MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 23

International Socialist Review, May–June 2002

Brian Jones

Travels with Karl Marx


From International Socialist Review, Issue 23, May–June 2002.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


Brian Jones chronicles his experiences performing Howard Zinn’s one-man play Marx in Soho across the country

House lights up part of the way ... Marx enters, wearing a black frock coat and vest, white shirt, black floppy tie ... He walks to the edge of the stage, looks out at the audience, and seems pleased, a little surprised.

I have to admit that I was a little nervous to have Howard Zinn on the phone. I was about to play Karl Marx in Zinn’s new one-man play, Marx in Soho. I had already been an active socialist for about five years, so I knew about Marx…that wasn’t a problem. But portray Marx? On stage?

I fancied myself a Marxist, but not Marx-like! Marx was German and Jewish, and I’m neither. Marx wasn’t going to be around to tell me if I got it wrong, but Zinn was. I decided to take the blunt approach.

“I’m 25 and I’m Black,” I warned him.

Zinn paused for about eight seconds. “Well, they did call him ‘Moor,’ you know.”

Turns out, Howard Zinn is an extraordinarily generous, warm, and especially humorous person. Marx’s famous phrase “nothing human is alien to me” could easily have been his. After some basic discussion of the play, and some guidance on my performance-to-be (“No German accent,” Zinn insisted. “I don’t want him to sound like a Nazi or a mad scientist!”), we arranged a rehearsal.

“Don’t you wonder: Why is it necessary to declare me dead again and again?”

With the green light from Zinn, I began rehearsing furiously in my one-bedroom apartment in East Boston. With tiny slits for windows, it was more of a bunker than an apartment, which was just as well, because I must have looked insane pacing back and forth yelling to myself and gesturing wildly.

After work one day, I picked up Howard and Roslyn Zinn from their home outside Boston, and we drove to Northeastern University to rehearse. You would be hard-pressed to find warmer people than the Zinns.

As we drove, I learned something about how the play had developed. Originally it was written with a proper “fourth wall”; the audience was peering into Marx’s life, in London, 150 years ago. Roz had suggested, “Wouldn’t it be better to have Marx here, with us, today? Commenting on modern society?”

Great idea. So Marx in Soho was reconceived to allow Marx to return to earth to defend himself, but by “bureaucratic error” up above, he is returned not to Soho, London, where he had lived, but to Soho, New York. The other characters were later removed, leaving the piece tighter and more unified.

“Did you ever have boils?”

I knew that the real Marx was no dandy, with his wild hair, booming voice, the famous beard, of course; I knew that as a student he had a reputation for drinking, and even brawling. Quite the philosopher!

Marx, his wife Jenny, and their children lived in poverty, mostly because Marx didn’t work, but instead devoted himself to writing and organizing. By all accounts, their house was incredibly crowded, filthy, and Marx was plagued by painful boils on his ass. He died penniless, but his contribution to the world was immense.

I was obsessed with the obvious physical differences between us. I was sure the audience would take one look at me and think: “What a fraud!” I had a large, tangled afro, which I was hoping would compensate for my tiny beard. Perhaps to overcompensate, I was determined to make my Marx not just brilliant, but thoroughly rough around the edges. I scoured the script for places to throw in a belch, a butt-scratch–the more uncouth, the better.

I burst into the tiny classroom where Howard, Roslyn, Anthony Arnove (the Marx in Soho book editor), and Susan Fitzgerald (a fellow member of the International Socialist Organization, ISO, with some directing experience) were waiting. I entered like a great ball of fire and raced through the play so fast, I left poor Howard speechless.

“You have great physicality,” Roslyn said, breaking the awkward silence at the end of my performance. There was no denying it: The show needed lots of work.

“Thank God, an audience!”

Lucky for me, my very first real audience was just about as eager as a performer could hope for. When you’re waiting backstage, and you hear the crowd chanting, “WE WANT MARX! WE WANT MARX!” I believe the correct term is “applaudience.” It was June 1999, and I was the evening’s entertainment at an annual socialist conference held in Chicago, hosted by the ISO.

