Elementary Civics

Josh Kornbluth's thesis needs work, 26 years later.

Josh Kornbluth’s latest monologue Citizen Josh is well named. It chronicles his progress, however slight, from a disillusioned voter to an enhanced level of civic involvement: stumbling across a meeting for new playground equipment in Ohlone Park, running into a PTA protest at the Capitol, and other adventures in haphazard activism from a self-described “passive-ist.”

The Berkeley-based host of the also aptly named KQED-TV talk show The Josh Kornbluth Show, Kornbluth is best known for his enchanting autobiographical monologues Haiku Tunnel (later a minor motion picture), Red Diaper Baby, and Ben Franklin Unplugged. Now brought to Berkeley for a second run after a month in San Francisco early this summer, Citizen Josh still feels relatively slight next to his previous one-man shows, as if still not quite fully formed.

Commissioned by the Z Space Studio and directed by its founding artistic director David Dower, Citizen Josh debuted in May at the Magic Theatre. Its three-week East Bay run is presented by Jonathan Reinis Productions at (and in association with) Berkeley Rep. Sunday matinees are followed by conversations about democracy: MoveOn.org cofounder Joan Blades this past Sunday, and Professor George Lakoff and Mayor Tom Bates on the remaining two.

Although ostensibly a rumination on democracy, Citizen Josh is just as much about Kornbluth’s senior thesis for Princeton University, a requirement for graduation, being 26 years late at this point. A lot of it is about all the big plans he had for Future Josh to get around to someday, and about how inspirational his professor and adviser Sheldon Wolin was for him.

All the nice things Kornbluth says about Wolin and the then-and-now dean of academics are interesting in their own right, but take on a different resonance when he starts presenting this very monologue as his much-belated senior thesis — that is, a thesis about writing a thesis. It would be one thing if from there it really started getting into any nitty-gritty about participatory democracy, but it never gets past the most basic points he learns in the meetings he somehow winds up attending: You should talk to people about things, and maybe not yell at them. “Let’s start here,” Kornbluth says repeatedly as a transition, and that more than anything seems to be his point: You have to start somewhere, and this is as good a place as any.

There are a number of such recurring phrases and running gags in Citizen Josh, not many of which really live up to the “get ready — here it comes” wind-up and pitch Kornbluth gives them. One about always answering “Yes” when he runs into someone who asks if he’s here for the meeting is pretty funny, and there are certainly parts of the monologue that are hilarious, especially his account of waiting for his senior thesis to happen somehow without any effort on his part, or what he comes up with to say to Al Gore at a pitch session for a series of animated shorts about global warming.

Having the show play in Berkeley is particularly appropriate, because much of the story is set in Ohlone Park, particularly on and around the large metal climbing structure that’s been there since the strip of then-undeveloped land was adopted as People’s Park Annex by protesters ejected from People’s Park years ago. Kornbluth doesn’t touch upon the long crusade in the ’70s to turn the strip of land then owned by BART into the park it is today, mostly because he didn’t move here from New York until the late ’80s, but the conflict is paralleled in small ways by his account of how unaccountably hard it was to get neighbors to agree on the need for working playground equipment.

It’s also apt to have the show in Berkeley because it’s difficult to imagine how it would play elsewhere. It’s assumed that we’re all on the same page about the stolen election of 2000 and the erosion of civil liberties ever since, so these things can be alluded to elliptically without any need to bring up the salient facts, let alone construct an argument. In San Francisco, and certainly in Berkeley, that’s a safe assumption, but if this show were to tour elsewhere, these fleeting political indicators might not be bones of contention so much as non sequiturs.

Though it’s always a pleasure to come along with Kornbluth wherever his meandering narrative takes us, the monologue suffers from (of all things) an underdeveloped thesis. A recurring theme about participatory democracy as a quixotic of faith carries some resonance, but it mostly lies in invoking Don Quixote as a familiar cultural reference.

One of the wonders of Wolin that Kornbluth describes is his knack for taking a student’s seemingly throwaway comment and drawing out of it an unexpectedly profound implicit argument. There’s some great stuff buried in here about democracy starting here — right where you are, right now — but it could use some of the professor’s talent for explication to expand the point.

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