Through Persistent Acts, I look at the intersection of performance, climate, and politics. In this divisive political moment, I share examples of performances that persevere in pursuit of intersectional justice and sustainability. How does hope come to fruition, even in the direst circumstances? What are tangible alternatives to the oppressive status quo? My Persistent Acts series considers questions of this nature to motivate conversations and actions on climate issues that reverberate through politics and theatre. The Persistent Acts series continues, with a look at performative responses to divisive United States politics, focusing on immigration and the DREAM Act.
Last year, Artists Rise Up New York hosted our inaugural event, The Rising, in response to the Inauguration. We set up installations for audiences to engage (including postcard-writing to Congress), shared a reading of The FEAR Project (based on dozens of interviews about fear), and participated in a collective movement sequence. The Rising was an evening of rage, concern for our country and our personal relationships, and solidarity.
Fast-forward to 2018, one year into 45’s administration. From travel bans based on religion, to undoing Obama-era climate deals (which did not go far enough to begin with), to collusion with Russia, America is having a moment. And not in a progressive way. This divisive and toxic political moment requires a movement – one comprised of intersectional communities, and otherwise-marginalized voices. Artists Rise Up is one segment of said movement, among the countless other collectives that have coalesced in the wake of November 2016. Since the Inauguration, Artists Rise Up has addressed a variety of topics through monthly events, including feminism, climate change, and endangered species. Our latest event, The Divide, addressed this particular divergent moment; we wanted to bring people together to explore specific politically-charged topics: the failing two-party system in the US, the conflict in Israel and Palestine, and the plight of undocumented youth.
As part of our The Divide evening, I directed a reading of Dream Acts. Written collectively by Chiori Miyagawa, Mia Chang, Jessica Litwak, Saviana Stanescu, and Andrea Thome, this 2012 play dramatizes the stories of five undocumented youth from five different countries: Jordan, Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, and Ukraine. Each character was brought – or found their way – to the US in one way or another, and each is implicated by their undocumented status. These Dreamers are categorized as such based on the proposed DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors). This play felt particularly urgent because like the characters, millions of Dreamers’ lives are on the line, pending the next round of federal budget negotiations.
For Dreamers and documented citizens alike, the play offers questions such as: What makes a place a home? Can people belong to a country? How does it feel to not belong? While Dream Acts showcases the specific plight of undocumented youth, these overarching questions hold space for intersectional conversations about human rights. The discussion about the DREAM Act is not just about making room in the federal budget, it is not just about the social implications of immigration. As a human rights concern, the DREAM Act discussion is about why some groups of people (in this case, undocumented youth) are being denied the right to exist in the only country that many of them know as “home.” To me, the DREAM Act as a human rights issue intersects with other instances of oppression in our society: racism, xenophobia, sexism, and more. These oppressions epitomize the disproportionate wielding of power by one group over another. Such oppression is also evident in terms of climate, with every country on Earth implicated in the era of climate change, but only a handful of countries actually responsible for raising the thermostat. It is us humans who have to face societal and cultural fall-outs of a changing climate, with the most vulnerable populations – those people who bear no responsibility for altering the climate – in the most threatened circumstances.
In my own lifetime, I have never seen such blatant oppression as what I am witnessing now. This is why it was vital to bring Dream Acts to life. While the play was written under Obama, and put to rest once his administration passed DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), Dream Acts is immediate again, with Trump and the Republicans laying out deals to allow Dreamers to stay, in exchange for money for the wall along the US-Mexico border. Dream Acts highlights the experiences of fictionalized characters as they feel isolated, rejected, joyful, and uncertain, but does not include mention of this wall. The context of our reading with Artists Rise Up was implicated by these federal budget discussions. As the characters in the play talk about marching on Washington, D.C., the actors march around the audience – we used this dramatic moment to demonstrate a tangible political action, exemplifying the agency that many citizens do have to stand in support of the marginalized.
Another element of the play is an Internet chatroom for Dreamers (such a chatroom really exists!). The Internet has blown open the possibilities for cross-cultural communication. And as we see in Dream Acts, individuals can anonymously share their stories, glean advice, and find community. Whatever happens to the DREAM Act, I am holding hope that the Internet will be put to positive use, and allow people to support one another when their governments will not.
Climate change forces us to take a hard look at our political borders, because in an increasingly de-stabilizing climate, more and more people will be migrants. As human rights issues, climate change and immigration intersect beyond political borders. To build the society that values newcomers and holds space for different ethnicities is also to build a society that values alternative, sustainable energy and equitably-distributed political power. These issues are not indivisible, and the change that I wish to see cannot happen on an incremental basis. As a country and as a species, we do not have time for arrogance and fear.
Julia Levine is a creative collaborator and vegetarian. Originally from St. Louis, Julia is now planted in the New York City downtown theatre realm. As a director, Julia has worked on various projects with companies that consider political and cultural topics, including Theater In Asylum, Honest Accomplice Theatre, and Superhero Clubhouse. She is on the Marketing team at HERE Arts Center and is a co-organizer with Climate Change Theatre Action. Julia writes and devises with her performance-based initiative, The Food Plays, to bring questions of food, climate, and justice into everyday life.
Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.