Time travel is a normal occurrence for a group of on-campus thespians.
The cast of “Hair,” the GW Department of Theatre and Dance’s production of Broadway’s edgy tribal-rock musical, has spent their semester spanning two eras, living in both a modern world and one of cultural revolution.
The show, once groundbreaking on Broadway for its racially-integrated cast, chronicles the lives of members of the “tribe,” a group of young hippies in New York City confronting sexuality, drug use, protests and military conscription amidst the counterculture of the late 1960s. The show originally opened off-Broadway in 1967 before moving across town to debut under Broadway lights in 1968. The show experienced widespread fame, defining the genre of the rock musical and continuously running for 1,750 performances.
The GW version, directed by the Smithsonian’s Discovery Theater Director Roberta Gasbarre, with assistance from senior Ed Churchill, features a cast of more than 30 performers dressed in era-inspired costumes, and even showcases an authentic, vibrantly painted 1970s Volkswagen van adorned with draping beads. The vehicle was the director’s own before becoming an authentic “Hair” prop.
“There is something very unique about this era, because there wasn’t as much technology or access to information as we have now. The hippie movement seems to be a sort of cultural defiance that just couldn’t happen today,” said Jamar Brown, a University of Maryland graduate and guest performer playing the role of Hud, a tribe member “representative of black males in America” during the time period.
To familiarize them selves with the era, the cast and crew undertook extensive research efforts on bohemian culture.
“From day one, we’ve been reading books and watching documentaries [on the time period]. We’ve also been having a really amazing time comparing it to what’s going on socially now, with the Occupy movement and the war,” senior Ariel Warmflash, who portrays Jeanie, the young, pregnant matriarch of the tribe, said.
Brown sees the Vietnam war as “the one that sort of changed the idea of battle lines,” setting the standards by which the current war on terrorism is measured today. He sees similarities of war mongering and deceit between the dissidence then and the frustrations felt now.
While some components of 60’s culture were familiar to the cast and crew, the show’s principal actors were often placed outside their traditional comfort zone in depicting a tribe that approaches drug use, mild nudity and social eccentricity with nonchalance. Their research couldn’t prepare them for every new topic breached.
“Listening to Jimi Hendrix, The Grass Roots and Eric Clapton – that wasn’t a stretch for me. But putting myself in that [time period] was a stretch,” Warmflash said.
Throughout preparations, sophomore Sam Game, who plays Berger, the tribe’s rebellious, bohemian leader, began to notice the show’s relevance to the social, political and economic climate of today.
“The late 60s were a time when a lot of people were really angry with what the ‘establishment’ or the ‘man’ was doing to them, the postwar economic boom had ended so there were a lot fewer jobs, and there was a very unpopular war, all like there is now. The only difference is that people acted a lot more readily,” Game said.
The cast aims to not only emphasize themes of self-identity and social revolution, but to also discard traditional typecasts of the bohemian lifestyle.
“We have this stereotype now of hippies with colored glasses, long hair and bandanas, but there were people who actually did this, and they believed very adamantly in what they were doing and why they were doing it,” Game said.
“Hair” is presented by the GW Department of Theatre and Dance in collaboration with the GW Department of Music. The show will run Feb. 23, 24, 25 and 26 in the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre. Tickets are $10 for students and $15 for adults.