This year, I had the chance to see many resonant theatrical presentations take the New York stage (see more in Part 1). To send off 2018, the Persistent Acts series looks back at the intersection of performance and contemporary issues, and how these particular productions held space for complexity and spurred reflection. You can revisit my 2016 and 2017 years-in-review, which have sparked my Persistent Acts series.
Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me at New York Theatre Workshop has been one of my most impactful theatrical experiences this year. Heidi performs her own play, based on her time debating the US Constitution at American Legions for prize money to pay for college. This play is deeply personal and political. It weaves Heidi’s family history to trace the history of women’s rights in the US, all under the framework of one of her high school Constitutional debates. The audience is cast as members of the American Legion (who are mostly middle-aged white male veterans), and Heidi’s presentation is set up by actor Mike Iveson, playing a moderator. Throughout the play, we bear witness to the Constitution’s fraught history, to how this document has been used, or not, to uphold the rights of disenfranchised people, namely women.
Toward the end of the play, Heidi introduces a high school debater, either Thursday Williams or Rosdely Ciprian, depending on the performance. They debate the question: Should we abolish the US Constitution? We’re instructed to root and cheer at the points we like, and boo and hiss for the points we don’t. After a couple of rounds and rebuttals, the young debater asks an audience member to name a winner. Rosdely (or Thursday) is positioned to win, as she makes the case that the Constitution has expanded rights for more people than originally intended, because of the way it sets up for amendments and Supreme Court rulings. As I saw this eloquent and poised young woman state her case to maintain our current Constitution, I couldn’t help but be filled with hope. The show ends with Heidi asking Thursday (or Rosdely) where she wants to be in twenty years. Having spent the previous eighty-five minutes on a tumultuous journey with Heidi, it was refreshing to hear a completely different voice – one that doesn’t have Heidi’s life experience, but is deeply aware of today’s inequities and where they come from.
I saw the show in the midst of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, and despite that disgusting reality, I left the performance with a buoyant sense of possibility. Even though I didn’t say a word during the show (except for cheers during the debate), I felt heard – I felt my voice has a place. This forum for debate and constructive conversation that Heidi and her team open up is vital. We need reminders that we all belong. We need reasons, like the future that Rosdely and Thursday represent, to continue the work for equitable systems.
Another forum I had the privilege to participate in this season was Antigone in Ferguson at Harlem Stage. Theater of War Productions, in collaboration with residents of Ferguson, Missouri, presented a reading of Sophocles’ Antigone for modern times, amplified by original songs performed by a gospel choir. This event was conceived in the wake of Michael Brown’s death in 2014, and has been two years in the making. As noted by the creators, “the performance is the catalyst for panel and audience-driven discussions on race and social justice.”
After the reading, key players led the discussion. We started by talking about the play itself and its relevance to today. A point that stuck with me is how the power dynamics in Antigone reflect the dynamics between Black people, police officers, and the society we live in. When a Black person is murdered by police, media jumps on the story and the characters involved. If and when the officer in question goes to trial, mainstream media flurries again, and said trial ends in acquittal, like the case with Michael Brown. In this way, white supremacy asserts its power, and Black people are retraumatized and silenced. The dialogue opened up to the root of the event’s conception – the specific murder of one Black man by police – and how the experience has evolved over two years of development and touring. When I went to this show, the Kavanaugh hearings were still going on. New Yorkers in the audience and Ferguson residents in the cast shared grief over the silencing of women and the continued killing of Black people. Women of color led the conversation, and offered responses to a racially diverse room. Young people shared their perspectives. If a comment came into the room and didn’t quite reach the mark of inclusive language, someone offered a more complex perspective. Everyone – through an unspoken agreement – held space for others.
The final theatrical experience I want to recap this year is The Movement Theatre Company’s What to Send Up When It Goes Down. Written by Aleshea Harris and described as an offering, a ritual, What to Send Up is unlike anything I’ve seen in the theatre. In the lobby, where the walls are covered in posters of murdered unarmed Black people, performers tell us that this is a show for Black people. Everyone is welcome, but The Movement Theatre has come together, as artists and people of color, to respond to the deaths of Black people, and offer modes for coping, resisting, and moving forward. After an introduction from one of the performers, we circle up (well, form two layers of circles) in the theatre. We each say our names. We each say how we’re feeling. Everyone listens to everyone else. We set up the ritual. We write a note of affirmation and love to Black people. We sit to watch the rest of the offering, which unfolds as a series of vignettes “highlighting the absurdity of anti-blackness in our society.” Each step of the ritual is an invitation to participate. By the end of the deeply moving performance, Black folks are invited to stay in the theatre for the final part of the ritual. The rest of us move out into the lobby for a final moment together. We are invited to consider our accountability. I felt my privilege, and found new ways to participate in society as a white woman. We need these offerings, these spaces specifically for healing.
These plays are not about climate change. These plays confront deep issues of our time, in ways that hold space for and amplify marginalized voices. These plays are about sexism and racism and systemic violence, and they are each powerful because the people who created these performances and experiences are not only reacting to the unjust world we live in, but offering pathways for healing and alternatives to the oppressive status quo. The forces behind racism and sexism are the same disgusting, greedy oppressive forces that led us to our current climate situation. As I reflect on my year at the theatre, I feel more equipped than ever to receive the offerings of these experiences. I’ve collected more tools to heal my own turmoils, and therefore have more tools to stand up, speak out, and hold space in the path toward a more sustainable and equitable society.
(Top Image: What to Send Up When it Goes Down. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.)
This article is part of the Persistent Acts series which looks at the intersection of performance, climate, and politics. How does hope come to fruition, even in the most dire circumstances? What are tangible alternatives to the oppressive status quo? The series considers questions of this nature to motivate conversations and actions on climate issues that reverberate through politics and theatre.
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 the Marketing Manager at HERE and is Artistic Producer of The Arctic Cycle. Julia writes and devises with her performance-based initiative, The UPROOT Series, 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.
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