‘Citizen Josh’ Speaks Truth To Politics

Posted October 20, 2008 at 4:06pm

Monologuist Josh Kornbluth nominally graduated from Princeton in 1980, only to receive a dummy diploma because he never completed his senior thesis. Twenty-eight years later, that thesis has become “Citizen Josh,” a one-man show about civic participation.

In an interview, Kornbluth said that performing a political piece at Crystal City’s Arena Stage during a monumental presidential election season was like a basketball all-star “making the NBA finals.”

The monologue takes an autobiographical look at Berkeley, Calif.-based Kornbluth’s life, focusing on his time at Princeton University and his recent entry into grass-roots political activism in California. The first part of the monologue focuses on interaction with his collegiate mentor, professor Sheldon Wolin, and the longtime dean of academics, Richard Williams.

Kornbluth also recalls his involvement in several community organization projects. These include lobbying the state legislature to increase funding for local school systems and a project (involving former Vice President Al Gore) to promote environmental awareness. The most important part, however, was his work with neighbors to rebuild a local playground.

Formulated in what Kornbluth called “a liberal enclave within a conservative enclave” at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab in Utah, “Citizen Josh” looks at the importance of political participation from the perspective of an unlikely activist.

The public playground at Ohlone Park near his Berkeley home had deteriorated equipment — a swingset lacking swings and a rough amalgamation of pipes that comprised a jungle gym.

Kornbluth, the father of an 8-year-old son, looked up Wolin’s number several years ago to announce that he was finally ready to write his thesis and ask the now-retired professor to serve as his project adviser. Wolin suggested that in lieu of a traditional research report Kornbluth craft a performance piece about his personal participation in American politics. The park reconstruction became a logical highlight for the script.

Until reaching out to his old professor, Kornbluth did not realize the historical significance of the contraption in the park, although he had heard that any plans to renovate the park would require that the structure remain in place. No children’s toy, this tower was constructed by activists to help keep police officers, sheriff’s deputies and the National Guard under then-Gov. Ronald Reagan from controlling Ohlone Park — then called People’s Park Two.

Berkeley residents and students at the nearby University of California sought to build People’s Park in 1969 as a free-speech zone for various protest movements. When state and local officials intervened and blocked the park’s construction, activists set up an alternate site at present day Ohlone Park.

While the park carried tremendous historical significance to the Berkeley protesters in the 1960s, it does not to a new generation of University of California students and neighbors. “That’s kind of bubbling under the whole piece for me,” Kornbluth said. “I am unaware until later in the story of these roots.”

The image of the mangled tower of pipes repeats throughout the monologue, both literally and figuratively. While operating on a fairly sparse stage, Kornbluth is accompanied by a slide projector showing a montage of iconic images in recent American political history; but the slides always return to the wire maze.

Kornbluth makes only one jarring allusion during the 90-minute monologue. He talks about a dispute at the playground between himself and a woman opposing construction of a new swingset, apparently because she doesn’t want the noise of children playing. Kornbluth elevates the dialogue into a shouting match, a reminder of the incivility that can permeate American politics.

Unfortunately, Kornbluth takes his explanation of the playground equipment fight too far in the performance.

He compares it to segregationists who blocked Elizabeth Eckford from entering Little Rock Central High School in 1957, after court-ordered integration. The projector on stage switches to the iconic photograph of Eckford being hazed attempting to enter the school, the day before President Dwight Eisenhower deployed the 101st Airborne Division and nationalized the Arkansas National Guard to assist in the effort.

Kornbluth admitted that he has worried about that comparison. “Obviously, it is comparing a historic and traumatic, really history-changing event with a really small event,” he said.

Wolin gave Kornbluth’s thesis a B-plus, a fair grade.

The show runs at the temporary space of the Arena Stage, 1800 S. Bell St. in Crystal City, through Sunday.