Voices of a People's History of the United States, a free show at the David Rubenstein Atrium on April 27, brings to life the words of ordinary people engaged in struggles for freedom and justice. For this special evening event, student performers from the High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry (HSAII) will be joined onstage by actor, educator, and activist Brian Jones and musician Martha Redbone.
Now in its second year, the collaboration between HSAII and Voices of a People's History of the United States, an organization cofounded by historian Howard Zinn (1922–2010) and writer and activist Anthony Arnove, invites students to investigate original source materials spanning centuries of American history, including speeches, letters, poems, and songs written by women, workers, people of color, and more. As Zinn put it, the project aims to advance social justice education through the perspectives of "the people who have been overlooked in the traditional history books."
About the Project
Throughout the academic year, students from HSAII's AP American Studies program select, interpret, then perform a reading from the book, Voices of a People's History of the United States. As part of their investigation, they write research papers on the author of their selected piece, critically analyzing its historical context and formulating policy questions based on the material. In addition, they assemble "vision boards" that provide a visual representation of their selected reading.
For Jeffery Ellis-Lee, who has taught at HSAII since 2007, "This project allows another perspective to come alive. It becomes personal for the students because they have a choice in picking the material, and it means something to them—it resonates. You can see it in their faces. You see that moment when they're rehearsing, when it really speaks to their heart, and that's when you know that the history's actually become alive."
Working with Jones and with actress and educator Susie Pourfar in one-on-one sessions, the students edit and rehearse their readings. "They're allowed the opportunity to make bold statements. It's a license to find something radical," observes Jones, who has taught in New York City schools for over a decade.
"It's one thing to read the material, but another to perform it," Jones continues. "Performing the piece creates a greater intimacy between the reader and the author. They discover the craft of rhetoric—using and transforming words as devices, connecting opposites, absorbing the potency of the written language." Noting how the process allows the students to "learn the pure confidence of getting up and performing—of public speaking, of fluency" he explains how, for example, an entire class is dedicated to "how to begin the performance—how to feel confident and relaxed, how to walk up in front of an audience and feel comfortable."
"To omit or to minimize these voices of resistance is to create the idea that power only rests with those who have the guns, who possess the wealth, who own the newspapers and the television stations."
As Raymond Jimenez, who performed in last year's show at the Atrium, says, "Learning history, you don’t normally get to connect with perspectives that affect you personally. For me, the event last year was really impactful, and working with professional actors, I could see the piece I'd been working with being brought to life." Jimenez's selection, Tim Predmore's "How Many More Must Die?," was written by a former soldier with the 101st Airborne Division, who in a statement published in the Peoria Journal Star in Illinois, and later in the Los Angeles Times, questioned the U.S. government's role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Another student, Diana, 17, comments, "The Voices project helped me understand history from another perspective. Usually we only get to learn the perspectives of the winners, but this helps us to see the other side—the side that doesn't get shown. It changed my perspective on [the bombing of] Hiroshima, learning about what actually happened, which challenges what we're usually taught."
"To omit or to minimize these voices of resistance," wrote Howard Zinn, "is to create the idea that power only rests with those who have the guns, who possess the wealth, who own the newspapers and the television stations. I want to point out that people who seem to have no power, whether working people, people of color, or women—once they organize and protest and create movements—have a voice no government can suppress."
Through the project, the students "become storytellers," says Ellis-Lee. "They become storytellers about an issue, and that issue becomes important to them. And my dream is that the issue becomes really important to them and they go out and do something about it."
Róisín Davis is a literary agent and producer based in New York. She co-produced "The People Speak: Ireland" in association with Voices of A People's History of the United States.