Sid Homan made the Voice Of The People the stuff of drama, comedy and show biz

Sidney Homan wrote the original play “More Letters To The Editor,” performed at the Acrosstown Repertory Theater in 2001.

Sidney Homan was a renown Shakespearian scholar at the University of Florida. He was also, for some years, the creative force behind Gainesville’s Acrosstown Repertory Theater.

In which capacity, Sid wrote an original play called “More Letters To The Editor”.

That’s how I came to know and like Sid. Because when Homan was producing his play at the ART, editing and publishing letters to the editor – or as we liked to call it The Voice Of The People – was my job at the Gainesville Sun.

Here’s a 2001 piece I wrote for The Masthead, the journal of the National Conference of Editorial Writers (said organization now defunct, as are most editorial writers) about Sid’s play.

It seems particularly relevant now that The Gainesville Sun has decided to cease publication of opinion content for the first time in its history.

We all know that letters are the life blood of any decent editorial page. But are they the stuff of drama?

It turns out that they are. The stuff of drama. The stuff of comedy. The stuff of show business.

Think about the daily letters column as a sort of ongoing production of “Our Town,” only with real people supplying the dialog. And then imagine 150 years of letters to the editor condensed into an evening of theater, replete with songs, choreography, and a fast-moving “Saturday Night Live” format that fairly leaps from era to era, issue to issue.

That about sums up “More Letters to the Editor,” a production of Gainesville’s Acrosstown Repertory Theatre. The play initially ran from December 2000 through the opening months of 2001, and later went on the road, thanks to a grant from the Florida Humanities Council.

The idea for “More Letters” was borrowed from a similar production in Pennsylvania. For The Gainesville Sun, which helped sponsor the community theater event, it was a perfect “branding” opportunity — an especially fitting one, since this is the newspaper’s 125th anniversary year.

Not only were most of the letters featured in the play published in the Sun or its predecessor paper, but also the very stage was wonderful advertising: It was literally papered top to bottom with old issues of the Sun.

Sid Homan, the University of Florida English professor who helped write, produce, and direct “More Letters to the Editor,” said audience reaction to the play tended to focus on two things.

“We were arguing about a new courthouse in the 1920s and we’re still arguing about a new courthouse.” Sidney Homan.

“First, we found that people were impressed by how little the issues have changed,” he said. “We were arguing about a new courthouse in the 1920s and we’re still arguing about a new courthouse.

“Second, we found we were getting people into the theater who didn’t normally come into the theater. They came because they were going to hear the words of real people, not just stage illusions. There didn’t seem to be as much of a wall between the audience and the actors.”

“More Letters” was a collaborative effort between the newspaper and the theater community group. The Sun underwrote the research needed to cull through a century and a half’s worth of letters for usable material.

As editorial page editor, I was “guest reader” on opening night, joining the actors on stage for a few minutes of good-humored jibes.

The production used lines and themes from letters in a series of skits; some of them highlighted historical eras: North Florida at the turn of the century, World War II. Some centered on themes like racial relations, sexual politics, and gun control.

Scene 1: The angry crowd

A group of disgruntled people array themselves on stage and rattle off, in machine-gun fashion, one liners, excerpts from various letters.

“That rich boy in the governor’s office doesn’t have to worry about how to pay for his dental care.”

“If you want to do something about drinking, close down the University of Florida.”

“It’s what I expect from a Republican.”

Some of those lines would seem almost ludicrous if I hadn’t recognized them from letters I’d edited over the years.

“Now some foolish women who really want to unisex themselves are clamoring more rights…” 1925 letter to The Sun.

Scene 5: Women — Right!

A man sits at his manual typewriter in 1925 and pounds out an angry letter to the editor.

“When we first began to beat about ‘women’s rights,’ it was confined to the idea of her right to participate in the affairs of government. Now, some foolish women who really want to unsex themselves are clamoring for more rights the right to drink and smoke and gamble.”

“I can’t help but find the demand by black students for 500 Black freshmen…to be pretty unreasonable.” 1971 letter to The Sun.

Scene 12: Why do I feel so black and blue?

Several actors stand on stage and take turns delivering lines from letters on racial relations.

“The majority of our citizens have come to the conclusion that the negroes will not work on the plantations in a manner that will pay for the necessary investment of capital …” (May 3, 1870).

“Words cannot express the horror of the tragedy at Sumner and Rosewood in Levy County. … One thing, however, … as long as criminal assault on innocent women continues, lynch law will prevail and blood will be shed…” (January 4, 1923).

“I am a tolerant person, but I can’t help but find the demand by Black students for 500 Black freshmen to be admitted to the University of Florida … to be pretty unreasonable” (April 21, 1971).

“So far we have had more trouble fighting the Civil War than we have fighting the Japanese.” World War II era letter to The Sun.

Still another scene consists of Gainesville-area servicemen writing letters home from various battlefields.

“So far we have had more trouble fighting the Civil War than we have had fighting the Japanese. There are so many Yankees here, or perhaps I should say so many damned Yankees. Cape Cod Yankees, too.”

Although young people are not known as inveterate letter writers, one scene from the play, titled “Voices of the future,” was made up entirely of children, who raffled off lines from letters they would write if they wrote letters to the editor.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m living under a microscope! My parents spy on my every action.”

“I’ve recently read a number of letters in the paper from people who use the Bible to justify their hatred of homosexuals. What Bible are these people reading?”

“It’s funny they pay so much attention to me now after treating me like I was invisible the first 10 years of my life.”

“The real trouble with this boy is that he is on drugs.”

“I propose we stop this madness by implementing a Pokemon tax. The money raised could go to build more juvenile detention centers.”

The art of letter writing. A dying art?

More Letters functions as both a community history and a glorification of those who still practice what many consider to be a dying art — the art of letter writing.

For those of us who are always searching for new ways to raise community awareness of what the daily opinion pages are all about, this sort of creative collaboration with the arts community presents a new twist on an old theme: Letters to the editor inform, they entertain, they make us angry. That’s show business, too.

“Doing Shakespeare is thrilling,” Homan says, “but it’s not quite the same as doing something like More Letters. It’s making something from scratch, handling real material that is absolutely indigenous to our community. In some ways it was more gratifying than doing Hamlet, I got as much a kick out of it.”

Homan is writing a “how-to” guide for other communities that may be interested in turning the daily argument of public life found on every good newspaper’s letters pages into the stuff of show business.

Sidney Homan on “More Letters To The Editor.”

I miss Sid Homan. And now I fear I will miss the Voice Of The People in the Gainesville Sun.

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