It would be far too convenient — almost lazy — to look at this world’s-on-fire narrative of today and compare it to the so-called Summer of Love, which literally did consist of cities actually being set on fire.
Still, as knee-jerk as it might appear, you can’t help but notice the across-the board similarities between 1968 and modern-day America.
Fueled by social media and an unquenched thirst to solve the world’s perceived injustices — from gun control to reproductive rights to the #MeToo phenomenon — we find ourselves amidst a generation that might best mimic the hippie movement of the past.
“We’re the change-makers,” says Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate Kellyn Wooten.
Consider it a throwback and a reminder that history has a knack for repeating itself.
The Polaroid snapshots of that bygone era might have been the precursor to the digital technology that would inspire the selfie generation, while the space race dared us to imagine faraway places and dream the impossible much in the way, say, today’s smartphone technology has brought an entire universe to our fingertips.
“It’s crazy how 1968 is so formative on 2019,” said Cullen Wiley, a St. Paul, Minnesota, native and UNL senior theater major.
Longing for ‘Hair’
And all that said, it’s not mere coincidence that the Nebraska Repertory Theatre will culminate its 50th season this week with its production of “Hair,” the Broadway musical that might best epitomize a tumultuous 1968.
The first of 13 shows began Thursday and will run through April 7 at the Lied Center for Performing Arts' Johnny Carson Theater.
“In 1968, there was this energy in the air, this incredible and very creative energy,” said Andy Park, the artistic director with the Nebraska Repertory Theatre who will be directing the production. “That energy created an explosion, and we’re a part of that, too.”
That energy, Park says, planted the seeds to the Nebraska Rep, which was nurtured and grown into one of Lincoln’s dazzling bouquets. Meanwhile, “Hair” continues to be considered an accurate and artistic depiction of an era marked by civil rights protests and a war in Vietnam that few could explain or justify.
“It’s a beautiful story,” said Wooten, who plays Sheila Franklin, a politically active graduate student. “I’ve wanted to do this show for a long time. I have been told I am an old soul. I think I mesh right into the storyline.”
“Hair” depicts the tale of the tribe, a gaggle of politically active long-haired hippies living a free-love, drug-using lifestyle in New York City by protesting all that is going on in Vietnam.
At its core, a young man named Claude must decide whether to resist the military draft as his friends have done or succumb to the pressures of his conservative parents — the prevailing voice of America — by enlisting.
It’s a powerful story of conflict told through some of the most enduring music of the era. Songs like “Aquarius” and “Good Morning Starshine” crossed over into popular culture and became top-10 hits, which only added to the production's credibility.
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More important is its message of breaking societal norms by cutting against the grain. That sentiment was considered controversial from the day it debuted on Broadway. That it continues to be a lightning rod all these years later signals its enduring social importance.
“This show is meant to start a conversation,” said Wiley, who plays the role of Margaret Mead, one of the few voices of reason from an older generation that was generally not trusted by the hippies. “That’s the big thing about ‘Hair.’ Although it’s considered obscene, it’s not meant to be shocking. It’s meant to start a conversation that should be happening.”
The naked truth
“Hair” broke the norm with its profanity and its depiction of the use of illegal drugs, its treatment of sexuality and irreverence to the U.S. flag that rubbed society the wrong way. But the prevailing talking point and bone of contention is its nudity.
Spoiler alert: The Nebraska Rep rendition will be true to form, a decision Park toiled with for, well, a few minutes before rendering.
Nudity “became such a huge aspect of what people talked about in terms of the show all these years,” Park said. “What is most important in that moment isn’t the act that the tribe is taking off their clothes to contrast the freedom that they’re exercising and the act of this protest.”
The most meaningful aspect of the scene that culminates with 15 seconds of nudity, Park said, is that Claude decides in that moment not to burn his draft card, a decision that would ultimately cost him his life.
Maybe that’s another similarity between 1968 and the modern day. America, despite advertising, television and movie industries that might indicate otherwise by using sexuality to sell its product, has yet to come to terms with nudity.
Consider that the takeaway moment from a recent Super Bowl wasn’t the violent collisions that we now know did irreparable damage to the brains of those involved -- without a shred of public outrage -- but the now infamous “wardrobe malfunction” (DAMN YOU, JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE!) that allowed a global audience of millions to see Janet Jackson’s boob.
“There’s such a weird taboo with nudity … in life -- and yet on TV you see a man with a gun to his head and brains are literally on the camera,” Wiley said. “Why is that OK? Yet a naked body that we all have … it’s interesting. It puts things in perspective.”
All of the actors were made aware from the outset and signed documents confirming they were OK with shedding their clothing for that scene.
“In the context of the show, it’s not a big deal and it feels right,” said Wooten, who said she warned her parents of the scene prior to taking the role. “I’m more worried about hitting my marks in my songs than I am about taking off my clothes. It’s really not a big deal.”
The enduring message
The hope is that those few seconds of nudity won’t be the takeaway from a story that has endured 50 years, at times fighting its past to remain relevant -- maybe never more than today.
It’s a tale of love for mankind and tolerance toward others — a fresh take on the Golden Rule, in this case chanted by long-haired barefooted hippies, perhaps with the accompaniment of a tambourine — but Park sees so much more to the message.
“There is an undeniable idea that love isn’t enough,” he said. “There still has to be some elbow grease and hard work. You see it through the different protest scenes that happen.”