Call Studs Terkel a kind of documentarian Dickens. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants (1912-2008) interviewed hundreds of Americans from diverse ethnic origins and financial conditions in a wide-ranging 1970 exploration of the impact of the Great Depression. Now actor-director Tim Robbins and the Actors’ Gang Theater Company have culled a cross-section of subjects from Terkel’s ground-breaking oral history “Hard Times” (A title calling to mind Dickens’1854 serialized novel of the same name) in three stand-alone parts. “We Live On,” presented on Zoom, serves not only as a tribute to the master interviewer but also as a very timely look at the ways in which his interviewees’ insights – both disturbing and inspiring – resonate today.
Their responses – with informative updates about the subjects – center on employment issues, family and individual concerns, organized labor, women’s struggles, the 1929 crash, the Depression itself, and the New Deal. Director Robbins and the Actors’ Gang have put together a fascinating combination of talking heads, photo footage and iconic songs. In addition to strong efforts from talented actors, the three parts feature relatives delivering some of the narratives. These generational connections add to the title’s implication that the subjects’ stories still have meaning in our own times.
The contemporary impact becomes apparent early in the opening segment. As a hardworking, laid-off African-American, Louis Banks was arrested for vagrancy and sentenced to work on a chain gang. Jeronimo Sphinx brings immediacy and intensity to Banks’ ordeal. Morton De Vries, a Herbert Hoover supporter, blamed the victims of the Depression for FDR’s relief programs – just as many Americans today fault jobless workers for accepting assistance through the Biden rescue plan. The unflinching narrative speaks of Americans being illegally deported during the 1930s – an injustice that may call to mind the Obama administration’s deportations and the separation of children from parents during the Trump presidency.
Women fighting sexist injustice come to the fore in the saga of labor organizer Evelyn Finn, who led sit-ins and pushed for suits with union labels. Jeanette Horn brings Finn’s tenacity to life.
In contrast to Finn, repo man Harry Hartman is a more ambiguous protagonist. On the one hand, he participated in an eviction and left poor people without furniture and sleeping on the floor. On the other hand, he purposely claimed some beds were not healthy so he could give them to children. Vincent Foster does well conveying the story of Hartman’s conflicted feelings and actions.
Throughout “We Live On,” multi-talented Cameron Dye sings representative songs with fine feeling and accompanies himself on guitar and harmonica.
The third part, “We Shall Not Be Moved,” endorses opposition to evictions, and women march to the anthem “Bread and Roses.” Lyrical poetry looms in memorable lines from Harlem Renaissance giant Langston Hughes. Cyrus Roberts catches the beauty and poignancy of Hughes’ verses. Cady Zuckerman brings engaging affection to the narrative of New York activist Larry Zuckerman and matriarch Charlotte Zuckerman, who escaped a pogrom. Terkel wrote about ordinary people doing extraordinary things and insisted they “must count.” Robbins and the Actors’ Gang cast, in “We Live On,” do just that.
Tickets and schedule information at BoxOffice@TheActorsGang.com.