Back in 1968, I stood outside a Broadway theater where “Hair” was playing and began to cry. My husband and I had just seen the play and were heading to Mamma Leone’s for dinner when I had an immediate need to feel despondent about my large body after seeing the svelte women dancing, at times nude, in the musical. I was eight-months pregnant. Eventually, my thinner figure would emerge and my hormone levels would subside. In fact, my husband and I saw “Hair” a second time after my son was born. I didn’t cry afterwards.
At the time, “Hair” was shocking to audiences: full of profanities, free love, drug use, criticism of the Vietnam war and disrespectful treatment of the American flag, and nudity. The NYTs critic Clive Barnes called it “the frankest show in town.” But it was also honest, touching, thought provoking and liberating. We bought the album and played the music many times afterwards.
The play has had many revivals over the years with improvised political updates. But the staging at Theater 55 in Minneapolis may be the only one with a cast of performers from 50 to 70 years of age. Richard Hitchler, who founded Theater 55, says that it is a venue to address the fact that baby boomers “are a significant proportion of theater audiences but a fraction of those working on the stage . . .” Had I sat in the audience watching the balding males and saggy-breasted women, I would not have had the melt-down I had 50 years ago.
However, I am writing this post now as the 76-year-old that I am and rejoicing in the fact that there is a Theater 55 that values older actors. While “Hair” is a “show about youth,” the mostly sold out 11 performances proved older bodies were not a turn off. While the actors had various stage experience, they were all open to taking a chance on doing something new and making a statement.
One of the cast members, Brenda Starr, 70, suffered a heart attack a month before opening night. The cardiac event was not a setback. “Ms. Starr lived through the civil rights movement and sees Theater 55’s work as another front in the battle for social justice. ‘We’re making a statement,’ she said. ‘We’re not willing to accept the status quo and the social constructs about aging. We’re not people to be put away or dismissed.’” Dominic P. Papatola, “The Aged of Aquarius,” New York Times, 9 February. 2019: 2.
Using an older cast in “Hair” required some adjustments. For example, in the nude scene, participation was based on individual choice. However, Mr. Hitchler said that the decision was not out of modesty but because “not everyone can get undressed that quickly.”
Let’s hope that more theater companies recognize and use talented older adults in future shows, nudity aside.