That first audience taught me volumes about the show. My performance was still taking shape, and they found so much in the script that I hadn’t yet. I was riding a wave of boundless energy, laughing, hooting, and hollering. It was all so effortless, we were hanging out like old friends, slapping knees with our crazy ol’ uncle Karl.

Over the following weeks and months, as I honed the show in front of audiences large and small, rowdy or not, I held on to this feeling, this connection, and worked to recreate it every time.

“Jenny accused me of being an academic first, and a revolutionary second. She said: Forget your intellectual readers, address the workers.”

I pondered Zinn’s method. Zinn is a great popularizer of left-wing ideas. His book A People’s History of the United States has radicalized many thousands of people. The secret: Zinn has a deep respect for his audience, and they know it. You feel it instantly when you meet him. He speaks and writes not to impress, but to stimulate. He never talks down to you, never writes in language you can’t understand to make him seem smarter.

Making complicated ideas clear as glass, rescuing socialism from Stalin, and, yes, giving us a vision of Karl Marx that actually makes us laugh…these are the products of Zinn’s excellent method.

“You can spread the word: Marx is back!”

”Show me a little Marx.” Anthony Arnove was determined to make sure my performance was in top shape. We were, after all, about to open the show in Providence, Rhode Island, the first time Zinn would see me saying his lines in front of a paying audience, and the opening of a national tour sponsored by the ISR and South End Press (as a fundraiser for the former).

I hunched my back, let my voice fall into my throat, and muttered some lines. “Thank God, an audience.” I croaked.

Anthony had an idea: “We need to see more Brian.”

This simple piece of direction transformed the show. I’ll spare you the acting lesson, but suffice to say the more I played Karl closer to myself, the less I “put on” Marx, the more people testified to my powers of transformation.

We opened in October to a sold-out crowd of 200+. The response from the audience was fantastic, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. We had done the show with an audience that wasn’t packed with socialists, and we had succeeded. When the lights came up, one audience member was heard to say, “Well, I guess I’m a Marxist!”

We were still glowing when we got to the restaurant hours later. Zinn was elated. We crowded around a table, inhaling hamburgers and beer, and someone asked him whether A People’s History was going to be made into a documentary, as rumored.

”Funny you should ask,” he said. “The option on the book expires tonight.” The Fox Network had given him money to reserve the right to produce it, but their “option” had an expiration date. “I guess I should call my agent.”

Howard was instantly offered 10 cell phones. He chose one and dialed. His agent picked up, and Howard said hello. “How many times do I have to tell you not to call me ‘Howy-baby’!”

The option had expired, and no word from the producers. But this bad news didn’t bring us down. (HBO .has since decided to produce the .documentary!)

With some prodding, Howard regaled us with stories from the anti—Vietnam War movement. He told us about the demonstrations, the mass teach-ins (including some funny stories about eluding the FBI)–it was great to hear his fantastic firsthand accounts. We were all ears. We knew there was a growing feeling of anger in the U.S., which is part of why the play was such a hit, but it hadn’t yet found expression in much organized resistance.

As we toasted our success, and Marx’s return, we had no idea that, in just a few weeks, this anger would explode into action on the streets of Seattle, and things would shift sharply in our direction.

“The people of Paris formed not a government, but something more glorious, something governments everywhere fear, a commune, the collective energy of the people.”

In Washington, D.C., we got our first big break. The show was a tremendous success; the audience was filled with students, teachers, and even Teamsters! After the show, Zinn joined me on stage, and we entertained questions from the audience. One of the first questions came from a man who was clearly annoyed that Marx had been given 75 uninterrupted minutes to speak.

“Don’t you think that, given everything that has happened in the 20th century, Marxism has been massively discredited?” he asked, barely able to conceal his irritation.

Zinn turned to me. “Do you want to take this one?” I proceeded to reiterate what the play illustrates so well: the enormous gap between bureaucratic, Stalinist politics and Marxism, which is, at its heart, about working-class self-emancipation. I continued, “The free market is failing people in the U.S. and around the world. It has just melted the ‘Asian Tigers’ [Indonesia, Malaysia, etc., were called the “Asian Tigers” because their economies were growing so rapidly in the 1990s]. So now people in Indonesia who had a job in a Nike sweatshop don’t even have that–they’re boiling tree bark for food. I think capitalism has been massively discredited.”

