Friday is the opening night of The Manistee Civic Players’ stage rendition of 1970s hit television show Free to Be… You and Me. Kate Botello sat down to talk with the director of the production, Connar Klock. He lives in Kalamazoo, but he’s originally from the Manistee area and was asked to come back to direct this show about gender neutrality and social constructs. Behind the bouncy and upbeat music, Free to Be… You and Me addresses serious themes that are still relevant today.
“From the research that I’ve done, Free to Be… You and Me is this idea that there shouldn’t be confining gender roles,” says Klock. “Girls can wear overalls and become a firefighter when they get older and boys can play with dolls. And those things can actually enrich a person.”
Before the record was released, it was common to say “fireman” instead of “firefighter”. This show is credited with helping to break down notions of what boys and girls are supposed to be when they grow up.
Free to Be… You and Me featured notable actors, poets and musicians, which got the show acclaim. Rosey Grier, a former professional football player for the Los Angeles Rams and bodyguard for Ethel Kennedy during the Robert F. Kennedy assassination, came on the show to sing, “It’s Alright to Cry”. Grier illustrated the point that it’s okay for tough guys to cry.
Although Free to Be… You and Me was released in 1972, its message had a ripple effect and took hold in the 1980s.
“I was having a conversation with one of the Manistee Civic Players Board of Directors who is also in our show, Bonnie Brown,” explains Klock. “She was a teenager when this album came out. She was saying that the influence that it had in the 80s was where it really took place—everything was gender neutral. It was even to the point that walking down an aisle in the store, absolutely nothing was male, female—everything was gender neutral.”
In a Huffington Post article, Marlo Thomas, the creator of the show, says that if she had to redo the show for today’s audience, she would include topics about body image and bullying.
As a director, Klock plays an important role in passing these messages forward.
“I think that a seed needs to be planted,” says Klock. “And sometimes that may cause some tension or irritation and a little bit of misunderstanding. As time continues, that seed will start to germinate and grow inside the person and they will think about the idea.”