There’s that horrifying meme continually making the rounds about how the 1990s are now as far away from the present day as the 1960s were in the ‘90s. As a young girl who came of adolescence in the ‘90s, I remember just how distant that transformative, mid-century time period seemed, so I can’t quite conceive of the same correlation being true of my own formative decade. How can it possibly have been 30 years ago?
There’s nothing like sitting in a darkened theater to bridge those gaps in time and encourage convergence. I have a distinct memory of two specific covers of songs from the ‘60s being ubiquitous in the ‘90s. First, Urge Overkill’s grungy cover of Neil Diamond creepily coaxing “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” on the PulpFiction soundtrack. It was 1994 and I was a bit too young to have seen the film—only my cool older cousins actually owned the album—but by 1998, I was the perfect age for the massive cultural reset of an album that was The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill to blow my mind along with the rest of the world, and for her catchy-as-hell hip-hop cover of Frankie Valli’s golden “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” to completely upend my understanding of that song in some empowering feminist way I couldn’t quite name yet.
I’d actually forgotten until just listening again that the song was recorded to appear in the movie Conspiracy Theory, but not on the soundtrack, and then was added as a bonus hidden track to Hill’s own solo debut album due to popular demand. Since I was a weird kid who spent hours playing records with her parents and singing along to oldies on the radio, I was familiar with the original versions of both songs before these covers and was pleased that they were also now surprisingly cool with my peers in this altered modern form. Artists reaching into the past for inspiration and their resulting fresh takes on the classics suddenly made my admittedly old soul feel more relevant.
I was reminded of all these musical reinterpretations after seeing the Vineyard Theatre production of playwright Tori Sampson’s This Land Was Made, which is set in 1967 Oakland, CA during a time of revolutionary political activism—the same year that both of those songs were topping music charts. Although neither tune is heard in Sampson’s play, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (more on which artist in a second) does get its rightful spin at the start of the show with significant thematic resonance.
Sassy (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) is our irresistible narrator and self-proclaimed “time-traveling griot” keeping the tradition of oral history from parts of West Africa alive. She is such a convincing storyteller that you believe that her version of events surrounding Huey Newton and the rise of the Black Panther Party is the most correct, ripping the cover off the cover stories that came before. And that her remix gets closer to the truth than the version first widely reported. This is how I remember feeling when I heard Lauryn Hill's vulnerable yet firm delivery of the lyric “let me love you” way back at the turn of the 21st century. There was no imitation, only revelation to be found there. Sassy, as she implores us to do, is “telling it right,” just like Lauryn.
This brings me back around to “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” I’m not entirely certain which recording Sassy plays for us. Surely, it must have been Marvin Gaye’s definitive one. Even though it wasn’t released until 1968, and Gladys Knight & the Pips’ Motown track (laid down itself after but released before a Smokey and the Miracles recording) was climbing the charts in 1967, Sassy exists both in and apart from the world of the play and so can choose whichever rendition she damn well pleases. But now I can only hear Gladys demanding, “Take a good look at these tears.” It’s probably the recording that I encountered last through the years, after Gaye’s, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s epic jam and the bizarrely memorable Electric Flag-backed California Raisins ‘80s ad campaign, but it might be my favorite and the one stuck in my head in the wake of this play. After all, 1967 was also the year of Aretha Franklin’s iconic “Respect.” There is arguably no more signature pairing of song and singer, which the songwriter and “King of Soul” Otis Redding himself gladly acknowledged.
The legacy of Black women like Aretha, Gladys, Lauryn, and now, Tori, reclaiming and reimagining the narrative pulses throughout this play. They vigorously take up and own their space at the center of these stories and songs, filling them out with desire and ambition, tipping over traditional power dynamics, and expressing the joy and sorrow that accompanies the act of, “at long last,” setting the record straight.