He sat with arms folded, muttering an angry response, but by the applause, I would say the crowd preferred my angle on it.

After the show, a woman came up to me and explained that she was a public school teacher and she really enjoyed the show, but she had one question: “About the Paris Commune–did that really happen?”

Now, plenty of people probably think that Marx had a lot to say about what’s wrong with capitalism; but many fewer think he had any workable ideas about what could replace it. I love the part of the script that describes the Commune of 1871, when workers took control of Paris and ran it for themselves. It’s an amazing story that shows us a glimpse of what could happen if classes really were abolished. All decisions were made democratically, all officials were paid regular workers’ wages, education was offered to women (unheard of!) and was free for every child, workplaces shut down by employers were given over to the workers to run. “They stormed Heaven,” as Marx put it (see Marx’s Civil War in France).

Having performed Marx in Soho for thousands and thousands of people, it is clear to me that this is the most radical part of the play. This teacher’s question turned out to be the Number One Most Frequently Asked Question. “Did that really happen?”

It was not only the most frequently asked question, but the most important. If it really did happen, after all, it could happen again.

Most Frequently Asked Question Number Two: “Is that your real hair?”

When I got back to Boston, someone had e-mailed the Washington Post review to me. It was a big thumbs up! (See www.marxinsoho.com for excerpts.) The irony of the Post praising Marx wasn’t lost on us, but we knew this review meant more mainstream credibility and access to wider audiences. We took the ball and ran.

”Does that sound too radical for you? Remember, to be radical is simply to grasp the root of a problem.”

Class bitterness in American society, reflected privately in the 1980s as disgruntlement, became public in the 1990s, and a new space for radical ideas was opening up. The LA Rebellion, the UPS strike, the movements against police brutality and the death penalty, and now the famous “Battle of Seattle” had all served to re-legitimize protest, and millions began to question the ills of society, if not society as a whole. As an artist, I was struggling for a way to contribute to this process. I finally became an activist, though, because I felt that art by itself wouldn’t cause change.

I’ll never forget that night in 1994 when I watched a video called Struggle in the Heartland about locked-out AE Staley workers in Illinois. Their courage, their defiance, their determination moved me, and my small efforts to write radical plays seemed pale in comparison. People like Dan Lane and Lorell Patterson, workers featured in the video, had a huge impact on me. When I saw the way the police attacked them, beating them, gassing them, it didn’t take much insight to draw a connection to the Rodney King beating a few years earlier. That night I decided to join the ISO for one simple reason: to join the struggle.

I tell this story because in December 1999, we brought the show to Chicago. I walked on stage as Marx, and there, in the front row, was Dan Lane. I hadn’t seen his face in five years, but I recognized him instantly, and the performance took on a whole new meaning.

Here was Dan Lane, a working-class militant whose strike went down in defeat, but who had been transformed by the process, and in turn had inspired so many people, including me. I secretly studied his face all night and watched him chewing on the ideas.

After the show he shook my hand and offered congratulations, but it was the ISR’s associate editor Joel Geier who said the magic words: “You’re doing the Lord’s work.”

The book troubled her. Yes, Das Kapital…. Jenny reminded me what our trade union friend Peter Fox said when I gave him the book. ‘I feel like a man who’s been given an elephant for a gift.’”

Somehow word was getting out about the show, and I started getting calls for Marx and me to travel to all sorts of towns I’d never heard of. I took Marx in Soho to a Diversity Summit in Corvallis, to a high school in Great Barrington, to a union hall in Duluth.

Duluth is a tiny mining town in Minnesota, and quite a little hotbed of radicalism! I performed as part of a May Day celebration and to support some steelworkers who were locked out at the time. About 90 people showed up at the local “Labor Temple” that night, and from the minute I stepped onstage, I found myself in loving arms.

A local newspaper, Labor World, gave me an excellent review (in a regular column appropriately titled “A view from the ditch”), which focused less on me than on the politics of class warfare described in the play, and how those ideas specifically resonate in Duluth: layoffs and lockouts. The author concluded, “It really makes you wonder why more owners and managers don’t get taken out by the people whose lives they’ve ruined” (Larry Sillanpa, “A view from the ditch,” Labor World News, Wednesday, May 10, 2001).

