Who has power of you and what do you want to say to them? That’s the bold and tantalizing question at the heart of Jeremy Goldstein’s Truth to Power Café directed by Jen Heyes, which made its United States premiere this month as part of Lincoln Center’s second annual Festival of Firsts. For Goldstein, a British-Australian veteran theatre maker and HIV+ activist, the answer is his late father. As the show opens, Goldstein offers an intimate insight into the strained, then estranged relationship with his dad, Mick, as he still attempts to make sense of it. Just because someone has passed away that doesn’t mean we don’t continue to have a relationship with that person or that our understanding of that relationship can’t evolve, as Goldstein believes and demonstrates.
This section of the evening is a compelling, sometimes poetic, spoken word performance by Goldstein—including an engaging musical number evoking Ian Dury’s delivery—that warmly draws us in as he interacts with the large video screen behind him. On screen, we’re introduced to Henry Woolf, a co-creator of the show, who was a close friend of Goldstein’s father and fellow member of “The Hackney Gang”; six lifelong friends including the lauded, Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter. Woolf directed and acted in Pinter’s first play, The Room. Along with his own father, these East London figures loom large in Goldstein’s imagination. They are part of the personal history that he carries around with him, and they continue to encourage him in his commitment to speak truth to power, as they had in their own lives.
As Goldstein recounts learning more about his dad in the aftermath of his death, he wrestles with the power struggle between them, while touching on his own battles with addiction and ill-health, juxtaposed with images and words dealing with his HIV and political activism. In being so open and vulnerable, even sharing a rather eccentric personal letter written to him by his dad, Goldstein encourages us to be similarly unguarded and frank about our own lives. He’s particularly adept at connecting with his audience and establishing an atmosphere of immediacy that gives the piece urgency.
Every performance of Truth to Power Café is unique. In New York, when Lincoln Center initially announced the show they put out a request for potential participants to respond to Goldstein’s key question. On the night, those selected were called up to the stage one by one following Goldstein’s opening section. Tai Allen, Analisa Bell, Hanifah Griffith, Avery Knudson, Daniel Lanzilotta, Raelle Myrick-Hodges, Betsy Shevey, Scarlett Taylor, and Jhonny Victor each gave deeply personal, impassioned and engaging responses to Goldstein’s question that were frequently moving, and all inspiring and empowering.
Their answers took in the oppression of racism – structural, and internal; misogyny; abusive relationships; big businesses ruthlessly cutting employee health benefits while unions reach agreements without the full consultation of their members; the teachers, family, and friends who can hold us back by not believing in our dreams; and the recurring notion of the power that we have over ourselves. The name of Black queer activist and organizer Bayard Rustin was invoked as the originator of the phrase “speak truth to power”, having used the term in the 1940s and co-written the 1955 pamphlet, Speak Truth to Power: a Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence.
In contrast with the rhythmic and intricately executed opener from Goldstein, the contributors’ speeches were more straightforward addresses to the audience, but there was real potency in hearing them speak directly in their own words about something so personal and meaningful to each of them. The simplest concepts are often the most impactful—and tricky to execute successfully—and Goldstein’s real achievement here is pulling off Truth to Power Café so effectively while creating a framework that can be staged anywhere around the world and continue to find new answers to his stimulating central question. Activism often starts in our own lives, and this is a stunning work of theatrical activism that has the potential to move and motivate.
By James Kleinmann
Truth to Power Café made its United States premiere in New York on Wednesday, October 18th, 2023 at Lincoln Center as part of the second annual Festival of Firsts. Visit TruthToPower.co.uk for more about the show and upcoming performances.