Last week, my passion for the theatre and my interest in the history of the 1960s intersected in a most unexpected way.
It happened when I went to see the Katharine Hepburn exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, at Lincoln Center. It runs through Oct. 10 and I definitely recommend a visit.
The exhibit, drawn from Hepburn's private papers, documents her stage career from the 1920s to the 1990s, including her Broadway appearances. I got a kick out of seeing her name in college productions from her years at Bryn Mawr, her first Equity contract.
But near the end, I saw something that surprised me: an unusual request made of every Broadway cast on one night in May 1970.
Regular readers of my blog know that I've always had a keen interest in the 1960s - in the culture, the music, the history of the civil rights and antiwar movements.
One thing I didn't know was that audiences on Broadway were asked to observe a moment of silence following the killing of four students at Kent State University by Ohio National Guardsmen on May 4, 1970.
On May 7, 1970, Ms. Hepburn was appearing on Broadway in the musical Coco, based on the life of French fashion designer Coco Chanel. She received the following telegram at the Mark Hellinger Theatre from Keir Dullea, on behalf of Actors Equity:
"Would the cast join us in asking the audience for a moment of silence on Friday May 8 after the curtain to remember the four Kent State students and to ask that such a tragedy shall never be repeated."
This was such a polarizing time in American life. I'd be interested in finding out whether all Broadway casts complied or whether there was some resistance. I know Broadway marquees are often dimmed when a stage notable passes away but this was something different.
Hepburn decided not only to ask for a moment of silence but composed a short speech, which you can see as part of the exhibit.
Her niece, the actress Katharine Houghton, told The New York Times that the remarks were a surprise. Hepburn usually was “very careful not to mix politics with the theater,” and often quoted Spencer Tracy's comment that “actors who got involved in politics can suffer the fate of the man who shot Lincoln.”
But the shootings were so horrifying that she apparently felt an obligation to speak out. And what Hepburn wrote was so moving. I love that she talked about how these were "our kids" and "we belong to each other." Here's an excerpt:
"Now you may call them rebels or rabble-rousers or anything you please. Nevertheless, they were our kids and our responsibility. Our generation are responsible and we must take time to pause and reflect and do something. You can pray but we must think! And together, for we belong to each other. If we don't, we're lost."