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San Diego Repertory Theatre Presents World Premier Production Of 'Steal Heaven'

Playwright Herbert Siguenza, who plays late activist Abbie Hoffman in the play "Steal Heaven," is shown.
Daren Scott
Playwright Herbert Siguenza, who plays late activist Abbie Hoffman in the play "Steal Heaven," is shown.
San Diego Repertory Theatre Presents World Premier Production Of 'Steal Heaven'

The 1960s were a unique time in the U.S. A time when students took over administration buildings and parents no longer understood the politics of their kids.

Mass demonstrations filled Washington, D.C., and Vietnam War protesters almost caused a presidential convention to shut down in Chicago.

San Diego Repertory Theatre Presents World Premier Production Of 'Steal Heaven'
San Diego REP Presents World Premier Production "Steal Heaven" GUESTSHerbert Siguenza, playwright and director, "Steal Heaven" Tom Hayden, former California senator and longtime activist

Maureen Cavanaugh: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I’m Maureen Cavanaugh. The 1960s was a unique time in America, that time when students took over administration buildings and parents no longer understood the politics of their kids. Mass demonstrations filled Washington, D.C., and protesters against the Vietnam War almost caused a presidential convention to shutdown in Chicago and it was a time when a clean-cut social worker from Boston became an outrageous wild haired agitator by the name of Abbie Hoffman. A world premier comedy opening at the San Diego Rep highlights Hoffman, the 60s Yippies, Hippies and what became of the passion and spirit of that time. Joining me are Herbert Siguenza, he is co-founder of Latino theater group Culture Clash. He is play writer, director, and star of Steal Heaven. Herbert, welcome back to the show. Herbert Siguenza: Thank you for having me. Maureen Cavanaugh: Tom Hayden is here, former California senator, former 60s student leader, and now social and political activist. His latest book is Inspiring Participatory Democracy. Tom Hayden, it’s a pleasure welcome you to this show. Tom Hayden: Oh, it’s a pleasure to be in San Diego. Thank you. Maureen Cavanaugh: Now, Herbert, the title “Steal Heaven” must be a play on the title of Abbie Hoffman’s famous Steal This Book. Herbert Siguenza: Yes. Maureen Cavanaugh: What did you know about Hoffman before you sat down to write this play? Herbert Siguenza: Well, he came up a little before me, you know, but growing up in the bay area, I heard about him, I knew about him, was aware of him, but I didn’t take him as seriously, you know. I always thought that he was a little too radical for me or just too loud, too, you know, abrasive and – but I admired the theatricality and the tactics that they used, that the Yippies used to get, you know, messages across. So I was remembered that and so when Todd Salovey approached me saying, hey, when will you do a play about Abbie Hoffman, I’m going I don’t know about that, you know, not really my cup of tea, but then I started reading his writing Steal This Book, and other writings, and then I started to see that this guy was really ahead of his time, and the stuff that he was talking about have come true now, you know, the rise of the right, and corporate influence on government, and all these things that are not – are out of the status quo now, you know, and he was warning us about that. Maureen Cavanaugh: I’m interested though Abbie Hoffman, did he seem – because they were a lot of powerful personalities in the 60s like Tom Hayden, so did he seem the most, the character that would lend himself more to theater? Herbert Siguenza: Oh, definitely. He was very theatrical, he was really out there and more – I think more vocal and just more theatrical than all the other Yippies, you know. So, yeah, and he was like the sex symbol too, you know, everybody was like, you know, in love with him for 50 minutes, but so – so he – yeah, he definitely had a lot of charm, but I didn’t know him. The man to my left here has one degree separation from him, so I have this idealistic view of him, but, you know, Tom, right here, he knew him. Maureen Cavanaugh: Well, let me introduce again, Tom Hayden. You’ve been called by the New York Times, the single greatest activist of the 60s student movement, you were one of the founders of Students for Democratic Society, the SDS, how did you deal, because you were viewed at that time as a very serious political activist, how did you deal with the over the top antics of Abbie Hoffman? Tom Hayden: Well, I’m looking forward to see in the performance, I mean there’s nobody braver or more brilliant than my friend, Herbert, who could bring this character to life and I think, Abbie was not just theatrical, I think he almost invented the idea of guerrilla theater, surprise attack, a cultural alternative to guerrilla war, and he was the first to kind of fall in love with Marshall McLuhan’s idea that everything was theatrical, the medium was the message, and so how you appeared was more important than what you said, and how it came across on television was more important than how it was interpreted by the mainstream media and… Maureen Cavanaugh: Did you get that right away? Tom Hayden: No. Maureen Cavanaugh: Oh. Herbert Siguenza: [laughter]. Maureen Cavanaugh: [laughter]. Tom Hayden: No, [chuckle] no. When I met him, he was in this – he was morphing, he was in transition. I was in the civil rights, when in the south I was a freedom rider, and I was an author and I was trying to envision what became the free speech movement, we formed SDS around the Port Huron Statement, which I wrote that was 27,000 words. So I was not exactly theatrical. When I met Abbie though, he was something like me. He was a community organizer. I was in New York after the