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The Spirit of ‘68

by Steve Desroches

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It’s déjà vu all over again. There are many maxims about the cyclical natural of history. The parallels are often undeniable and offered as cautionary tales or wistful aspirations for a better future. So in these turbulent times when the country is sharply divided, there are massive protests in the streets, and a renewed push toward social justice, the Peregrine Theatre Ensemble’s production of Hair is as relevant as ever, even though it tells the story of a time that the young cast has only read about in history books or seen in old news footage.

First appearing on Broadway 50 years ago, the tectonic shift that Hair made in American musical theater in 1968 still reverberates today, from its first use of an entirely rock and roll score to its revolutionary political themes, social awareness, and racial justice, as well as its celebration of drugs, free love, and of course, the then shocking use of nudity. And a lot has changed. It’s never a good day when you realize the fashions of your youth are now Halloween costumes, or when people giggle at the innocence of the Flower Power generation as cynicism runs deep after Vietnam and Watergate (and Iran-Contra and the AIDS crisis and the Iraq War and so on and so on). But regardless of your age there is something about this landmark musical, and Peregrine Theatre Ensemble’s production, that drives it straight into the heart of right this minute, creating a whole new Now Generation as what was once a play of its times moves on to become a period piece.

Now in its sixth summer season Peregrine Theatre Ensemble, founded by Adam and Ben Berry, Tessa Bry Taylor, and Jake Ford, has an impressive list of accomplishments with past productions, having created a thriving new arts organization in Provincetown, which is no easy feat anywhere, never mind in a locale with sky-high housing prices. But perhaps one of their biggest achievements is creating a space for emerging musical theater actors in a town that’s become a celebrated hot spot for the biggest stars of Broadway, keeping Provincetown’s legacy as a place for the next big thing alive and providing a much-needed injection of youth culture. And right in line with the hippie era slogan “Never trust anyone over 30,” the cast of Hair are all in their twenties, with a few in their late teens, starring in a show with subject matter that is ancient history to them, but yet feels strangely familiar considering the times they are coming of age in.

Photo: Michael and Suz Karchmer

“It’s amazing how things have changed and how they haven’t,” says Brendan “Brennie” Williamson who portrays Woof. “We still have room to change. It was a time of protest and now we are seeing the same thing now. The themes in the show will always be true. Trying to be a better people. Peace and love.”
Williamson sits on the stage at Fishermen Hall after a Thursday night performance with his co-stars Nigel Richards, who plays Hud, and tribe members Melissa Zeller and Meridien Terrell, who is also one of the production’s dance captains. The ensemble had the audience enraptured from the moment Rhetta Mykeal as Dionne tore into “Aquarius” straight through to their inventive and gorgeous ending with “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In).” Now in their 2018 clothes, the four young actors are beaming. The fun they have on stage is as palpable as their passion for their craft. But this show was also a history lesson for them, as part of their preparation was to immerse themselves in the America of 1968.

“The show required a ton of research,” says Richards. “I focused on the music that was coming out. Motown. Rock-and-roll. But there were a lot of references I had never heard before. To make it believable I had to find out what they were.”

They all agree that in the early rehearsals it took some time to decipher the script. Who’s Timothy Leary? What’s a Be-In? Learning that the song “Three-Five-Zero-Zero” is a reference to the government’s monthly reports on the casualty rate for the Vietnamese, which hovered around 3,500, something a 1968 audience, and cast, was well aware from the nightly news. All of their training as actors as well as the studies of the counterculture and politics of the Sixties has resulted in this marvelous interpretation of the classic American musical. It’s performed with powerhouse vocals and a sensitivity to the themes of the times, which, for these young people, are perhaps stories they heard from their grandparents.

What is not foreign to them, though, is the social unrest. Black Lives Matter. #MeToo. The Women’s March. LGBT Rights. March For Our Lives. Gone may be love beads and posters of Abbie Hoffman, but for them now, it’s pink pussy hats and t-shirts with the image of Parkland High School activist Emma González. This is the world they are entering as young adults who have chosen theater as their vocation, both for their personal passions as well as the ability of art to transform society and culture. And as hard as it can be to do, especially alone, Hair has shown them how to take a stand.

“When Claude comes out in his army fatigues, the first time I saw that, I burst into tears,” says Zeller. “It wasn’t who he was. He was the opposite of what people expected then, but he felt pressure to become what people expected of him. It seems so relevant to the politics of today. I think this show is about how to connect to people, and it gives an opportunity to make connections with the audience.”

“How it addresses conflict, love, peace, violence, that’s all happening today,” says Terrell. “It’s all about inclusiveness.”
For much of the cast, including the four assembled actors, this is their first time in Provincetown, a place that Richards describes as “lit,” to which they all agree. Split between houses in Provincetown and Truro in between performing and their other jobs, they frequently perform at Tin Pan Alley as well as making guest appearances with performers at the Art House’s Broadway series like Adam Pascal, Judy Kuhn, and Will Swenson, who received a Tony Award nomination for his role in the 2009 Broadway revival of Hair before reprising the role in London’s West End. Now that Carnival Week is here they are ready to let their real hair down and celebrate a town they’ve grown to love for the love it’s shown them. And in part, that’s the takeaway for them, the love and support of the community and cast. For Richards, the song “Easy to Be Hard” from the show resonates the most when thinking about this experience.

“It’s about the things we say to people everyday,” says Richards. “It’s about kindness. Everyday kindness. The everyday actions, how we treat friends. That song means so much. It meant that in 1968 and the same now in 2018.”

Peregrine Theatre Ensemble presents Hair at Fishermen Hall, 12 Winslow St., Provincetown, through September 7. For tickets ($35/$40) and specific show times and dates visit For more information call 774.538.9084.

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Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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