ITAC’s ‘Woody Guthrie’s American Song’ is both timely and timeless

Woody Guthrie’s American Song

Farmers Mercantile Hall — Friday, Sept. 8 at 7 p.m.
Die Hiemat’s Next Door Event Center — Sept. 15-24

The cast of “Woody Guthrie’s American Song.’ — photo courtesy of Iowa Theatre Artists Company

Playing through Sept. 24, the Iowa Theatre Artists Company presentation of Woody Guthrie’s American Song (conceived and adapted by Peter Glazer) testifies to the timeless power of music to bear witness to the hopes and horrors that confront the modern world. Performances are at Die Hiemat’s Next Door Event Center in Homestead, save a performance on Sept. 8 at 7 p.m. in Garrison at the Farmers Mercantile Hall. It runs in Homestead Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2:30 p.m. Sept. 15-25. Tickets for the performance in Garrison (a special benefit for the Lions Club) are $16; the shows in Homestead are $20.

Die Hiemat’s Next Door Event Center is a barebones staging for the production — a stage with minimal props, a few microphones with speakers to the sides, two television screens flanking the stage. Throughout the production, the screen shows slides of American life primarily taken during Woody Guthrie’s lifetime. The props are also minimal: furniture and instruments.

The four men (Marc Janssen, Paul Roberts, Randy Sandersfeld, Mark Wilson) and three women (Brandi Janssen, Meg Merckens, Allison Yoder) who make up the ensemble are vocalists and instrumentalists who shuffle names and identities throughout the show. The vision of America as an ensemble production is important: As Guthrie knew, ensembles show the limitations of the myth of the rugged and provide a broader, communal tapestry for its depiction of events.

The ensemble picked up on the character of the anonymous American whose suffering was ubiquitous throughout Guthrie’s folk singing career. The cast was sometimes in a California workers’ camp, sometimes in a New York saloon — those who were not performing would occasionally flesh out the background scene with characterizations. The staging (which often breaks the fourth wall to allow the audience to be witnesses to the fictional Guthrie’s performances) provides a perfect representation of Guthrie’s art, where each person’s story becomes a part of a larger American whole, woven into a shifting tableau of American greatness.

I went into the production armed with two bits of Guthrie trivia: He was responsible for “This Land is Your Land,” which I remembered singing in grade school, and he had written “This machine kills fascists” on his guitar. The timeliness of these facts had not occurred to me until listening to the ensemble present glimpses of his life that flew past like the landscape from a train car. Just as the ensemble shows how “individual” triumphs and tragedies can be seen from a communal perspective, so also does the show depict how the problems we confront today — migrant labor, worker rights, a militarized police, economic devastation, destructive weather patterns, the abuse of Government power, the rise of fascism — are not limited to our time. They’re part of a larger American story that gives folk music an enduring role in reminding us to protest against injustice, to embrace those nearby in their broken particularity, and to fight for what is beautiful despite the odds.

What ITAC’s production adds is a reminder of the enduring power of art’s beauty in general, and folk music in particular, to create meaning out of suffering. Guthrie’s music retains a sense of the infinitely familiar, part of the bone and sinew of the great American songbook. The ensemble, given little to do as distinct characters or actors, voice the songs that much more powerfully. Marc Janssen’s ability to find a few notes on mandolin or fiddle throughout the show is far more memorable than his brief portrayal of the Cisco Kid, for example. The stringed instruments — two guitars, two banjos, an upright bass — merge with the seven human voices to produce the sounds of trains, lovely refrains and a sense of wonder.

Although I love music and enjoy theater, I tend to dislike musicals: From my perspective, this performance was a perfect blend of song and theater. Songs don’t feed the belly, but they feed the soul. Those who do not starve can still despair and in losing hope become part of that which kills them. With echoes of Harvey’s devastation of Houston and Trump’s destruction of America still present from the news of the day, I was able to bear witness to the mournful joys of yesterday’s news reframed with the possibility of artistic triumph. Individuals will lose, will suffer, will bleed, will die: The music that protests these events as unnecessary, framed by human greed and corruption, will outlast us all.

Guthrie remained an optimist throughout his career, which tempts listeners to translate lines like “I see a better world coming” as merely wishful thinking, especially given songs like “Deportees,” a beautiful moment in the production that needs no further comment in Trump’s America. But Guthrie also believed in incomplete narratives and the hope that could sing through that, all of which recontextualizes “This Land is Your Land” as a beautiful vision of American potential, a hope that should continue to orient us toward becoming better than the world into which we were born.

One would be hard pressed to find flaws in the artistry of the seven members of the ensemble, and the small space of the theater worked to create a sense of intimacy. Like folk music itself, the experience was simple but vastly transportive. The reminder of human hope is worth the drive to Amana and the ability to learn (or remember) Woody Guthrie’s genius and enduring influence as an architect of Antifascism.

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