I’ve noticed two things about the more working-class audiences. First, they connect to Marx the man, not just Marx the philosopher. They identify with his financial struggles, his bad health, his family conflicts. His problems are their problems. Marx looks back at his life, and we see the features of our lives–struggle and sacrifice. Second, they come to the theater to have a good time. They’re not afraid to open up and express themselves, to laugh, to cry.

If I had a dollar for every academic who watched this play with arms folded, I’d have a lot of dollars!

“Once we stayed up all night, drinking and arguing and drinking some more, until neither of us could walk. In fact, I fell asleep in the middle of one of Bakunin’s perorations. He shook me until I woke up, saying, ‘I haven’t finished my point.’”

As I traveled, I was performing mostly for college students, newly radicalized, reading Zinn and Noam Chomsky for the first time. Not surprisingly, many of them identified as anarchists. Under ordinary circumstances, they might have written off a “Marxist tightwad” such as myself, and perhaps I would have written off the “anarchist hooligans,” but Zinn’s play brought us together for 75 minutes to laugh at capitalism, to laugh at each other, and to just laugh.

In one section, Marx in Soho conjures up an imaginary meeting of Bakunin and Marx–they stay up all night, get drunk arguing politics, and end up wrestling on the floor! It’s a hoot. But there’s a grain of truth, which is that there was a fierce debate between Marx and Bakunin, and there is a debate in the movements today between anarchist ideas and Marxist ones.

Show after show, I found that invariably there would be a group of young anarchists who wanted to stay up all night, drinking and arguing politics with me! Life imitates art! I’ll never forget those wonderful sessions in Amherst, Simons Rock, Burlington (more Greens than anarchists there), and countless other towns, debating everything from the best ways to fight racism, to whether or not animals have rights, to strategies for world revolution.

I was always impressed with their seriousness and level of personal commitment. Having already decided to devote their lives to the struggle, they really took to heart questions posed by the play. I remember distinctly a self-described “eco-anarchist” asking me (at 3 a.m.!), “I hear what you’re saying about the working class, but I’m not from the working-class, so what can I do?”

I felt we were turning a corner in the debate, so I considered my response carefully. “It’s not what class you’re from that matters,” I told him, “it’s what class you’re for.”

I wrote to Howard about my adventures. He replied,

Dear Brian:

You are making theater history! Did Marlon Brando sit up until 3 a.m. with members of his audience discussing socialism? No–he went to sleep.

Reads from a paper: ‘A hundred thousand people lined up before dawn in New York City for two thousand jobs. What will happen to the ninety-eight thousand who are turned away? Is that why you’re building more prisons?’”

It wasn’t Soho, but it was Broadway, or off-off-off-off-off-off-Broadway to be precise. We found a 99-seat theatre on 44th street and ran for two weeks in New York. We sold out every show. Opening night wasn’t my best show, to be honest, but the audience enjoyed it, and the day as a whole was a success.

That morning, Zinn and I met downtown in the WBAI studios to record an interview with Amy Goodman, which went very well and definitely helped to put Marx in Soho on the map. Best of all, Zinn was proud of the hard work we had put into the tour. He joined me onstage after the lights came up and told the audience, “Only a group such as the ISO, with its tentacles everywhere [laughter], could put on such a successful tour.”

This was April 2000, and I hadn’t worked a “day job” since November, so I was beginning to feel like a real actor, but I was also beginning to miss my coworkers, my comrades in Boston, my regular life. I was rootless, an itinerant performer who dressed up as Karl Marx for a living when I wasn’t flying over the world at 30,000 feet. At the same time, everywhere I went, I definitely felt I was making a difference. I felt that the show was both a product of and a contribution to the new radicalization.

After one Sunday matinee in New York, I went downstairs to relax at the bar, and a group of people came up to me who had just seen the show. “We just had to tell you,” they beamed, “when the lights came up, we all looked at each other and said, ‘We have to go’”–to the April 16 demonstration against the World Bank meeting in Washington, D.C. The Lord’s work indeed!

