Theater Review: Red Diaper Baby


Internationally known monologuist Josh Kornbluth-an admitted nerd, bald, with a fringe of long, frizzled hair-said he wrote “Red Diaper Baby” to show what it was like to grow up with Communist Party parents in the 1950s.

Kornbluth’s mother and father were among the hundreds of thousands of people who had passed through the membership rolls of the Communist Party from the 1920s until the ’50s. The party ranks included many honest militants who mistakenly saw counterrevolutionary Stalinism as the continuation of the revolutionary workers’ power established in the USSR in October 1917.

Kornbluth describes many hysterically funny experiences-which quite a few older readers of this newspaper, red diaper babies themselves, will identify with.

Using a chair as his only prop and moving as nimbly and gracefully on stage as a movement artist, Josh confided that as a child he was often told by his father that a socialist revolution would soon happen and that Josh would lead it. Understandably, he felt he was under a lot of pressure!

From the time Josh was six years old, his huge bearded father, Paul, woke him at five in the morning by singing, “Arise, ye prisoners of starvation! Arise ye wretched of the earth!”, the rallying words of the “Internationale.” For years, Josh believed the song was his “own personal wake up call.”

Using clever vocal and postural changes, Kornbluth, acting as the senior Kornbluth, tried to explain to young Josh the historical materialist outlook of Marx and Engels. He went through the epochs from Primitive Communism, to Slavery, from there, Feudalism, (with a stop off at Capitalism, “because that’s where you get your appliances”), then on to Socialism, and finally, Communism.

Kornbluth touched on how his parents’ politics affected him. For instance, in kindergarten, at his mother’s suggestion, he tried the Bolshevik tactic of “boring from within” to organize the masses (fellow kindergarteners) against the first-graders.

He ended up being taken out of public school and sent to a Catholic school because he was always getting beat up. This move wasn’t all that strange to his father, as he considered Jesus to be a “nice Jewish revolutionary.”

Josh talked about Paul Kornbluth and the folksingers at Communist Party gatherings, who led hootenannies where everyone joined in singing between political arguments. Paul and all but one of his friends-a guy who actually went to all the meetings of the Stalinists-would often denounce the party leadership for betraying Marxist ideals. Shouting matches would flare until someone started singing, “Yo soy un hombre sincero …”

In high school, Kornbluth went to Russia with a group of Young Communists to meet some medical students. After Kornbluth greeted them in Russian, the students shouted in response, “Geev us your jeans!” and then asked about Pink Floyd and John Denver. Josh sadly concluded he was more of a communist than the kids in Russia.

In a small town in the Midwest, where his second wife had brought him, Josh’s father suffered a stroke and lapsed into a coma. The hootenanniers came into the ICU and sang, “Arise, ye prisoner of starvation!” like a scene out of a Marx Brothers movie, Kornbluth said, although maybe a different Marx.

When his father died, a rabbi came from New York to deliver an eulogy in the chapel, only to be upstaged by one of his father’s oldest comrades. “Paul Kornbluth was … a Marxist-Leninist,” the man began, “He believed in the violent destruction of this nation’s government. Heads will roll in Washington because of this man! … Here in Ottawa Lake, the fascists will be crushed-their skulls carried on sticks through the town!” Relatives in the chapel groaned in embarrassment.

Now that his father was dead, the pressure for Kornbluth to become the new Lenin had lifted. He felt he could get on with his career as a stand-up comic. But the concern for social justice and for socialism that he learned from his parents remains with him.

Kornbluth claims that he was greatly inspired in his work by Spalding Gray’s monologue, “Swimming to Cambodia” (subsequently made into a film), which was about the U.S. bombing of that country.

Look for Josh Kornbluth’s own first-run movie, “Haiku Tunnel,” coming out in major theaters this month. The film, taken from his monologue of the same name, was based on his experiences as a temp worker in a law firm. If the movie is anything like his live performance, you’ll be falling out of your chairs.

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