Justin @ ‘Vivian's Music, 1969’ - I got curious

What’s it about?

Vivian has just turned 14, a lover of all things jazz and pretty sure that local jazz musician Luigi is her father. Luigi is desperately trying to keep the music hall he inherited open against a mounting tax pile. Both happen to find themselves on the wrong side of the Black Power Movement in Omaha.

My experience.

I found out about this show during its first Off-Broadway run. A college buddy of mine, Max Waters, was the stage manager for it. Then it went to Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Then it came back here for another run at 59E59 and my boy got brought back as stage manager. I knew nothing about this play, I was just going to support my buddy.

And I was taken for an absolute ride in every way, because I didn’t expect it to be a simple black-box show. Small stage, no props aside from one chair that never leaves the stage, two actors. Not two characters, though. Even though the play is presented as two characters effectively monologuing (is that a word?) for 90 minutes, they uniquely portrayed so many characters that it was honestly easy to forget their main characters. There were times when it seemed like I was watching a play about Old George, not Luigi.

You never lose track of Vivian though. Luigi often gets lost in the characters in his story before shifting back to himself. But that’s because he’s a born liar. Sections of his monologues are about how he’s spent his life lying to white folk, how his name isn’t even Luigi, which I noticed even more so since my particular audience featured a good chunk of old, white folk. Luigi, it feels like, spends just as much time talking as others as he does as himself. But Vivian is at the forefront of her monologues, even when she’s quoting others. They want you to remember who she is, the way she talks, the way she thinks. They want you to know who she is when they shoot her.

I got curious.

What happened in Omaha in 1969?

Vivian Strong was a real 14-year-old girl who lived in Omaha in the summer of 1969. Vivian Strong was a real 14-year-old who was shot in the back of the head by police for not even an excuse of a reason. Just look up “Vivian Strong Omaha” and you’ll find the details, same as me. Seems there was a party. Seems the police got a call about a possible robbery. Seems the police decided to shoot her. And they did. The riots came after.

But that was when I was walking across Central Park, I looked all that up. At the ending of this play, Luigi is asked, when faced with the death of Vivian, if he thinks the world needs more musicians, not revolutionaries. Luigi responds by putting on a jazz record, Vivian’s favorite, and playing it all night before reopening the jazz club. And, while sitting at 59E59’s bar, chatting with my buddy the stage manager and the actors briefly, and some other folks, I was thinking about this ending. On my walk across Central Park back to my train, I found out about Vivian Strong’s fateful June day in 1969. Then you know what I did? I pulled out the novel I brought with me, Star Wars Battlefront: Twilight Company, and I read on the train ride home.

I am white enough to acknowledge that I don’t gotta worry about a lot. The Puerto Rican in me is basically crippled by All This Irish™. But, if I had to answer why we need musicians and artists at all in times like that—or like this—it’s because they can let you smile, come together and take a break. We see plays like Vivian’s Music, 1969 because we want that 90-minute break from the outside world, no matter what tragedies the play presents us with. We can marvel at the wonder of a production like Vivian’s Music, 1969 and love the actors and the direction and the stage management. We can smile and laugh through it. It brings everyone together for a moment so that we can collectively remember that Vivian Strong was a 14-year-old girl who lived in 1969, and Vivian Strong was a 14-year-old girl who died in 1969.

Now Closed. No worries we gotchu!

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