Young, who recently died from injuries suffered in Iraq.
Playwright Bianca Bagatourian, whose new experimental bio-play about Howard Zinn, The Time of Our Lies, was recently performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, exulted that the program “captured the spirit of Howard,” whom the dramatist knew. Indeed, a splendid time was had by all. One would have to be a “Zinn-fidel” to not have enjoyed the big show.
For those who missed the West Coast Zinn-palooza, another event celebrating the 10th anniversary edition of Voices of a People’s History of the United States will be staged at New York’s New School, Tishman Auditorium, at 7:00 p.m., Nov. 21 with Arnove, actors Viggo Mortensen, Peter Sarsgaard, and Kelly MacDonald.
The new book co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell is The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.