riot or rebellion there, and he came over with some food. So, I saw him as like a catholic worker, but he was Jewish and a community organizer, but really he was a Lenny Bruce, he was a performer, and not a day passed when he was not trying to invent some fantastic way to project his passion or ridicule somebody, during the trial. Maureen Cavanaugh: Yeah, The Chicago Seven Trial. Tom Hayden: Sure. Maureen Cavanaugh: You were a co-defendant. Tom Hayden: I’ll give you an example of his wit and his courage and his zaniness. That was the Chicago police against those of us who were demonstrating and battling in the streets against the Vietnam War of course. Maureen Cavanaugh: 1968. Tom Hayden: ’69, we go to trial, and the trial is a perfect theater. Herbert Siguenza: [laughter]. Tom Hayden: The judge is kind of clinical and doesn’t understand us at all. The prosecution is the FBI and NICS, and so one day Abbie and his sidekick, Jerry Rubin, came to court in robes. Herbert Siguenza: [laughter]. Maureen Cavanaugh: Judge’s robes. Tom Hayden: Yeah, you can get them, I don’t think they stole the robe, I don’t know where they got them, but they walked through security and sat down onto table. They’re wearing robes. Now, notice there’s nothing physically provocative here, there’s no words, nothing, they’re just sitting in robes, and the judge, of course, is not going to let that go unnoticed. So he demands to know what they’re doing and that they take off the robes, and he orders the marshals to make sure those robes are taken off, which is just what Abbie wanted. So they take off the robes, and under it, is a Chicago Police Department shirt, which meant this is really the police dressed up like judges who are prosecuting us. I have to admit – well, we didn’t get along very well, I – some of these things that he did were absolutely brilliant and such a – and he is an energy bomb, I mean he would do this every day, he would do this all night continually. So that’s why I want to see if… Herbert Siguenza: Call themselves… Tom Hayden: Herbert – at his age… Maureen Cavanaugh: [laughter]. Herbert Siguenza: [laughter]. Tom Hayden: ….actually compete. Herbert Siguenza: Well, yeah. We call themselves an action freak, right, yeah, I mean this total theatricality, you know, it’s almost like he invented, he used the media to his advantage, you know, before the media was you know all around us like today, you know. Maureen Cavanaugh: Sure. Now, Abbie Hoffman died in 1989, your play imagines him in the afterlife. Tell us a little bit about what the play is about. Tom Hayden: Well, I play him after, yeah, after his death, and he is now in heaven, which is a funny premise already, but he is the patron seeing the radicals as the students die in heaven or get killed by the police or whatever [chuckle], they go up to the heaven and he retrains them to go back to earth to [indiscernible] [00:08:24]. Maureen Cavanaugh: [laughter]. Tom Hayden: But, of course, there is a culture clash and there is a social clash between the young activists of today, let’s say an occupier and him, you know, so he is trying to teacher the old tactics of the 60s and she is like no that won’t work anymore, so there’s a nice age difference that people will enjoy. Maureen Cavanaugh: You know, Abbie Hoffman is a really well-known character. How do you embody him in that play? Tom Hayden: Well – yeah, he is… Maureen Cavanaugh: You do Boston accent? Tom Hayden: [chuckle] I have to do my Boston accent. I put on my wig and, you know, I’ve played a lot of historical characters over the years in my plays. Ultimately you have to just get the accents of somebody, you know, you never going to be that person, you know, but I play him as an older Abbie, I don’t play the young, you know, vibrant Abbie. I play him, you know, at 52, so I’m a little slower and a little more, you know, I have aches and pains [chuckle]. Maureen Cavanaugh: Now, you know, we’re talking here, we’re chatting about the 60s and there is a glow about it now, because it’s removed in time, but Abbie Hoffman was really, I mean a dangerous character back in the day, I mean people looked at him like, whoa, this guy is going to, you know, overthrow America, and so is there that – are you able to capture that edge in your play as well? Tom Hayden: I think so. He talks about his legacy, you know, and how we have to – and today we need some of that theatricality back, we need some of that drastic methods to get a message across. In my opinion, you know, the write in the tea parties are more radical and insane than he ever was, you know, they shut down the government, they sue the president, you know, Abbie is like that’s my job, you know, that was our job, they took our job away, you know, they’re more radical now than we were. Maureen Cavanaugh: Tom, lately we’ve seen mass demonstrations in the streets of America over racial bias, police shootings of unarmed suspects. How do you see these protests in comparison to the protests and the marches in 60s? Tom Hayden: I think comparisons are big problem. I prefer just to look at the situation. I think there has been some evolution. I know it’s too slow from my point of view and probably Herbert’s, but there was a time when, you know, and an 18-year-old African American teenager shot by police for alleged vandalism or selling… Herbert Siguenza: Loose cigarettes. Tom Hayden: …loose cigarettes in New York would go kind of unnoticed. They were categorized by people and the media and the universities as incorrigible young men who were on their way to lives of violence and have best be locked up, and as a result California locked up a lot of them, about a 170,000 according to Governor Brown the other day, were locked up at the height of our mass incarceration, and a fourth of all the inmates in the world are in American prisons. And