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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Five Questions We Asked During Hair, None of Which Concern the Nudity

Posted By on Wed, Nov 2, 2011 at 8:35 AM

Not just agitators for sunshine. - JOHN MARCUS
  • John Marcus
  • Not just agitators for sunshine.

You probably already know whether you want to see the rousing and athletic revival of Hair that pulled up to the Golden Gate Theatre last week. Having seen the show, we can say this: If you think you might enjoy Hair, you will almost certainly enjoy Hair, which is well sung, excitingly danced, and -- before it gets dark in its superior second half -- is as infectiously likable as a big ol' happy puppy.

If you think you won't, and that it will be a bunch of hippy-dippy nonsense, and that the show has nothing to tell us about today -- well, maybe we can help. Here are five questions we kept asking during SHN's revival of Hair.

1. Did Hair Ever Offer Urgent Cultural News?

In the almost 45 years since its debut, Hair and its opening number "The Age of Aquarius" have become cultural shorthand for our idea of what hippies were like: peace, love, beads, flares. Pot and astrology. Silly names like Starshine and Moonbeam, a tendency that the Golden Gate staff emphasizes by handing audience members stick-on nametags emblazoned with a "hippie name," which might be fun but also contributes to the general feeling that these hippies are not to be taken seriously -- and also, incidentally, makes it look like all these nametag people are Golden Gate Theatre volunteers who should be able to tell you if there's another bathroom.

But the show itself hails from '67, so it isn't the '60s equivalent of Grease's go-nowhere nostalgia. Its most arresting passages involve these kids explaining exactly why they feel so alienated from the four-square Eisenhower-looking America that they rejected. Margaret Mead -- played as a grand drag joke by Will Blum, who delights -- even turns up to quiz them directly. Turns out, kids didn't like being shoved for no good reason into the slaughterhouse of Indochina.

We know this now, and Hair's meager plotting suffers as a result. The protagonist Claude (Paris Remillard) is a bit of a moony dope, and the drama surrounding his draft notice seems by-the-numbers to us, now -- it's TV-movie stuff. But in '67 this shit was news.

2. Could Hair Offer Urgent Cultural News Today?

Good Lord, yes. Have you heard those establishment news anchors complain that the Occupiers haven't made their demands clear? Hair's few scenes with grownups emphasize the failure of many grownups to understand their kids' alienation -- a failure that at times seems to be a refusal. That's happening now, except this those confused parents are out of work.

There's references to cops chucking tear gas at protesters. Then there's the haunting final tableau -- by far the show's most powerful moment -- of a horrifying truth that our government now protects us from: a flag-draped coffin sent home from the war. Yes, Hair has thin characters, a number of shoddy pop tunes, and a preening sense of self importance -- but it also dares to show us what our news media won't. Over the past decade, we could have used many more revivals.

Also, the show's portrayal of hippies is not free of criticism. Steel Burkhardt plays head-hippie Berger with a remarkable brawling grace and charisma -- but he also reveals Berger's off-putting machismo and self-regard. Even in their Aquarian garb, the women here struggle to be more than playthings for the men, and all the bickering over romantic relationships, while dull dramatically, is at least revealing: If there's any accuracy to this depiction of the battle between the sexes in '67, it's little wonder that the women's movement was separate from the anti-war movement.

3. Has Anyone Involved with Hair Ever Smoked Pot?

After intermission, Hair unleashes a full-on drug trip, a trippy suite of dancing and terror complete with an extravagant light show, sitar-like guitar noodling, paranoid hallucinations, and cameo appearances from Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth, both of whose race and gender is amusingly pretzled.

All this seems to come from one character dragging off one joint.

4. Could the Racial Stuff Be Any Freakier?

No, it couldn't. A year before James Brown dared to shout "I'm black, and I'm proud," Hair's African-American actors were singing "I'm Black," a fiery account of being broke, oprhaned, and counted out in American life. Then there's the girl-group mashups "Black Boys" and "White Boys," wherein (first) white girls and (second) black girls celebrate the sexy yin of their own sexy yangs. Then there's the bit where a black, female Abraham Lincoln freaks out and shouts, "A nigger!" Then there's everybody singing about living in "niggertown," which is hard to make out what with all the voices and the howling band and everything.

That's some cultural news. When America's racial tensions were more raw and on the surface -- when people didn't try to pretend it didn't exist -- American art more openly dared to burlesque them. This is fascinating, and it will probably make some audiences uncomfortable.

5. Will I Be Able to Get These Songs Out of My Head Soon?

No. For three days following the show, that "Let the sunshine in" refrain wormed its way into my life like Jiminy Cricket did Pinnochio's.

Hair continues through Nov. 20 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor (at Market), S.F. Call 551-2000 or visit

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Alan Scherstuhl


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