Ron Peluso was cruising along in his senior year of high school when 1968 crashed into him. On Jan. 23, North Korea captured the USS Pueblo; the Tet Offensive was launched eight days later. President Lyndon Johnson announced in March that he would not seek re-election; the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in April. The Prague Spring, the Parisian student revolts and the sit-in at Columbia University gave an immediate sense of history, and it dawned on Peluso that the world had hijacked a youth spent in a small steel town in western Pennsylvania.
"I was either going to have to get into college or get drafted," said Peluso, artistic director at History Theatre. "So I went from naive kid to a college freshman that fall, after assassinations and the Democratic convention and the election. It was an eye-opening experience for a 17-year-old."
Peluso is revisiting the year with "1968: The Year That Rocked the World." The History Theatre production opens Friday at Minnesota History Center, which has an exhibit about the same year. Peluso commissioned seven short works touching on key events from 1968; woven throughout is pop music from the era, performed by students from McNally Smith College of Music, directed by Gary Rue.
Some of the playwrights commented on their works:
Kim Hines wrote on sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who raised gloved fists when they received Olympic medals:
I want white audiences to understand that the black community is not a monolithic group of people. Not every black person was elated or even comfortable with what those athletes did. I also want white audiences to know that the action of those athletes was a turning point for black men. I want black audiences to see that this small action helped us to view ourselves differently. It was a brave act in 1968. Black people had to weather many things before they could stand up and challenge the dominant culture. I thank Carlos and Smith for their part in getting that ball rolling.
Reginald Edmund wrote on Vietnam veteran Jerry Miron and his painful re-entry into civilian life:
As I worked with Jerry Miron, I enjoyed getting the opportunity to give voice to people who never had the chance to tell their stories before, to offer a kind of therapy. It felt meaningful and gave me a satisfaction that I haven't experienced before in my artistic process. If there is anything that I want the audience to walk away with, it is that we have as a nation made so much progress toward being a better America, but we have so far to go to get there, and it's only together that we can reach it.
Christina Ham wrote on the Memphis sanitation workers' strike, supported by King:
I learned many things, including the minimal wages -- $1.65 to $1.85 an hour -- that had most of the workers on welfare to subsidize their income and the dangerous working conditions. The strike was sparked when two men were crushed by a malfunctioning city garbage-truck compressor. It was important to not simply document a historical moment, but to hope the audience will recognize that then, as now, change does not happen without significant struggle and casualties. I also think audiences might be surprised that not every African-American considered Dr. King to be an asset to the civil rights movement.
Mat Smart wrote about the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve message from far above Earth:
Interviewing astronaut Garrett Reisman was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. Born in 1968 and inspired by the Earthrise photo taken on Apollo 8, Garrett is a shot of pure optimism. It was amazing to talk to someone who has lived in space, on the International Space Station, and done three space walks. His description of looking at Earth from space is priceless, and so it's in the play. Garrett is a scientist and explorer by trade, so it's wonderful how much appreciation he has for the arts. He gave me the green light to write the play and I'll be forever thankful to him for the opportunity.
Kevin Kautzman wrote about Rosemary Clooney and about Robert Kennedy's slaying:
Clooney was in the Ambassador Hotel when Kennedy was shot. A month or so later she had a breakdown and was institutionalized. She felt as if she wasn't able to sing, and that if she couldn't sing, her life would be meaningless. This struck me as profound and as a clear symbol of the untold and immeasurable collateral damage that occurs around political violence. I hope Rosemary's struggle to find her voice again in the play is an effective metaphor for a larger desire and political need within the better parts of the American character: to speak and even sing personal truth against and despite violence.
Rhiana Yazzie wrote about the beginnings of the American Indian Movement:
For Indians, Minneapolis was our Birmingham, but this story never gets out; there's no wonder AIM began in this city. I spoke with founding members of AIM who were at the first official meeting in July 1969. I heard story after story of people being rounded up regardless of a crime, beaten before being thrown into paddy wagons, taken to the Mississippi and thrown in even in the coldest winter months and often left for dead, women raped; one in four Indian children were removed from their homes and placed into white families. AIM focused on these things immediately, taking steps to change Indian Child Welfare Laws.
Dominic Orlando wrote on President Richard Nixon:
I was barely alive in '68, and so while I'm very familiar with the pop aspects of our cultural history, I had a couple of huge political surprises: 1) that Nixon pioneered a lot of the political marketing techniques we see in elections up to the present day; 2) Though the language is sometimes a little different, many of the issues and conflicts -- charter schools, states rights, "activist" judges, etc. -- haven't changed in 40 years. Obama spoke to this a little in the 2008 election, but I was really made aware that in many ways we've been going in circles rhetorically since the 1960s.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299