As a History graduate I remember owning Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of United Stated but not actually reading it. No offence to Zinn. I was just a lazy student.
Bianca Bagatourian’s script adapts Zinn (who passed away in 2010) life and work into this 65 minute long play. Zinn was born at the right time and place to look at US History from the ground level; he fought in WWII, became educated and his left-leaning outlook made him an outlier in academia and America; he was vocal against war, pro-civil rights because he cared about people.
Martina Laird played Zinn on press night as the actor Daniel Benzali is currently unavailable. Laird on the surface is not Zinn, an old Jewish professor from New York but tonight, despite being on book, she physically and mentally embodied Zinn. If you weren’t a Laird fan before tonight (though I have loved her since her Casualty days) then you will become one. It is a staggering performance alternating between Zinn’s life and the events within in it from a talented ensemble.
In some ways it is too short, American history cannot be summed up within an hour but it is also too small for this venue. Zinn’s exposition would make a great monologue on the fringe but the Park 200 venue is never filled, no matter how timely or how good the cast are. As a production it can feel a bit lacklustre. The director Che Walker creates some interesting moments; Emma Goldman (Claire Lebowitz King), Alvaro Flores as Trump (who Zinn did not live to see become president) creates an electrifying moment as all the cast respond to Trump’s “Go back to where you came from”
The issue is Zinn is mainly in the room when it happened for world events; his catalyst for change was encouraging people to look at their history to understand what was being hidden and my issue (as a historian and a theatre person) is that it is hard to relate to nameless, faceless characters whatever the context; whether it be a manuscript or a play where they talk movingly of being beaten for wanting to register to vote (a stunning performance from Jessye Romero) or life as a veteran (one of the many versatile performances from Lanna Joffrey).
The closest we get to a character who is not Zinn is Trange Le as a Vietamese mother who witnesses American soldiers shoot her family. It is a painful side of the Vietnam War we rarely see and as Zinn says “Read your history” find out the wars they don’t teach you school, or don’t make documentaries about. This play has the spirit of Zinn but sadly lacks the depth that continue to make his ideas interesting.
The Time of Our Lies is on until 10 August https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/the-time-of-our-lies
Due to the indisposition of Daniel Benzali, the role of Howard Zinn will now be played by Martina Laird (all evening performances), Ché Walker (Sat 3 Aug 3pm & Sat 10 Aug 3pm) and Ann Mitchell (Thu 8 Aug 3pm).