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"Great Man" Theory? History Is Driven by the Little Guy

Posted: 12/11/09 08:56 AM ET

Actors have the privilege of exploring fictional characters, to see the world from the perspective of another person's imagined life. Sometimes, usually less often, we have the opportunity to speak the words of historical figures, to say the words they themselves spoke. This presents a different kind of challenge, in many ways, something I have been thinking about personally since becoming involved with a performance project and now documentary film called The People Speak, which is airing on History Channel, Sunday, December 13, at 8 pm (7 pm Central). (A soundtrack of music from the film is available from the Verve label December 9.)

The project is inspired by Howard Zinn's books A People's History of the United States and, with Anthony Arnove, Voices of a People's History of the United States, two books that have had a deep influence on how I understand this country. Howard's books provide a history of the United States from below, from the standpoint of ordinary people often overlooked in our textbooks and in our culture.

In 2005, I had the chance to be part of reading in Los Angeles with a remarkable lineup of actors, including Sandra Oh and Josh Brolin, which we called Voices of a People's History of the United States. The enthusiastic reaction of the audience to hearing the words of people in our country's history who have spoken out, fought injustice, and made a change, demonstrated how empowering it can be for people to reclaim this history and to make it their own. And how enlightening it is to shine the light of history on the issues and concerns of the present.

The success of these performances throughout the country -- some in high schools and some in theaters, some with professional actors and musicians, some with high school students -- led a few of us to think that we should make a film that could highlight and preserve these stories. The stories of people like Plough Jogger, a farmer in Shay's Rebellion, who asserted "We've come to relieve the distresses of the people."

Or an anonymous member of the Industrial Workers of the World who was arrested for denouncing World War One, saying, "This war is a businessman's war and we don't see why we should go out and get shot in order to save the lovely state of affairs which we now enjoy."

Or Orlando and Phyllis Rodriguez, who lost their son on 9/11, and issued this heartfelt statement a few days after: "Our son died a victim of an inhuman ideology. Our actions should not serve the same purpose. Let us grieve. Let us reflect and pray. Let us think about a rational response that brings real peace and justice to our world. But let us not as a nation add to the inhumanity of our times."

What we have found in making this film over the past two years is that people respond to these voices is profoundly personal and emotional ways. They take inspiration from seeing how people struggled in the past, often against far greater odds than we face today, to make their voices heard and to right historic wrongs. They find insight from these expressions of the past into how they feel and live in the present. And they also find hope for a different future.

As Howard Zinn has often pointed out, history told from above -- from the standpoint of generals and kings and presidents -- encourages passivity, a sense of helplessness. In this version of history, "great men" make history, not ordinary people. But looked at from below, history has another lesson. Whenever change as happened, it has been through protest, dissent, struggle, social movements, ordinary people picketing, striking, boycotting, sitting down, sitting in. All this mans that we make history, history is effected by our everyday decisions. And we have a responsibility to speak out when we see injustice. We can't wait on others to "lead" us or solve our problems for us. We have to participate, to engage, every day and not just once every four years.

Howard Zinn's work also reminds us that we always need to ask: what stories am I not hearing? Whose voices am I not hearing? And that if no one is telling our stories, we need to find ways -- creative, dynamic -- ways of telling them ourselves.