By A.L. Haynes | Contributing Writer
This summer, San Diego’s Old Globe has resurrected the classic 1960s musical, HAIR. Even those too young to have seen the original stage productions are likely familiar with the movie filmed in the 1970s.
Much like the London refresh in 2017, the Old Globe’s production of the musical HAIR adds songs, scenes, and references that keep the classic relevant for nostalgic and new audiences. Leaving behind old tropes from the stage and screen of Central Park, a “country boy”, and the maintenance of the protagonist, Old Globe has taken a perspective that resonates with Vietnam protesters and Black Lives Matter protesters alike.
HAIR is unique in that it was written in the time period in which it was set, at the height of the Vietnam War. In fact, this heightened the controversy of the show, as it blatantly commented on and exposed contemporary society. By keeping some characters nearly identical to the classic while altering others, the Old Globe production highlights issues of racial equity and self-identity vs. social designation.
The Vietnam War was the first time America did not officially segregate troops, yet racial inequality was still evident. When then U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced his “Project 100,000” in 1966, 40% of the prisoners recruited were Black. This may have been in part due to the disproportionate imprisonment of Black men, something that continues to this day. By 1967, the year HAIR first went on stage off Broadway, Black men accounted for about 16% of the draft and 23% of combat troops, even though Census data shows the entire Black population in the U.S. accounted for less than 11% of the population at the time. Black troops were also more likely to be imprisoned in the army’s Long Binh Jail (called “LBJ” for short), notorious for its overheated, over-crowded conditions. At one count, more than 50% of the prisoners held there were Black, reflecting the truth of U.S. racism even in the midst of war. Miraculously without stepping on toes, the Old Globe referenced both of these inequities in the midst of rapidfire banter and song.
The most poignant changes centered around the main character, Claude (played by Tyler Hardwick). By building the character as mixed-race during the height of both the draft and the Civil Rights movement, the divisive mindsets of the day are truly highlighted. Claude is neither fully accepted or rejected by his friends, often becoming “invisible” in the midst of conversations. This is also reflected in his family dynamic, where his opinions are subsumed by a combination of parental disapproval and love. Claude’s mental trauma from the “black-and-white” nature of the opinions around him is obvious. Even more poignant, unlike the original script, which has a racial focus at the end, or the film, which refuses to harm the protagonist, Old Globe’s production remains focused on Claude’s mental state. He feels, and in some ways is, separate from everyone, so he makes a decision that will literally separate him from everything he knows. As in real life, the audience is left unknowing what will become of our soldier.
Mixing elements of the familiar and the original, San Diego’s Old Globe manages to point out racial inequities that have persisted in the U.S.A. for generations. The fast-paced action, music, and humor may even be a good way to ease someone into a conversation without defensiveness. While not appropriate for children (drug use, nudity, and strong sexuality), it is a show that is relatable for anyone in their teens and older.
Throughout the state of California, 38% of Veterans are minorities, with higher numbers in areas with military bases, such as San Diego. A significant number of San Diego’s Veteran population are Vietnam Veterans. The county also has more than 150,000 more active duty service members.
Due to its relatability to current events and popularity with the local community, The Old Globe has extended its showings of HAIR until October 3, 2021.
The SDV&V’s coverage of local news in San Diego County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Enthnic Media Services to support minority-owned-and-operated community newspapers across California.