since the Trayvon Martin case, I think you’ve seen much more of an identification with these young men, and sympathy with them within all communities, and there have been some results, the election of the mayor of New York, de Blasio, the rethinking of the “stop and frisk” policy, notwithstanding the current crisis in New York, which has brought things to a halt. I think police in prison reform are moving along and it’s remarkable how many decades it’s taken to understand that we can’t be that way or police that way or jail that way out of problems that are social and economic. Maureen Cavanaugh: It’s been a while since we’ve seen mass demonstrations like this across the United States. Do they promote and produce effective change? Tom Hayden: They compel attention and they compel reform. I think that’s something that Abbie would have understood. When you have a shooting on television, when you have millions of people with handheld devices filming virtually everything, that’s how the Rodney King Case came to light and that’s how the recent New York case came to light, and the jury might see it at a different way, but most people think the police unnecessarily took down that gentleman and killed him, and that goes straight into the consciousness of young people and they react instantaneously and I think that’s good and they forced a dialogue and they forced some reforms. So even conservatives are talking about the over winning power of prosecutors and our prosecutors really are not impartial, they’re on the side of the police, and you have to have independent prosecutors. All that I think is healthy, and these young people out in Ferguson and out in New York are certainly the moral force, if not the motive force. Herbert Siguenza: Images are very powerful if they – we didn’t have to black out at of the war in the Middle East, I think we would have an antiwar protests every day, but, you know, we don’t have those. Maureen Cavanaugh: Well – to a point that I was going to bring up, then I want to ask both of you since 9/11 and the terrorists attacks like the one we just saw happen in Paris yesterday, governments have brought our powers than they had back in the 60s… Tom Hayden: Oh, yes. Maureen Cavanaugh: …to restrict civil liberties… Tom Hayden: And Abbie Hoffman was talking about that if that would be a problem. Maureen Cavanaugh: And so – and even people, even the public I think is a little bit more suspicious of political protest because of the fear aroused by these terror attacks. Do you think that pose, and let me put this to both of you, first you, Herbert, does that pose a threat to our democracy do you think? Herbert Siguenza: What would Abbie say? Tom Hayden: [chuckle]. Herbert Siguenza: Absolutely [laughter]. Oh, yeah, I mean, yeah, they have like the green light to do whatever they want and people are letting them to feel safe and the guys of freedom were letting our civil liberties, right, so it’s a very dangerous time, it’s a very dangerous time. Maureen Cavanaugh: And Tom? Tom Hayden: Well, one big difference is, you know, the Vietnam War did not start with a terrorist attack on American building, so that’s why the comparisons always trouble me. In this case, the average person had good reason to be scared to death and we turn towards the police or authority when that happens. It turns out when you turn it over to the police or the military, it can actually make matters worse, because they see everything as the military problem, and they bring out a hammer as [indiscernible] [00:15:49] see every problem as a nail they use a hammer and so, we’ve got this war on terrorism that was supposed to be curbed by military intervention, but it’s spread now apparently to a level where small handfuls of individuals can arm themselves and wreak havoc in Paris and to keep pursuing a military solution to that as if, you know, it’s kind of a nail hammer or a mosquito and a flies water could make the problem far worse. And I think there has been an anti-war movement, I think Congress put curbs on the Iraq war, I think Obama never would have been elected without his opposition to the Iraq war, but it has not been in the streets as much as in the 60s, but again, that’s not a good comparison, because you don’t have to – have your head beaten in. You can also support somebody for Congress or go work for Elizabeth Warren or publish alternative newspaper, get on KPF case gives the comparison, but there are outlets that were much more restricted in the 60s. Maureen Cavanaugh: I want to end it back at the play Steal Heaven, and – so, Herbert, knowing Abbie Hoffman as well as you must know because you play him in this play; what do you think that he might have done better to get his message across? Herbert Siguenza: Well, it’s a good question. I admire what he did; you know, everyone thinks he was a lunatic and overdid it, but I still think that those tactics work today, would work today. I would love to see somebody do something very theatrical and it would get impact, especially now with the social media, I mean something that really made an impact that had humor and that made a message. I think that’s where we’re lacking right now. You know, I feel like there’s something lacking. Maureen Cavanaugh: I want to tell our listeners that you both are going to be talking at an event before the play tonight at the Rep that starts at 7 o’clock, and the play itself is running in Horton Plaza, San Diego Repertory Theater in Horton Plaza through January 25th. I’ve been talking with play writer, Herbert Siguenza and Tom Hayden, and that free discussion about the play is tonight at 7:00. Thank you both very much. Tom Hayden: Thank you. Herbert Siguenza: Thank you. [music….] Presenter: Coming Up: A preview of the new KPBS TV series on Balboa Park. That is KPBS Midday Edition continues. [music…]

