Up-ending expectations of how storytelling should unfold onstage is one of the fascinating ways the spirit of the 1960s is infused into The Hendrix Project. Conceived and directed by the creatively fierce Roger Guenveur Smith with students at Cal Arts, the show has the audience watching spectators at Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsys New Year’s Eve concert when the Sixties tumbled into the Seventies. Hendrix’s live album plays in its entirety throughout the performance on the Samueli Theater’s superb sound system; it was incredibly loud but not even close to painful.
Bundled up for New York winter, the 12 young performers stand, lean, sit, sprawl, and straddle the bleachers of Fillmore East Auditorium’s upper balcony, right up against the sound booth’s three windows. Projected there are images from December of 1969—a reverberating Nixon, the Black Panther shootout with LAPD, a bikini girl dancing upside-right and upside-down—and footage of Hendrix from that very show introducing the second tune, “Machine Gun.” Or we peek inside as performers sneak into the booth. On the wall, twice, is painted: WAR IS OVER! We wish.
The players are lit only by the bounced colors of rock concert lighting. Each of them quite still, as if merely a photo from that night nearly 50 years ago. Well into the 9 minutes, 34 seconds of the first track “Who Knows,” a few of the players begin to move, slowly, imbibing or passing a joint without taking their eyes off the stage, which the actors have located in the center of the audience risers. This slow motion continues throughout, even as each of the five songs on the album soars.
It is sometime during “Who Knows” that the expectation of a special light coming up so each of the performers can do their “why I’m here/why I love Jimi” monologue gets shattered. No one speaks. The only words heard are on the soundtrack. You could feel the realization happening all around you, or hear it whispered. The audience settled a little deeper into their comfortable seats, ready to go along, even close their eyes just to listen to Hendrix do his thing with his new collaborators.
That sense of something new happening, something beginning resonated as we watch these twenty-something performers take the ride their grandparents may have taken. It imparted some hope, that despite the bleak events of December 1969 we see projected on the sound booth glass, a revolution in consciousness was still under way.
But The Hendrix Project was above all an experience, the philosophy comes later. Weekly theater critic Joel Beers, who previewed the show for the dead-tree edition, wrote to Smith afterward, “Wow. That was groovy and psychedelic and visceral and raw and sexy and thought-provoking and just a good time.”
Clad in long paisley skirts, psychedelic jumpsuits, leather miniskirts, army surplus, and mod black-and-red, the concertgoers eventually shed not just their coats as the music takes them from trance, to a be-in, a love-in, but always toward ecstasy. Although each performer’s journey through the concert is elaborated in great detail, the overall trajectory of the play is one of connection, even transcendence.
“I’d say it illustrates,” wrote Beers to Smith, “through a 1969 lens, how  years later, we are so fucking connected and have such a social media forum to express ourselves, but, distressingly, we’ve lost some of our humanity and creativity and honesty. Lots of us are stoned, but few of us immaculately.”
Among the spectacular Afros of the black (and Jewish?) actors was a girl in a super-straight bob, dressed in a prim dress and white coat buttoned to the throat. She wore white gloves, not for winter warmth but as if she’d just come from church. Her movements were subtle throughout. While the others went from trance to dance to getting it on to all being in the same groove—including brief bursts of dancing in real time that jolted the audience, as we were all used to the slow-motion—the white coat-and-gloves girl barely took focus. But by the end, she stood with her coat unbuttoned and the gloves off.
That’s the thing about this theatrical experiment, it gave room for everyone to evolve, in their own time and in their own way. Hendrix found a new avenue for his music, but we lost him not long after. As we listen to the countdown on the soundtrack and hear the Fillmore guy wish everyone a happy new year with a canned “Auld Lang Syne” playing behind him, suddenly the strings of Hendrix’s guitar take over for his own inimitable rendition of the tune; we haven’t lost him. And just maybe our expectation of doom in violent, repressive times has been disrupted. “Soul Train Kabuki” indeed.
Lisa Black proofreads the dead-tree edition of the Weekly and writes about the arts and South County beaches. Her OC roots go back to the Cuckoo’s Nest but she left to create original theater on four continents, then returned to bodysurf small waves.