“I said to Bakunin: ‘Do you want to know what I mean by the dictatorship of the proletariat? Look at the Commune of Paris. That is true democracy.’ Not the democracy of England or America, where elections are circuses, with people voting for one or another guardian of the old order, where whatever candidate wins, the rich go on ruling the country.”

The days leading up to opening night in Boston were sheer terror. Here we were, opening Zinn’s new play in Zinn’s hometown, and we could count our advance ticket sales on two hands. Out of desperation, Anthony suggested that I dress up as Marx and ride the subways handing out flyers. Can you imagine? “Excuse me, ma’am, I’m Karl Marx, and I’m telling jokes and criticizing capitalism Thursdays through Saturdays at eight, and Sundays at two. Please come, I’m quite funny…really.”

Fortunately for me, that never happened.

Opening night I arrived about five hours early, to work and rework the very first lines of the play. The beginning just never seemed to gel, and it bothered me. Howard, Roz, Anthony, and I rehearsed for hours the day before, but it still wasn’t clicking. Finally, I discovered a tighter way to block it (”blocking” is theatre-speak for the movement of actors on stage). I showed it to Howard about an hour before curtain, he approved, and I’ve stayed with it ever since.

It seems like a small thing, but in a one-man show every detail can mean the difference between holding the audience’s attention or losing it. In film, the camera controls what you, the audience, can see, and what you can’t. Focus is completely controlled for you. In live theatre, the audience can look at whatever they like, and the burden is on the performer to create focus.

In Boston, starting with the opening lines of the play, I learned to create focus by making my physical motion extremely specific. Sometimes I wouldn’t move at all, and the audience would be riveted to my finger or to the slightest glance of my eye. I learned to control their focus. Ironically, the show became more animated, more vaudevillian, as I experimented to see what I could get away with.

Previously, I had somehow convinced myself that everyone wanted to see the most naturalized, “realistic” Marx possible, but the Boston run taught me to use my physicality to heighten the play, to make it beyond natural, better than natural. The paradox (again) was that the more I stylized Marx, the more real he became to the audience. I suppose they don’t call it a “play” for nothing!

Opening night we packed as many people into the seats as we possibly could and turned the rest away. We did the same thing night after night for two weeks.

It was a wild time for Marx to return. First Ralph Nader wasn’t allowed into the presidential debates, then the ballots were missing, then there was a scandal brewing about Black people being turned away from the polls. For days we didn’t know who was going to be president! I found I got a nice laugh after the line, “Not the democracy of England or America, where elections are circuses,” by adding a slight pause and a definite wink.

Let’s just speak of using the incredible wealth of the earth for human beings. Give people what they need: food, medicine, clean air, pure water, trees and grass, pleasant homes to live in, some hours of work, more hours of leisure. Don’t ask who deserves it. Every human being deserves it.”

I was doing so many one-off shows–fly in, do a sound check, do the show, fly out–that while parts of the show started to really shine, the performance as a whole was still not as crafted, as well-cooked as it needed to be. I didn’t have an opportunity to stay in one place long enough to cook it until I met Frank Fried.

Frank Fried, who saw the play when it first came to the Bay Area for a weekend in November 1999, is a producer, but more than that, he is a socialist and has become an important friend and mentor to me. Frank has a lifetime of stories from the movement that never fail to impress. “I didn’t sign up to be a summer soldier,” he would always say.

Frank was a steelworker-turned-superstar music producer, right when folk music was exploding and was about to become rock and roll. He had seen the dark days of McCarthyism, the social explosions of the 1960s and 1970s (he was very active in the Civil Rights Movement), and their retreat again in the 1980s, and still hadn’t given up on the dream. The “Folk King” long ago retired from the Pete Seegers and Bob Dylans of the world to take up pet projects…films, books, and, yes, Marx in Soho!

Somehow Frank convinced Adam Hochschild and Alice Walker, authors of King Leopold’s Ghost and The Color Purple, respectively, to sign on as co-producers of Marx in Soho in San Francisco. We ran for a month in Theatre Artaud, and in that time, I think we counted that approximately 2,400 people came to see the play!

