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How counterculture got us here: Rebellion, reflection and ‘Reefer Madness, The Musical’

Brenda Macon

The legalization of marijuana in Colorado has been a topic of much controversy. Art, by its very nature, enjoys the heck out of controversy. Art is neither for nor against, it simply holds up a mirror to reflect the product of the times. On its best days, it does so in a way that unifies and entertains the audience while providing a meaningful and reflective experience.

The DAC is putting a spotlight on the history of this debate in a current production of “Reefer Madness, the Musical.” Based on the 1936 propaganda film, (you can watch it for free on YouTube), this musical reflects on the extraordinary fear that is exploited within the context of mid-century, middle-class America. In it, two kids become hopeless, insane, oversexed and homicidal drug addicts after one drag of a joint. The musical provides both amusing satire and a dire warning: Should we go to any length necessary to protect our children from illegal drugs? What if the ends don’t justify the means?

In order to better understand how deep this rabbit hole goes, I propose a brief exploration of the nature and importance of counterculture. It’s been said that the social and political movements of the ’40s and ’50s gave rise to the whiplash anti-establishment sentiments of the 1960s: bra burning feminism, anti-war and civil rights activism, a complete 180 from the values of the previous generation. The pendulum never stops in the middle.

Think about the visual art trends of the 1960s: Pop Art comes to us via a resistance to manufactured goods – are soup cans regarded any differently than beautiful women or new technology? We can turn anything into a commodity, apparently, and art was there to show us that. “Rocky Horror Show” (returning to the DAC in October) embodied counterculture. As for music? The counterculture gave us Marvin Gaye, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Joan Baez, Grace Slick, Jimi Hendrix – fill in your favorite here! All had a powerful message that changed music – and America – forever and imparted messages that reflected a snapshot of truth.

Arguably, illegal drugs symbolize the times. Some say that since the invention of big pharma, we have villainized the “good” drugs (marijuana, LSD and psilocybin) and legalized the “bad” ones (oxycodone, vicodin, etc.) which have now given rise to a national opioid epidemic. See the new “How to Change Your Mind” Netflix series.

I’m not sure if Burroughs, Kerouak and Thompson helped or hurt, but they certainly drove a powerful anti-authoritarianism movement over the toe-the-line know-your-place sentiment of earlier middle-class America. Economic scarcity is an effective pillow to muffle the cries of the disenfranchised: Either get with the program and make money, or live with your do-no-harm ideals and go broke. That was the hippy-turned-yuppy pendulum swing of the ’80s and ’90s. How curious that the result, 50 years after the anti-drug propaganda film of “Reefer Madness,” is neither a conservative or liberated middle class, but a shrinking one.

I can’t emphasize enough how important the need is to be critical and to think deeply about socio-political topics within the framework that artists present to us. The DAC isn’t offering this show because we just ‘dig smoking weed,’ (though we don’t judge and it is a sexy show and the tunes are really catchy.) We are doing this because society cannot progress until we reflect properly on who we are and who we want to be. Thankfully, art is here to help us and maybe save the day.

The playwrights, filmmakers, musicians, painters will say what we've all been thinking: What’s the matter with us? Why can't we just get along? There are lots of answers and it’s complicated, but if you take some time to see this show, then you will have a clue, or at least some excellent fodder for your next dinner conversation. And you will have a good laugh while you’re at it.

In the theater
  • “Reefer Madness, The Musical”: 7:30 p.m. March 24-25 and 31-April 1; 5 p.m. Mar 19, 26 and Apr. 2. Tickets $15/$25.
  • Friday Night Improv: Student Showcase! 7 p.m. April 7. Tickets $10/$15.
Art classes and gallery events
  • 28th annual Creativity Festivity showcasing the artwork of the youths of our community, which will be available for sale. Free. Opening reception 4-6 p.m. March 30. Light refreshments provided. Secret Circus Society performances and interactive art stations.
  • Shop the Artisan’s Market: Open noon-6 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday.
  • Mud Day Madness, begins March 27: 6:30-8:30 p.m. $325.
  • Figure Drawing with live model, begins March 28: 6-8 p.m. 10 classes, $225.
  • Art of Painting, begins March 29: 10 a.m.-noon, $250.
  • Magical Art & Happiness adult art classes begin April 6: 6-8 p.m. 6 weeks, $200.
  • Pots & Pints: Every Friday, 4:30-6 p.m. $30.
  • GOAL/BART: youth leadership intensives begin June 5/12, respectively. $275.
  • Summer camps for theater and visual arts are now open for online registration.

Questions? Email info@durangoarts.org

Donate, become a member for discounts and to be a patron of the arts, register for classes, buy tickets, and keep in touch at DurangoArts.org and find things fast at https://linktr.ee/durangoartscenter.

Brenda Macon has been executive director of Durango Arts Center since 2018.