Why “Wellstone! A Minnesotan Musical”

By Bryn Tanner, playwright of Wellstone: A Minnesotan Musical

When dealing with an unpleasant present, we often look to the past for answers. I had toyed with the idea since September or October of 2016 of writing a play about one of Minnesota’s great political heroes: Paul Wellstone, a progressive U.S. Senator whose life was tragically cut short early on in the Bush regime. I told myself and others that if Trump were to win the election, I would be far too bitter to commit to the idea and would sooner disengage from politics altogether. I knew even then I didn’t mean that. In fact, Trump did win, and all it did was strengthen my resolve.

In the aftermath of the 2016 elections, I was shook. Even though I prepared myself for the possibility, I couldn’t fully believe what had happened. But it did happen, and I wasn’t willing to let my disbelief catch up with the rest of the world. Immediately after that fight was lost, the next one was to begin. The first thing I asked myself was “What can I do to resist?”

When dealing with an unpleasant present, we often look to the past for answers. I had toyed with the idea since September or October of 2016 of writing a play about one of Minnesota’s great political heroes: Paul Wellstone, a progressive U.S. Senator whose life was tragically cut short early on in the Bush regime. I told myself and others that if Trump were to win the election, I would be far too bitter to commit to the idea and would sooner disengage from politics altogether. I knew even then I didn’t mean that. In fact, Trump did win, and all it did was strengthen my resolve.

Paul represented something I’ve long thought to have died with him—moral and ethical convictions in our political sphere. It can be hard to believe that a man so good and honest could ever have existed in the U.S. Senate, but indeed he did, and he wasn’t the only one. He had his missteps, of course—his vote in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act represents a black mark on his record, one that even he acknowledged in his autobiography, Conscience of a Liberal. But Paul was a decent man who often found himself an island, proudly taking principled stands that no one else would.

In a world where the president is a former slum lord who would declare World War III in a single tweet if he could, I felt Paul’s story was one that needed to be told. Hence, Wellstone: A Minnesotan Musical.

I decided to use theater as the medium for telling this story because I find it is an incredibly effective tool for personalizing narratives and historical figures. Take for instance the success of something like Hamilton or Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and how they take these 19th century political figures and turn them into rock stars. Wellstone doesn’t go nearly as far in that direction, but it’s founded on a similar principle. I wanted people to see Paul as a human being—with flaws and imperfections, with principles and ideals—and how he relates to other people of the era. I wanted people to know his wife, Sheila, and the work she had done for the homeless and victims of domestic abuse. Especially for young people who’ve only recently had their political awakening through the Barack Obama or Bernie Sanders campaigns, it’s important to familiarize them with Paul in this way, rather than just as another name in the history books. That way, his message will resonate better.

One thing I want people to take away from Wellstone is that history is cyclical. The Trump era is uncharted waters for many of us, but in many ways there are direct parallels to the Bush era, the Reagan era, and the Nixon era. For progressives, the one thing that can maybe keep us sane is knowing that no matter how badly things have gotten before, things do get better. This too shall pass. Much of what Paul fought for in life came to be in the years following his death, such as the Mental Health Parity Act that bears his name. The fact that most of us were around for the Bush years will hopefully drive that point home—we remember that despair, and that helplessness.

I said earlier that I had long thought good and decent men (and women!) serving in U.S. government to be a thing of the past. I do not say this to absolve any Republicans of past sins or crimes, but credit must be given where it’s due. On the morning of July 27, when I first set about writing this blog symposium piece, I believed this would be the day when Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would finally get his way and repeal much of the Affordable Care Act, the crown jewel of President Obama’s legacy and a figurative life preserver for millions of Americans who would go without insurance otherwise. I was wrong. Senators Susan Collins, John McCain, and Lisa Murkowski bucked the party line and voted “No.” As I saw Democrats clapping Senator McCain on the back after his surprising vote, I could only imagine in a better world Paul Wellstone, alive and well, right along with them, leading a standing ovation for his old colleague.

You win some, you lose some. Last week we won some. Last week was a reminder of why we never stop fighting, and we never will.

That’s why Wellstone.

 

Wellstone: A Minnesotan Musical is directed by Carter Roeske and stars Michael Turner, Cayla Marie Wolpers, Christof Krumenacker, Rachel Lawhead, and Jason Millsap. Tickets are available here.

Bryn Tanner is a working artist in the Twin Cities area. An actor, director, and playwright for hire, Wellstone: A Minnesotan Musical is Bryn’s third original musical for the Minnesota Fringe Festival. His theatre company, Albino Squirrel Productions has previously produced Pocahontas (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mouse) and A Mariokart Named Desire through the festival to great success. In the political realm, he’s worked on several progressive campaigns, including Dan Kane for Minnesota House (2010) and Angie Craig for Congress (2016).

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