Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Greenwich Village, 1967: A new generation struggles with questions about drug laws, race relations and U.S. involvement in war while attempting to navigate sex, love and friendships. Sound familiar?
Chicago, 2014: American Theater Company presents the controversial classic musical about a group of young hippies who fight for civil rights and an end to the war in Vietnam during the most turbulent year in American history. For this production, artistic director PJ Paparelli, who also directs the show, returns some material from the original off-Broadway version that was cut when the blockbuster show was restaged for Broadway.
We called cast members Zach Kenney (28), Ella Raymont (24) and Aaron Holland (32) to find out more about the show—and about their own hair, of course.
Go: 8 p.m. Friday through June 29 at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St.
Tickets: $33-$43. 773-409-4125; atcweb.org
The characters they play:
Zach: I play Claude. He's a young Polish-American and he's got this tribe, this group of friends who he gets in with in New York. As we start the play, [he's] just getting his draft notice to show up for induction. He's weighing what little options he has and trying to take stake in what he thinks his decision might be. Does he go to war and become active in this conflict, which he has questions about, or does he stay home with this group of friends, many of whom are very much actively fighting here at home, at least politically?
Ella: Sheila's a firecracker. [Laughs.] She's the one in the tribe who really actively seeks to make a difference in any way that she can, whether it be hopping a bus to Washington D.C. to levitate the Pentagon or organizing in New York for her own friends and anti-war supporters. For a woman of that time, she's very remarkable in that she didn't fall into any of the gender-feminine norms. She was not born on this earth to be a housewife. She was not born on this earth to idly sit by and watch her brothers and sisters get hurt by this war.
Aaron: He's really smart and he's not as much of a hippie as the other characters. His purpose is to make sure that the black experience is represented. Even his name—Hud—stands for Housing and Urban Development. And he's from Queens, which is where I was born.
How they relate to a show that takes place so far before they were born:
Aaron: I really connect to the show from a military standpoint. My family is a very military family; a lot people in my family have been to the Vietnam War and the Korean War. And people on both sides of that—the family that are at home and the people on active duty.
Ella: I grew up with all of this '60s and '70s music. My parents pretty much pumped it into my system; that's all I ever listened to. And so it hits close to home 'cause it reminds me of where I came from.
Zach: The soldier's story is very important to me. During this time, 25 percent of the active service were draftees. So you compare that to now, which is an all-volunteer force and then, a quarter of our fighting force is people who may not have wanted to serve. Personally, I think it's an honorable thing to serve, but we're talking about a time when you didn't have a choice unless you wanted to go to jail. It's an important story to tell because it reminds us of a time when choices were different for young Americans.
Why it's still relevant today:
Ella: What our government was telling us and what the media was revealing about the war at the time were two very different things. It was a very confusing time for people and I think it's very much like the way it is today. We don't really know what the facts are about the war in the Middle East. But they were a much more active generation.
Zach: The mission of American Theater Company is, 'What does it mean to be American?' And so I think we're asking, 'What does it mean to be a young American growing up in the Vietnam era or being a young woman in a big city or wanting to experiment with drugs? That's certainly a ripe conversation [laughs] right now—drug policy, drug rights. And these are people who are experimenting with all sorts of drugs and how that can alter philosophy and alter the mind and maybe even alter people's decision-making processes. But it's the story of friendship, too—how do you tell your friends when you're making a big decision? Sometimes that's nerve-wracking and sometimes maybe you lie, or you don't tell them the whole truth. So I think that's a great through-line of the play—how young people find their ways with their friends.
Aaron: Many in my family really want to serve in the military. They know that our country's over there, perhaps still fighting, and they want to be a part of it. And then there's a big section of my generation that want nothing to do with what's happening in the Middle East. Even post-9/11, they still don't believe in what we're doing over there. And "Hair" speaks to how the youth back then really did their research—even with the lack of internet that we have now, they really sought out the truth. I think it gives a message to our generation to find out what's really going on and make a decision that way.