Lately I've been at a loss for words.
Not for the first time (this week, even), I find myself feeling powerless in the face of the great machine of social injustice, overwhelmed at the mighty cruelty of which humanity is capable. It seems that lately in America, not to mention the rest of the world, but I'd like to focus particularly on America, before we have even a moment to breathe after a tragedy, we are struck by another.
The surface of our country is simmering in the summer heat, bubbles of violence bursting all over our mighty democracy, our "post-racial" America. My generation is taking to the streets, shutting down highways in protest, following in the footsteps and standing on the shoulders of the generations that came before us, the fearless activists that marched on Washington, that stood up in public, that sat down in diners, that actively occupied spaces they had been told were not for "them." My friends and I speak out now, echoing those voice as loudly as we can.
I marched in a Black Lives Matter protest back in December of 2014. We originated in Union Square and flooded down Broadway, stopping traffic and eventually blocking the West Side Highway. And as I marched with those people, shouting our grief for the families of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and so many others, I put my hands in the air like so many others. "Hands up, don't shoot," we chanted. "I can't breathe," we shouted, until we were so hoarse it felt like we couldn't breathe. But of course, we still could. In that moment, I felt probably as close as I will ever feel to being persecuted by the police. I live in a certain circle of privilege as a white person, but walking with my hands up, asking the world at large not to shoot, filled me with a sense of vulnerability I have rarely felt. There is a theatricality in these movements, brought forth by the seeking of attention to get a message across.
You want to see a theatrical event? Watch footage of the Democratic filibuster in the senate a couple weeks ago, attempting to start a conversation about gun control in this country. Watch a bunch of people on the same side of an issue ask questions they know the answers to, in order to hold the floor hostage. Every senator who was a part of that discussion (as well as the House reps who staged a sit-in a few days later) knew that their short-term goals of passing a specific bill would not be achieved. And they weren't. After the filibuster, the Senate voted on four gun control measures, two from each side of the aisle, and none of them passed. The House did not achieve a bill before they went on break. But those noble dissenters were working for a greater cause. They wanted to send a message to the people of America that they hear us, and they will work to make change. And they wanted us to see that we have to be a part of that change, and elect the leadership that will make institutional shifts possible. That week was a remarkable moment in America, when I (and I'm sure many others) paid more direct attention to Congress than ever. I watched at least three hours of the senate live stream during the filibuster as well as CSPAN's intermittent broadcast of the periscope feed of the House floor. I'm pretty politically active and aware, but I've never sought out a live feed of Congress before.
I think constantly about theatre's power to affect change, to inform, instigate, instruct, challenge, question, and change the society we live in. Artists are gifted with a need to tell stories, to communicate their point of view in a universal language. But I think that means we are also burdened with the obligation, duty, responsibility, whatever you want to call it, to use our talents and any platform we can find, to better the world through art.
That can take a lot of forms. "Bettering the world" is a very broad objective. Sometimes what will make the world better is laughter. When our communities are hurting as badly as they are now, everyone could use a smile, a hug, and the promise of brighter days ahead. But that future will only come through work, and so sometimes what we have to do is paint a picture for the audience, whether on stage, or through music, or writing, or photography, or actual paint.
Back in November while I was in London, I was fortunate enough to experience a performance by Belarus Free Theatre as part of their "Staging a Revolution" festival produced in partnership with The Young Vic. BFT produces work underground in Belarus, where all art is state-controlled and heavily censored. Their work is all socially and politically motivated, tackling a multitude of issues that are taboo in their country (and not popular elsewhere, frankly). The festival in London was partially performed at The Young Vic, but also included a series of performances in various secret locations around the city. I threw caution to the wind and bought a ticket to a performance, not knowing really what or where it would be. My ticket confirmation included instructions to dress warmly and bring my passport just in case, because in Belarus performances are sometimes raided by the authorities. It took me two trains and a bus to get to the specified corner I was sent to, where I waited with the rest of the audience. We were taken in small groups to a warehouse that had been turned into a performance space that day. The show I attended, Trash Cuisine, was about capital punishment, particularly the death penalty, and was hard to watch and harder to put into words. The performance was live streamed around the world, allowing people in Belarus and plenty of other locations to see the same thing I was watching in London, as I was watching it.
After the show we were given beet root soup, traditionally Belarussian, and then took part in a post-show discussion, which took the form of an Englishman who is now a lawyer in America reenacting a death penalty case he tried in Louisiana, where he defended a couple both accused of placing their newborn baby in the freezer where it died. The jury was made up of twelve audience members, who had all stated they would be willing to sentence someone to the death penalty. It was fascinating (if a bit uncomfortable) to be a part of the discussion in a country that banned capital punishment over fifty years ago as someone from a country that still has the death penalty. The lawyer-man led us through the case, presenting information in pieces as he'd gotten it, periodically asking the audience to vote on who they thought was guilty, and asking the jury members if they would convict anyone. Ultimately, in the case, the lawyer got both parents off; neither was convicted. The whole experience got me thinking about what a vehicle theatre can be to get people talking about social issues that can be hard to talk about.
The play I finally finished in May is about the surveillance state America has become, something I care deeply about and that is a major issue in our modern society as laws struggle to keep up with technology. And the issues I'm tackling there are about threats to peoples rights and freedoms, but I can't help but feel, right now, in this climate in our country, that I need to crate something about the threat to people's lives in this developed, first-world nation. BFT has perfected a way of using the internet as part of their theatre, to make their message global. I see a parallel between the live stream of the Senate filibuster and the BFT broadcast of their productions. It's about getting the message out to people, regardless of geography. That's important. Those legislators are trying to stage a revolution, too. And people all over this country are taking that revolution to the streets. Now I'm trying to figure out how to take the revolution back to a stage, whether in a theatre or a park or a street corner. I welcome you to join me.
If you don't speak up, your silence will be deafening.