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160 EPILOGUE The Continuing Value of Public Performance The careers of the SNCC Freedom Singers, the Living Theatre, the Diggers, the Art Workers Coalition, and the Guerrilla Art Action Group document the emergence of public, politically oriented performance as an important and influential cultural force during the sixties. During the civil rights era, freedom singing figured prominently in a constellation of social, cultural, and political developments that opened public spaces to various forms of cultural expression that lay dormant amidst the climate of suspicion that surrounded radical political expression after World War II. This transformation paved the way for the Living Theatre’s civil disobedience “play-in” of The Brig, the revelation of Paradise Now that “the theatre is in the street,” and the company’s street theater in the seventies. The Diggers’ parades, Free Food, and free stores similarly embodied this combination of cultural and political expression in public spaces. Likewise, led by Happenings, art world developments in the early sixties gave rise to public performance as a vehicle for visual artists. The AWC and GAAG staged wide-ranging protests and actions using public performance to communicate their goals, demands, and visions in the politically charged atmosphere of the late sixties. By then, as the urgency of the antiwar movement, women’s liberationists, and politically oriented artists escalated, public performance was firmly established as a vehicle for oppositional and alternative political statements. The personal histories of the individuals in these groups contradict the The Continuing Value of Public Performance 161 popular notion of sixties activists as “selling out” their idealism after the decade ended. Most of the key figures among these groups retained their commitment to the quest for social transformation, even if they professionalized their activism . Bernice Johnson Reagon of the Freedom Singers became a preeminent scholar of African American studies and is now curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institute. Reagon’s trajectory parallels the transition of the civil rights movement from focusing on integration and assimilation to addressing broader issues of cultural identity. This continued involvement with black culture is apparent in her work with the singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock, whose music embodies a dedication to “preserving and celebrating African-American culture and singing traditions.” Cordell Reagon performed as a Freedom Singer until his death in 1996 and remained active in a range of causes—opposing the Vietnam War, supporting nuclear disarmament, and founding the environmental group Urban Habitat.1 Charles Neblett, the manager and musical director for the current version of the Freedom Singers, still tours and performs a repertoire of freedom songs, interspersing a narrative of the movement and its music. Bernard Lafayette, co-writer of several early freedom songs, now serves as director of the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island and has been known to break into a freedom song or two during the course of an interview. Hollis Watkins periodically tours and sings freedom songs and runs Southern Echo, a Mississippibased “leadership development, education and training organization.” Watkins ’s work with this group, the latest in a “lifetime of empowerment efforts,” represents an organic evolution from his work with SNCC.2 The Living Theatre, through its various phases and despite the death of its cofounder Julian Beck, survives as a theatrical collective concerned with politics and social transformation. During the seventies especially, street theater was the most vital part of the company’s work. Though the economic necessity of sustaining a dozen to twenty core company members has forced the Living Theatre to return to proscenium theaters, the company still often participates in public performances and workshops, particularly in Europe. In 2003 the company was in residency in Genoa, where it led workshops on the performance techniques and creative processes involved in making political theater. Though the Living Theatre’s work has traditionally found greater receptivity and financial support in Europe, reflecting on openness there to a broader spectrum of political discourse and a longer tradition of political art, the company recently announced plans to resume its efforts in the United States by opening a theater in New York City in 2004. Far from abandoning the counterculture at the end of the sixties, the Dig- 162 Epilogue gers were at the forefront of the hippies’ movement out of urban enclaves such as Haight-Ashbury and the Lower East Side into rural communes in northern California, New Mexico and Vermont. Though many of these experiments with communal life expired quickly, some persisted...


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