Always the shrewd businessperson, Frank sold tickets to groups like the Green Party, various unions, and left-wing formations; they were given a discount and allowed to use the show as a fundraiser. One such group was Speak Out!, an agency that books engagements for progressive speakers and artists. They immediately embraced the show, adding Marx in Soho to their catalog. Overall, our publicity was quite widespread, and we ended up getting a very broad turnout beyond the “usual suspects.”

It was a gift just to be able to do the show in the same place day after day in front of so many audiences. In hindsight, it’s clear we had rented way too much space. I had audiences of 250 some nights, and 13 others. However, this forced me to develop a more consistent performance. I wanted to achieve the same feeling of playfulness, the same energy, the exact same connection with the audience, regardless of its number.

Basically, I was lucky enough to meet probably the only producer in the United States with revolutionary politics, and he gave me the opportunity to take the show to the next level. I earned some excellent notices; the San Francisco Bay Guardian gave us “Pick of the Week,” and even AOL’s local reviewer approved! Best of all, I got to meet Alice Walker, who told me, “For a minute there, I thought I saw Marx.” I’ll take it.

The fact is, to do it right, art requires time, energy, and resources. Our society really only has a tiny number of people who are able to give their full attention to making art. The rest of us have to borrow time after work, on the subway, on the weekends, stealing time here or there to dabble. To me, this is a great tragedy.

I used to teach acting to elementary school children during my summers, and I always swore that my students were the most talented humans I’d ever met. Of course, it’s not just my students–ALL OF US have talents and abilities that far exceed what we’re given the resources to develop. How many Shakespeares spend their whole lives picking grapes? How many Coltranes never hold a saxophone to their lips? As an artist, I look forward to a society where the enormous human potential squandered under capitalism is finally set free.

As Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote in Literature and Revolution, “Social construction and psycho-physical self-education will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts–literature, drama, painting, music and architecture–will lend this process a beautiful form ... The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or, a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.”

Can we even imagine the result?

Is there anything more outrageous than an honest critic?”

I can’t tell you how many times I would arrive in a city, and my hosts would spend every minute between the airport and the theatre apologizing in advance for the ultraconservative audience I was about to encounter and the inevitable low turnout. “We haven’t had a protest or even a picket at this campus in 10 years! Maybe 20 years! Maybe never!”

The messengers of doom picked me up recently at the airport for a show at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. “Eighty percent of the campus voted for Bush,” I was warned even before my bags were loaded into the car. “Not 80 percent of those that voted, but actually 80 percent of the campus!

Now, granted, it was true that this was an extremely conservative campus, but 250 people came out to see the play, including the entire Wake Forest tennis team! And if laughter and applause are any indication, I’d say they weren’t exactly plotting my assassination.


Marx in Soho took plenty of people by surprise. Theatre owners would nod politely, “A play about Marx? Back from the dead? Sounds like a hit.” As they took our deposit money, they were already imagining our failure. But it was always worth it, though, to see the look of sheer astonishment on their faces as audiences poured into our modest spaces night after night. Meanwhile, shows right next door, really fantastic shows, struggled to build an audience. People wanted to know our secret. We were tapping into something, and everyone knew it.

But not everyone liked it.

At a conference in Massachusetts called “Rethinking Marxism,” the general reception was warm, except for one chap, who raised his hand during the question-and-answer session after the show and declared my performance “wonderful, but bourgeois, and oppressive.”

My crime? I had made use of the bourgeois mode of theatre–active performer, passive audience–instead of breaking it. Had he given me an opportunity to respond (he interrupted me over and over again for several minutes!), I would have told him that I thought his critique was valid, but that even in a future socialist society, people will probably still enjoy the “bourgeois” mode of art–watching, listening, etc., to someone else’s work.

As for “oppressive,” I think our lack of social power is oppressive, our lack of control over our own daily lives is oppressive–my performance is not. However, I look forward to the day when we do have social power, when production for someone else’s profit is just a page in a history book, and working people everywhere are given the time, money, and opportunity to create thousands, millions, of new modes of experiencing art, which will no doubt put ours to shame.

