“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday,” novelist Pearl S. Buck once said.
History Theatre’s new production,1968: The Year that Rocked the World at the Minnesota History Center, is a vivid depiction of the mantra. A hodgepodge of timelines, song snippets, and short sketches the piece illustrates a host of imagined individual conflicts with major historical events of that year, which the History Center is currently exploring in an exhibit of the same name.
The sketch themes run the gamut from the psychological trauma of Vietnam veterans, to the haunting grief after the successive deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the black salute at the Olympics, Richard Nixon’s campaign, the Apollo 8 launch, and local Native Americans’ struggle to avoid shockingly abusive prejudices against them.
Each sketch is fully developed, with well-drawn characters and strong ties to their respective historical events. “Rosemary” is a haunting imagining of Rosemary Clooney’s memory of the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. “John Mitchell’s Private Moment” had the audience in unlikely stitches after its conceptualization of Nixon’s paranoia about running against his Democratic opponents. “The Corral,” depicting the origins of the local American Indian Movement (AIM) and anti-Native prejudices, provides enough shock value that it was nearly cut from 1968 entirely.
It would be easy to quibble with the omission of certain topics – where are women’s liberation and the Latin-American rights movement? – time constraints clearly dictate 1968’s content. As it is, 1968 stands at a solid two hours, and as quickly as they pass, each of the seven vignettes could be tightened by several minutes with the elimination of some repetitive dialogue.
The set is purely functional, formed entirely of scaffolding. Again, utility in a play this long and otherwise fragmented is important, but it would have been nice to see some of the mod graphics and eye-popping color displayed in the museum exhibit as part of the show’s set. The costuming does much better, including the on- and off-screen apparel in the “modern” interview with WCCO’s Amelia Santaniello and Frank Vascellaro for the “Smith & Carlos” skit.
The packed house enjoyed the musical stylings of McNally Smith students, who perform all of the show’s music and had some audience members dancing out of their seats by the end of the night. Classic Motown, Beatles tunes, TV show themes and more form the soundtrack.
Seen as an accompaniment to the exhibit, 1968 is a great display of the rich local history resources in the Twin Cities. Be sure to catch both before they leave St. Paul for other history aficionados to enjoy.
+ 1968: The Year that Rocked the World continues at the Minnesota History Center through Feb. 19. For more information visit historytheatre.com.