February 28, 2009
San Francisco Chronicle
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A small bazaar sprang up on the steps of Mission High on Thursday night as people passed out flyers and chatted up the crowds streaming in to see a sold-out show featuring historian Howard Zinn and a cavalcade of A-list actors and local figures.
The varied crew, featuring actors Kerry Washington, Josh Brolin, Diane Lane and Benjamin Bratt; hip-hop artist Boots Riley; activist Clarence Thomas; civil rights attorney Renee Maria Saucedo; musicians the Stairwell Sisters; and historian Anthony Arnove, read and sang selections from “Voices of a People’s History,” the companion volume of first-person accounts plucked from Zinn’s 1980 best-seller “A People’s History of the United States.”
It was a very San Francisco affair, from a woman outside hawking a socialist newspaper to the long line of activist booths hugging the hallways, no leftist group was left behind.
“I got a ticket, but I’m giving it away,” said Matt Kline, who was in the midst of discussing immigrant-rights-rally T-shirt sales with two comrades before the show started. “I can read the book.”
But Kline’s indifference to the event seemed the exception, as excited chatter filled the hall before the show. “Is it bad that I’m really excited to see Diane Lane?” asked one man to his seatmate. Others professed to be die-hard “People’s History” fans, like Mike van Dierdonck from Orinda, who teaches it in his classroom. “You try to get kids to a read a book these days,” he said, resplendent in a pink tie-dyed shirt.
The “Voices” organization, along with Chicago publisher Haymarket Books, picked an ideal spot for the night. Mission High has been renovated recently and it has a gorgeous auditorium: green and gold moldings that rival the nearby Castro Theatre’s ceiling.
Even with so many celebrities onstage, the real star of the evening was Zinn. He kicked off the event by talking about how this “Voices” project came to be. Zinn, who resides in Newton, Mass., rejected his publisher’s idea in 2003 for celebrating the 1 millionth copy of “People’s History.”
“Bring some historians onstage to talk about history? Please, anything but that,” he joked. Instead, in New York City, he began drawing from a pool of actor and artist acquaintances to read the primary source material – speeches and letters – tucked into “People’s History,” and soon the “Voices” project was touring other cities. A TV program featuring Brolin and others is in the works.
“I wanted the voices of the past to come to the present,” Zinn said, looking jaunty in New Balance sneakers, brown slacks and a green sweater. “You go into the past and get lost. I want to get out of the past.”
Zinn accomplished that goal with a canny selection of material. Some speeches were recognizable – Washington’s incendiary performance of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” brought the house down – and many less so, but all had a chilling familiarity. Resistance and spirit were represented by Josh Brolin’s reading of socialist Eugene Debs’ 1918 speech from Canton, Ohio, where Debs’ succinctly declared that “the master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.” Every time financial matters were raised, a ripple of recognition went through the crowd – the United States’ current economic situation has much in common with events of the past.
But the mood in the house was celebratory. Even the Mission High School kids seated onstage stopped whispering as Washington closed the night with a reading of Marge Piercy’s poem “The Low Road,” which started softly and built to a climax. The final moments of the show achieved a fitting symmetry, as the performers stood up and began clapping at the audience, and then the audience rose to applaud the performers. Both sides of the room seemed to be recognizing the other’s humanity.
To read Joe Garofoli’s interview with Howard Zinn, go to sfgate.com/ZTL.