The whole world should watch
Musical brings new perspective to 1968's Democratic convention
05/23/2012 10:00 PM
Chicago fights the power.
From the city’s first recorded instance of large-scale civil unrest, the often-overlooked Lager Beer Riot of 1855, up through the protests that accompanied the NATO summit just this past weekend, Chicago has a long history as a seat of social, economic and political demonstration and unrest. As Middle America’s preeminent metropolis, the city is a prime soapbox for the declaration of passions and ideas — both liberal and conservative — to the rest of the country.
Of the protests that Chicago has hosted, those that accompanied the 1968 Democratic National Convention are perhaps the most notorious in terms of impact, visibility and violence. With the city on the national stage, 10,000 demonstrators clashed with 23,000 police and National Guardsmen. It was a melee witnessed around the world that signaled the changing of the cultural and political guard in the United States.
An incredible new production running at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater is a time machine to that week that shook the city. Produced by Dog & Pony Theatre Company and masterfully directed by company members Devon De Mayo and David Dieterich Gray with Elana Boulos, The Whole World Is Watching is an immersive musical experience that transports audience members back to Chicago circa 1968 and inserts them into the action and events that transpired at the convention, on the downtown city streets and in Grant and Lincoln Parks.
Inserts is the key word.
The Whole World Is Watching is a promenade play. The actors and audience members share the same space — in this instance, a large room on the Biographs’s second floor. There is no stage, no barrier between player and observer. All exist as one unit, with the actors and audience constantly shifting and moving amongst each other as dictated by the play’s action. The staging fits this particular subject matter perfectly.
The room is decorated with posters pumping presidential candidates Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey, the Black Panther Party, marijuana leaves and anti-U.S. imperialism slogans, as well as multiple televisions looping scenes from the Vietnam War and more. The play relays diverse perspectives from Yippies, demonstrators, Black Panther organizers, students, police officers, reporters, clergymen, parents, politicians and more. They’re stories of peace, love, hope, anger, fear and disenchantment that unfold via monologues, set pieces and beautiful songs composed by De Mayo and Dan Mohr.
The promenade staging allows viewers both to witness the events firsthand and become passive participants. They’re herded around with demonstrators and Yippies by Chicago police hoping to maintain control of Grant Park. A mother frantically searching for her lost daughter amongst the chaos tearfully asks audience members about her child’s whereabouts. An activist hands out Students for a Democratic Society pamphlets and eagerly offers information about the group.
The close proximity of actors to audience creates a powerful, almost uncomfortable intimacy, allowing The Whole World Is Watching to transcend theater to become real life. The events of August 1968 are not painted in black-and-white, hippie vs. cops, counterculture vs. establishment hues, but in shades of deep grays. By standing next to cops conflicted about the violence in Grant Park and hippies whose hands switch from peace signs to middle fingers, the confusion and ambiguity that clouded everything that week becomes strikingly clear. The actions taken by both sides may not be acceptable to all, but they become understandable. The Whole World Is Watching should be required viewing for all Chicagoans. Highly recommended.