|John Malpede: Art and Citizenship // About the Project
Project Description & History · John Malpede · Reconsidering the War on Poverty · About RFK's 1968 Tour ·
"Be it Remembered" - Pages from the original transcripts · Announcement Press Conference
Malpede is a director, actor, and writer who has collaborated with dancers, poets, videographers, painters and architects, and has taught at UCLA Dept. Dance / World Arts and Cultures; NYU Tisch School of the Arts , Dept. Undergraduate Drama; and The Amsterdam School for Advanced Research in Theater and Dance (DasArts)-MFA Director's Program; and California College of Arts and Crafts, MFA Visual Arts program. His individual artist fellowships include grants from New York State Council on the Arts, NEA, and California Arts Council. In 1985, he founded and continues to direct, the Los Angeles Poverty Department, a community theater for people living in Los Angeles ' inner city. He has received Dance Theater Workshop's (NYC) Bessie Creation Award; San Francisco Art Institute's Adeline Kent Award; and a Theater LA Ovation Award, as well as numerous government and foundation project grants. He has recently been featured in five video works by Bill Viola and as Antonin Artaud in Peter Sellars- Vienna Festival production of Artaud / Jordan . He has been working with Appalshop for three years in the research, development and production of RFK in EKY.
RFK in EKY: Artist's Statement
I’m committed to this project: RFK in EKY. I’ve worked on this project for four years and during that time learned much from the implications of my original concept.
A starting point for me was to create performance work that connected lived experience to the social forces that helped to significantly shape and determine that experience. I decided to use government transcripts as “ found texts” to be performed by community members. The issues at stake are important to the performers. As a director, I’m not looking to collapse or disappear the performer into their character. In this instance Bobby Kennedy will speak with a Kentucky rather than a Boston accent. The performers play themselves in the situation, and the situation is one they have a personal stake in, which registers in performance.
Robert Kennedy’s official Senate Committee “field hearing” was one in a series of field hearings (others were held in the Mississippi Delta, California’s Central Valley and on a native American reservation in New Mexico). The intent of these hearings was to build a national constituency for a second round of antipoverty legislation in the US Congress. RFK’s visit to eastern Kentucky was a carefully constructed event that provided a platform for local reformers. As the hearing transcripts evidence, this opportunity was embraced by local activists. Because this was RFK’s strategy, in “RFK in EKY”, today’s citizens play not only policy makers, but also the engaged, active citizens of 1968.
RFK made stops in eight communities, during his two days in eastern Kentucky. Only two of these stops, (Vortex and Fleming-Neon) were the sites of Senate Field Hearings. The entire visit was extensively covered by print and broadcast media. Nevertheless, there are major omissions and inconsistencies in these journalistic accounts. In constructing a script for these events, I’m relying heavily on first person accounts gathered by myself and others working on the project. I’ve gathered numerous first person accounts during formal (for the video camera) and informal (talking with people while traveling the route) interviews. Many project activities are designed to gather this information: including working with college composition, and history classes, with students interviewing family and community members who were present. Memorabilia collecting events, in which stories are collected while digitally collecting the memorabilia. I’m working interactively with current theater students and the sociology professor who hosted RFK’s visit to Alice Lloyd College, in reconstructing what happened there.
Because of Robert Kennedy’s public appeal this production engages people on many levels. As the brother and right hand man of the beloved and martyred president, RFK was highly esteemed and millions had shared in his grief. Indeed time and again, people have framed RFK’s visit and the twin assassinations of the Kennedys as pivotal moments: moments of hope and hopelessness. It’s amazing how often “hope / hopelessness” is the scale along which RFK is remembered. Time and again people have told me how their lives were changed: how these events caused them to engage with or retreat from public life.
Many people have announced themselves proudly as Republicans, but as Republicans who would have voted for Kennedy if they’d had the chance. I’m continually amazed by the passionate connection felt by so many different people for Robert Kennedy and by how widespread the enthusiasm is for this project. It makes this a special opportunity for engaging the community across differences in a collective effort, which includes assessing the needs and concerns of the community today.
Many of the concerns of 1968 are present today in recognizable and unrecognizable fashion, including environment, economic stagnation, the quality of education and local government. In 1968 hunger was an issue, today poor diet is registered in extremely high levels of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Even the war issue - guns vs butter is uncannily present.
As I’ve worked on the project, I’ve become aware of other artists also interested in historical recreations and documentary theater, and for similar reasons. To tell an alternative history. To retrieve history from the realm of nostalgia and cultural heritage and to inject it with critical thinking.
Unlike, just about every ‘historical recreation’ I’m aware of, this project is not about recreating a battle, or any other kind of violence. It’s about ideas. The force of ideas and about the history of ideas. It’s about the problems confronting the region then and now. Its about social policies of the sixties and now . And ultimately it’s about the level of political dialogue then and now. And for that reason it’s simultaneously heart breaking and elevating.
NEXT: Reconsidering the War on Poverty