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'Joan Didion's: The White Album' Stages Generational Struggles Of 1968

Kathy Willens
Author Joan Didion sits in front of of a photo of herself in her New York apartment in 2005.


In 1968, journalist Joan Didion wrote, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Fifty years later, experimental theater director Lars Jan will bring her words to life for Pittsburgh’s International Festival of Firsts.

Jan is adapting Didion’s seminal essay, “The White Album” for the August Wilson Center stage this coming weekend.

Didion’s “White Album” documents the tectonic shifts in 1968 California culture — the year civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and cult leader Charles Manson went to trial for murder. The 15-part essay weaves her personal psychiatric issues with rise of the Black Panther Party, the music of The Doors and paints a picture of a nation on the brink of implosion.

“Didion finds a metaphor for some larger, insidious process at work in American society,” New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote of “The White Album” in 1979.

And Jan still sees that insidious process at work today.

“She’s trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t seem to make sense,” Jan said. “And that continues to resonate through my life, and throughout history.”

According to Jan, the rise of Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement and American imperialism echoes 1968’s social upheavals.

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but I do think it rhymes. And so, we’re looking at the 50th anniversary of 1968, when so many seminal events happened,” Jan said.

The performance will feature an actress reading Didion’s essay in its entirety, while select audience members interact with performers in a soundproof glass room onstage. The rest of the audience will watch from traditional seating.

Jan intends for the audience’s separation to mirror the separate social worlds Didion documented in 1968.

“I think about it as two different audiences start on the same track, [and] all of a sudden one takes a different turn,” Jan said.  “And suddenly, they’re inside the show.”

There will be four performances Friday through Sunday. Tickets are available at the Cultural Trusts’ website.


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