I’m surrounded by history buffs. My husband James and 19-year-old daughter Jennifer seem to always have their nose in a good history or philosophy book, while both our daughters are loving the historical fiction books they got as holiday gifts.
I thought I might be able to escape for a few hours to enjoy opening night of the Phoenix production of “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” presented by Arizona Theatre Company. But that’s like trying to avoid trees by strolling through a forest.
Turns out I sat next to a very gracious history professor and his wife, and met a 5th grade history phenom in the Herberger Theater Center lobby after the show.
I sort of knew what I was getting into, I suppose — since “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” covers the life and times of wordsmith and folk musician Woody Guthrie, who traveled from Oklahoma to California, New York and plenty of other parts.
I was surprised that I didn’t see more young people at the show. Other than a pair of teen boys seated a few rows behind me and a boy who looked to be about five years old seated just ahead of me, the crowd was mostly folks around my age (give or take a good decade).
Having once homeschooled my children, and having volunteered more than 1,000 hours in their traditional classrooms, I always have an eye out for those “teachable moments” in which experiences create rich learning opportunities.
I’d have had a ball taking my kids to see “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” when they were younger (my husband will probably take one or more of them before the show ends its run on his birthday, Jan 16).
The show features a cast of five and a three-piece band set against a backdrop that mirrors life in the Dust Bowl or along the railroad tracks, complete with a giant projection screen on each side showing black and white photos of the times.
Immigrant laborers and their children living in squalor. Job seekers moving from town to town in search of honest pay. The sticker on Guthrie’s guitar that denounces fascism. The sign offering tent space for 15 cents a week.
In an age when issues of immigrant rights and unemployment are so prominent on the political landscape, shows like “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” offer insights into ways these issues have played out in earlier times.
It’s easy to imagine coupling this show with a trip to explore one of Arizona’s history museums or a visit to the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix — where kids can learn more about the guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, piano, harmonica and other instruments played during the show.
There’s a magnificent study guide for “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” on the Arizona Theatre Company website so parents and teachers can learn more about related topics before attending. I bought a loosely bound copy at the show for just $5, and I’m still having fun combing through it.
I ended up giving my program to a lovely woman who was singing on a corner near the theater with her service dog named “Charlie.” Like Guthrie, she’d placed a hat on the ground for tips — though Charlie seemed to be eyeing it in search of something more rewarding, like food.
Turns out she’s one of the “sopranos” referred to in a recent New York Times review of Ib Andersen’s “The Nutcracker” — though Alastair Macaulay’s dismissive comments have not, to her credit, disuaded her from her craft.
But back to all things history and theater. History, like theater, is a living experience. It never stands still and none of us escapes being part of it, though some folks choose to take a more active — even activist — role than others.
I’m hoping that Jacob, the 5th grade history buff I met after the show, will get in touch with me. I’m certain you’d enjoy his thoughts on the show more than anything I have to offer.
The mom in me was particularly struck by his observation that American youth take a great deal for granted. So many hoard high-tech gadgets unaware that others are hunting for a way to put low-tech food on the table.
Jacob is a young man we can all be proud to create history, and theater, alongside of. I imagine he’d have a mighty fine time riding the rails with Guthrie.
Kids like Jacob give me hope that future generations might do a better job of separating want from need.
Note: I often invite young people to contact me with their thoughts about shows they’ve seen — and am also hoping to hear from a young girl I met at the Herberger while she was there to see “Respect: A Musical Journey of Women” with her father and sister.
Coming up: New year, new exhibits