However, I wouldn’t fancy myself so brilliant as to be able to imagine ahead of time what those modes might be, and I certainly wouldn’t demand that artists today adhere to them. (Someone told me in the hall afterward that my attacker was the leader of the San Francisco Mime Troupe! Here I was thinking that I was a part of the radical theatre scene!)

Worse was a review I received in San Francisco from an anonymous critic. I arrived in my dressing area one evening before the show and found something unusual.

If you haven’t seen the show, you should know that every night, while performing, I drink a beer (it’s in the script!). As I was getting my props ready on this particular night, I found my beer mug already full. Had I forgotten to wash it the night before? This was extremely unlikely, since I meticulously washed the mug after every show. I took a closer look, lifted the mug to the light, and noticed that the yellow liquid inside lacked carbonation.

It wasn’t beer.

“Yes I see the luxuries advertised in your magazines and on your screens.” Sighs. “Yes, all those screens with all those pictures. You see so much and know so little!”

By the time we brought Marx in Soho to Hollywood, I had already performed the show 58 times in 18 different cities for approximately 7,500 people. We nervously rented a small theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard for three weeks, 12 shows. We knew Zinn was well known on the East Coast, but the West Coast? Plus, everyone was warning us how impossible it is to get people to see theatre in Los Angeles. We braced ourselves for disaster.

Well, we sold so many tickets that we ended up extending the run twice, for a grand total of 32 shows over eight weeks! It’s the biggest triumph of the tour thus far, and the credit is due to all of the people who worked so hard to make it happen.

Walking from my car to the theatre, I could see the “Hollywood” sign up in the hills. “Now,” I thought, “I’m a real actor!” As it turned out, the critics didn’t disagree.

We were lucky to have the assistance of a progressive publicist, who, most importantly, got critics to show up. A few dribbled in during our opening week, but when the second weekend rolled around, we opened up the LA Weekly to discover Marx in Soho was the “Pick of the Week”! This brought lots of attention to the show, and we ended up getting reviewed by people who probably wouldn’t have given us the time of day otherwise. I started noticing audience members with perfect tans, wearing really expensive suits. This new crowd never seemed to get the jokes, though.

It was a feeling of victory that Howard Zinn had given us this wonderfully radical play about Karl Marx, and that we, a small but energetic group of revolutionaries, had produced it ourselves, astonished everyone by packing the theatre and extending the run, and, on top of it all, that we were “Pick of the Week” in Tinseltown. Not bad.

It wasn’t my big break into fame and stardom. I received exactly one offer during that time: to play Lucifer in a play written and to be directed by a woman who worshipped Lucifer.

I declined.

“Is there anything more boring than reading political economy?”

When they first asked me to play Marx for the ISO summer conference, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was actually reluctant. Looking back, it’s obvious the experience has transformed my life.

It’s an honor to work with such wonderful people and to be able to perform such a fantastic script. Every performance is a thrill.

But it’s more than that. Marx was, and Zinn is, motivated by the same dream: human freedom. It’s my dream too.

Which brings me to the Third Most Frequently Asked Question: “Don’t you get bored doing the same play over and over again?”

The answer: You’ve got to be kidding.


Special thanks to South End Press and the International Socialist Review.

There are too many individuals to list, but I would like to thank everyone who worked hard to produce Marx in Soho far and wide. However, without the following people, almost none of what you just read would have ever happened: Sue Fitzgerald, Ben Dalbey, Sue Sandlin, Brian Belknap, Andy Libson, Helen Redmond, Amy Muldoon, Aileen Paguio, Robert Kosuth, Alpana Mehta, Lisa Cordner, Larry Johnson, Joe Smith, Barbara Jones, Ashley Smith, Shaun McCollum, Nagesh Rao, Sara Cody, Dasha Haas, Evan Kornfeld, Tim Koch, Maribel Molina, Joan Sekler, Bill Neal, Bill Donoghue, Todd Chretien, Katya Min and everyone at Speak Out!, Frank and Alice Fried, Julie Fain, Anthony Arnove, Howard and Roslyn Zinn, Jenny and Karl Marx

Last updated on 15 August 2022