I wish that I could write a play, but I haven’t the talent. I wish that I could compose a musical score, but I haven’t the gift. I wish that I could dance, but I have neither the freedom in my body nor the discipline to train. I can sing, a bit, but only well enough to entertain myself on long car rides. So because of my deep admiration for the people who can do these things, because of how they uplift me, move me, teach me, I go to the theatre.
On this post-election morning of November 9, I am reminded that the theatre is my America, because it embraces a multiplicity of stories, of possibilities, of harsh realities and of unimaginable dreams. Its stories are the stories I want to have told, its songs are the songs I want to sing while driving on an autumn day. It is the place where I meet and commune with people on stage and in the audience, inclusive of all ages, genders, sexualities, races, ethnicities, or disabilities. I don’t look to the theatre for escape, but for engagement, which includes the potential for epiphany and joy.
Theatre is where I learn about the world, but even more importantly, the people of that world. In just the past two weeks, the theatre has taken me into the lives of factory workers in today’s Pennsylvania, into the world of Vietnamese refugees discovering America in the 1970s, into apartheid-era South Africa in 1950, where I watched a tragedy play out an inexorably as it did when I first witnessed the same story 34 years earlier. Theatre is my travel, my transport, my time machine.
Yes, I awoke today, after little sleep, in despair. Then I embraced someone I love, and while my worries were unabated, I was reminded that whatever is to come, I do not face it alone. Tonight, I will go to the theatre, and while I don’t expect that the audience will hug and kiss one another for comfort or in solidarity, we will be gathering in the collective embrace of theatre. That tonight’s show was created by a friend of 30 years duration will connect me with the work above and beyond what I might feel simply as a member of the audience. I will go to the theatre again tomorrow night, and the night after that – and then again the night after that.
It has been said that a great many works seen on stage over the past 15 years have been post-9/11 plays. That is not merely referring to the calendar, but to the mindset – that directly or obliquely, so much theatre has been grappling with that terrible tragedy. Did yesterday mark the start of a new era in the work created for the theatre and elsewhere in the arts as well? Intentionally or not, I think it did.
More importantly, I think it must. While our country is divided and we have just elected a man who stoked that divisiveness, we don’t know what’s going to come next, or what the next four years have in store. Pundits and politicians will spin their stories, but based upon the just completed campaign, it will become increasingly difficult to know the difference between truth and lies, between fact and conjuncture, between assured prediction and stark reality.
Because I cannot make art, I look to artists to interpret the world for me, in ways that go to the core of who I am, perhaps challenging my assumptions and at other times affirming my beliefs. Because I cannot make art, I have spent my life in support of it, in one way or another, hopefully helping others to create, and still more to understand it and participate in it. At times, that has required me to challenge authority that seeks to diminish the arts, to deny the arts to others, to reduce the arts to merely inoffensive diversion.
As I have watched this political campaign unfold, I have often said that I expected challenges to art, to theatre, to only increase, parallel to the political divisions that have been set into high, ugly relief over the past year and a half. With the election over and the outcome determined, I’m now all but certain that we will see creative expression targeted as we have not seen for a number of years.
No one can tell an artist what to create, or how to create it. But on this morning when so many people I admire and respect, who have brought so much into my life with their gifts, are reacting in shock and profound dismay, I turn to them and say that while colored maps and percentage points may dishearten you, we need you as much as ever, if not even more than before. We believe in you. Speak your truths for those who hunger for them. Mix the divisions of red and blue into a vibrant purple. Tell us about the lives of people we do not know, but should. And we will fight for your right to tell them and our right to see them, hear them, dance them and sing them.
The great work has gone on for many centuries. We can still learn from the ancient Greek theatre artists. Today it begins yet again. We must learn from you. Tell us a story. Lead us to a better America and a better world.
Photo by Max Wolfe