It was also the 1960s when Abbie Hoffman, a clean-cut social worker from Boston, became an outrageous wild-haired agitator.

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A world premiere comedy opening at the San Diego Repertory Theatre highlights Hoffman, the '60s, Yippies, hippies and what became of the passion and spirit of that time.

"Steal Heaven", by Culture Clash co-founder Herbert Siguenza, is set in heaven. It's there that Hoffman conducts a training camp for potential social activists who are required to go back to Earth to become new agents of change.

Siguenza said he was living in the Bay Area when he became familiar with Hoffman.

"I heard about him, but I didn't take him too seriously," Siguenza told KPBS Midday Edition on Thursday. "I thought he was a little too radical for me."

Siguenza said his perception changed when he was asked by the repertory theatre's associate director, Todd Salovey, to develop a play about Hoffman.

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"I started to see that this guy was really ahead of his time, and the stuff he was talking about has come true," Siguenza said.

Although he didn't meet Hoffman, who died in 1989, Tom Hayden did.

Hayden, a former California senator and longtime activist, said he met Hoffman in Newark, New Jersey, during a protest. They were later both a part of the Chicago Seven, a group of defendants charged with conspiracy and inciting a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

"He was something like me. He was a community organizer," Hayden said. "He was a performer, and not a day passed when he wasn't trying to invent some fantastic way to project his passion or ridicule somebody."

Salovey from the San Diego Repertory Theatre, will host a discussion Thursday night with Hayden and Siguenza about the play's relevancy to today's protests and social justice movements. The discussion begins at 7 p.m. at the Lyceum Theatre, with the show at 8 p.m.

"Steal Heaven" is showing now through Jan. 25 at the Lyceum Theatre.

Corrected: December 6, 2023 at 10:26 PM PST
Web producer Hoa Quach contributed to this report.