Post by Agnieszka Karoluk (originally published at In Our Words blog)
We starve, look at one another, short of breath
Walking proudly in our winter coats
Wearing smells from laboratories
Facing a dying nation of moving paper fantasy
Listening for the new told lies
With supreme visions of lonely tunes
Somewhere, inside something there is a rush of
Greatness, who knows what stands in front of
Our lives, I fashion my future on films in space
Silence tells me secretly
- “Let the Sunshine in,” from Hair
I was about 11 or 12 years old and my father was so excited to finally let me watch his favorite movie, Hair (based off the 1968 Broadway musical of the same title). The opening scene shows a young man from farmland Oklahoma saying goodbye to his father as he gets on a bus to New York City. What follows is a psychedelic story of rebellion, love, loss, sex, drugs and every human emotion you can imagine all packed into a musical frenzy of hippies and yuppies, military men and hustlers.
For those of you who have never seen it, the young Oklahoman travels to New York City because he was chosen in the draft and needed to report to the U.S. Army base. On his first day in the city, he meets a group of hippies: Wolf, Hud, Janie and Berger. Along with these four, Claude Bukowski gets into all sorts of mischief and mishaps including a few drug-induced adventures and dreams, falling in love with a daughter of a high-society man and a few ethical dilemmas.
As I mentioned earlier, I first saw the 1979 film when I was about 9 or 10 years old. For such a young child, watching a group of hippies engage in orgies and taking drugs (not to mention the fact that one of the first songs in the musical is titled “Sodomy”) opened up my eyes to some societal issues and realities that not many other nine-year-olds are exposed to. My father did a good job of letting me know what I needed to know and keeping other definitions and explanations for when I was older. Similar to my father, who was in his teenage years when the film first came out in Poland in theaters, I watched this film multiple times a year. As I type this right now, I remember last night when I showed this film for the first time to my new roommate. He and I share many political views and he was amazed at the film’s progressive interpretations and representations of the political climate in 1968 America.
I have memorized all the words to each song in the film, and you can often catch me humming or singing them to myself as I clean, walk home or when I randomly break out into full on “musical mode,” which I do sometimes when I am in a really good mood. The songs range in topics from “Sodomy,” the happy-go-lucky “Good Morning Starshine” and the intense and emotional “Let The Sunshine In” (my personal favorite). Due to their vast range in emotions and content, I consider these songs as a sort of soundtrack to my own life. I know I was not raised in 1968, but the thing about Hair is that there are far too many parallels between these two worlds – between my world and that of the fictitious Claude Bukowski in 1968 New York City.
When I finally saw the musical live for the first time in 2011, the most obvious connection which stood out to me was that of the Vietnam War and the various foreign interventions the United States are involved in today. Issues of race, class, gender and other forms of oppression (which are clearly outlined in the musical) are just as much in the forefront of today’s society as they were in 1968. We may not have weekly race riots as we had in 1968, but we have our Trayvon Martin, Troy Davis and Oscar Grant. We may not be in Vietnam, but we are in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan and bases and secret torture and detention centers all over the world. We may not live in a pre-Roe v. Wade world, but the very rights of women’s reproductive choices are at stake in many of our states, with restrictions on abortion clinics, emergency contraceptive pills and even the most basic necessities for women’s health. We may not have large-scale theatrical anti-war marches, but we have the Occupy Wall Street movement as well as many other social justice grassroots movements which have been finding similarities and building coalitions in the past few years such as the Occupy Homes movement and the anti-Student Debt movement.
Hair is an incredibly important musical not only for those who were active in 1968 America — but also for young people today. It is imperative for us to see these social issues which plague our society from an intergenerational perspective. The United States government is still working as an imperial entity, fighting the “War on Drugs” and has given up on the millions of people who are unemployed, children who are starving and without equal access to education as their upper-class counterparts. The best way to raise awareness of such issues is through the arts, which is why I am in full support of similar theatrical endeavors and conscious-raising music, art and films.
Agnieszka Karoluk was brought to Chicago from Poland by way of being baned in a Challah loaf. Enemy of the state by age three due to starting a riot at a local shopping center by throwing a tantrum in the barbie aisle over gender inequality and the cruelty of the patriarchal government. She currently kicks ass in the city of big shoulders and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org