Arts & Events

PREVIEW: His Truth Goes Marching On: Musical Theater John Brown’s Truth at Berkeley's La Peña Cultural Center, April 15, 22, & 29

By Sarita Cannon
Friday April 13, 2012 - 02:26:00 PM
John Brown's Truth, at La Pena on Sunday
Poster by Doug Minkler
John Brown's Truth, at La Pena on Sunday

“I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right!” John Brown, a white man, uttered these words in his speech to the court in 1859 after being convicted of treason, murder, and conspiracy as a result of his raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry. A staunch abolitionist who believed that rebellion was the only way to end slavery and to prevent the Civil War, John Brown gathered a multiracial band of Americans in the hopes of dismantling the nation’s infernal institution by freeing enslaved Africans throughout the South. Although his plan failed and John Brown was sentenced to death for his actions, his commitment to justice for all was valorized by his abolitionist contemporaries, including Frederick Douglass, who wrote in 1881: “His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine—it was as the burning sun to my taper light—mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.” 

William Crossman’s improvised musical, John Brown’s Truth, explores the life of John Brown and the events surrounding the raid at Harper’s Ferry. Crossman has crafted a written script that includes some of the very words spoken by John Brown, but all of the music is improvised, making each performance a unique experience that is created in the moment. The cast consists of five vocalists who alternate in the roles of John Brown, the chorus, and the preacher, a dancer, four child rhymers, and six instrumentalists, all of whom work together to bring this compelling story to life. The musical style is quite varied, and includes Afro-Caribbean, Jazz, European-Classical, and Spoken Word elements. While John Brown’s Truth has been performed several times in the past three years, this April marks its debut at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, a fitting venue, particularly given the issues of social justice, cultural diversity, and artistic activism raised by production. 

The casual student of American history who knows one or two tidbits about John Brown will leave the performance knowing a great deal more about this American who fought for freedom and whose anti-slavery raid is viewed today as one of the key sparks of the Civil War that began 2 years after his raid. Although these events occurred 153 years ago, the struggle for equality remains urgent. Part of the power of Crossman’s libretto lies in his explicit connection between John Brown and other freedom fighters from the nineteenth century through the present. In each act of the musical, the actor playing John Brown invokes the names of real people who fought (and sometimes died) for true equality. Some of these figures are well-known, such as Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and Nelson Mandela, while others are not, such as Viola Liuzzo, a white Civil Rights activist from Michigan who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama in 1965, and Pedro Albizu Campos, a key leader of the Puerto Rican Independence Movement in the first half of the twentieth century. 

John Brown’s Truth offers an opportunity to gain a new perspective on a man who has been remembered alternately as hero and as a terrorist, to celebrate the power of music, word, and dance, and to reflect on the work still to be done in the name of equality and dignity for all in our time. There are three performances this month at La Peña Cultural Center on 3105 Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley (near Ashby BART): Sunday April 15th, Sunday April 22nd, and Sunday April 29th. Doors open at 7pm, and shows begin at 7:30pm. Tickets are available at or General tickets are $15, and student tickets (with ID) are $10. The venue is wheelchair accessible. For more information: