I haven’t changed the writing for this post, so it remains an historical, “occasional” document. But the sentiments expressed are still relevant, now that the war with Iraq continues.
How, too, we might ask, can the arts respond to the recent devastation in New Orleans, Mississippi, and Alabama caused by Hurricane Katrina, in addition to the man-made devastations of war? I have links to helpful sites responding to the crisis through the arts that I hope to post shortly.
Meanwhile, here are my 2002 thoughts on
Hair.Thanks, as always, for your responses and feedback.
The Feminist Spectator
Remarks for “Arts Advocacy: Can the Arts Bind the Nation?”
A panel at the Association for Theatre in
Higher Education Convention
San Diego 2002
Since the tragedy of September 11th, I continue to believe that theatre and performance can help us reimagine a world now riven by hatred and suspicion, one in which our civil liberties have been curtailed under the auspices of protecting our now too permeable borders. I continue to believe that creating, consuming, and critiquing theatre and performance can help us toward a world that’s more just, more ethical, more equal in how it distributes its resources and its power. David Román, in his editor’s introduction to the “Tragedy” issue of Theatre Journal, says, “I’m interested here in spotlighting the critical role that the performing arts—theatre, music, and dance—might play in a contemporary culture infused with the tragic.” Describing his visit to see theatre in New York shortly after September 11th, which he made out of respect for the tragedy and as a kind of pilgrimage to honor the city, Román says, “Liveness was at the core of these events. The performing arts offered people the chance to be with other people and experience themselves together. In this sense, we were as much audiences for ourselves as we were for the performances” (14) [TJ, 54:1 (March 2002)]. For me, too, gathering at the theatre became a desire to be with, to see with, to share with others some of our suddenly common pain. I took comfort in theatre; I felt closer to strangers and wanted to experience the particular public intimacy that comes from being watchful together in a imaginative space.
But this question of whether art can “bind a nation” is troubling and complicated. As many progressive political commentators have pointed out, the so-called war against terrorism has been used as an excuse for Bush the 2nd’s administration to deprive people’s freedom in the name of protecting the nation. Urvashi Vaid, in a recent issue of The Advocate, suggests that the administration is exploiting people’s fear to install systems of intimidation and federal prejudice that discriminate against people who look “foreign” (particularly Middle Eastern); to authorize surveillance and infiltration of resistant political organizations; and to allow the doctrines of the Christian Right to influence and set public policy. Attorney General John Ashcroft has been given freedom to reign his own kind of terror over the nation, as the nation supposedly protects the world.
Current political practices, as well as our own emotional desires to belong, to be immune, to be safe from terror, cast “the nation” in a different light. I call myself an American, and want to do it proudly; but I can’t imagine myself bound to a blindly patriotic majority who sanction and cheer for a war machine in which I utterly disbelieve. The tragedy of September 11th’s events doesn’t allow me to forget that the United States has instituted a hierarchy of citizenship in which some genders, sexual practices, races, ethnicities, classes, and abilities are more enfranchised than others. I can’t forget that the IMF and the World Bank and corporate multinational capitalism promote socially exploitative practices in the world’s poorest countries, or that a progressive, even radical critique of American global involvement is urgent and necessary. I can’t let all the flags waved in my face hide my eyes from alternative interpretations of world events.
Theatre’s Response to Politics
For theatre educators and theatre producers, current political history provides “teachable moments.” But it also urges progressive educators to look under the surface of politics, to seek alternatives to dogma spoken as “truth.” We might also encourage our students to use their learning toward social commentary, to think of themselves as artists- and critics-in-training who hold a stake in how nationalism is defined, and who can offer diverse political perspectives on America’s self-appointed role as global police patrol. How can we teach theatre history and literature, performance studies and theory, and mount university or college theatre productions, without taking into account how they speak into the current moment? As performance artist and activist Robbie McCauley says, “Art, no matter what, has a political and social point of view. . . . What is your particular view?” she asks. “How are people being educated about what’s wrong with this country? What are good things about this country that need to be practiced [?]” (10) [Theater]. And, I would add, how can art production stage a diversity of opinions and promote contentious public debate about national politics?
Most of the theatre and performance I’ve seen since September 11th has prompted me to question what it means, what it does, what use we might make of it in the current political climate to start more complex conversations about the relationship between world events and art. Early this month, I saw a production of Hair in Austin, directed by Dave Steakley at the Zach Scott Theatre, whose choices about how to address the musical’s historicity raised compelling questions about how performance might engage politics. Concerned about the musical’s status at this particular historical crossroad, Steakley chose to frame it as a “museum piece.” Before the show, the painted, psychedelic, dayglo front half of a school bus that provided the set’s key scenic images, was cordoned off with ropes and stanchions, watched over by a woman wearing a museum guard’s uniform. When the musical began, a couple of actors crawled through the bus’s windshield and enticed the guard away from the stage with a box of Krispy Kremes. This freed the “Tribe” from its containment in history, and soon, the rallying notes of “The Age of Aquarius” rang out from the stage.
But once the production broke through the museum, it seemed ambivalent about its own historical status. Steakley peppered the show with post-1969 references: for example, protestors waved posters with Keith Haring designs and Woof, the only self-proclaimed gay character, unfurled a rainbow flag during one of the songs. More poignantly, during the “Frank Mills” number, cast members walked solemnly around the lonely singer, carrying posters of people who disappeared in the World Trade Center tragedy. The lyrics, you’ll remember, say, “I met a boy named Frank Mills/On September 12th right here, in front of the Waverly/but unfortunately, I lost his address.” The haunting melody of the song was suddenly inflected with contemporary allusions to loss; the other cast members, holding their signs, seemed to signify that this woman had met Frank Mills perhaps the day before, looking for a loved one who went missing on September 11th, before he, too, became lost.
The moment was moving—but even this small gesture toward the politics of the present was quickly erased by the very next number: Sheila singing “Easy to be Hard,” her plaint against Berger’s abusive behavior in their relationship. The move from political back to personal, from public to private, happened too easily. Rather than infusing the production with contemporary resonance, the scene only waved at the present before it retreated securely to the past, back to the private emotional world of the play.
Potential Contemporary Analogies
The show’s protests against the war in Vietnam might have offered corollaries to the current war in Afghanistan and to the coming war with Iraq. None of these analogies were advanced in this production; protest remained the performance of protest, detached from any external reference to which it might be effectively connected. Seeing the flag treated irreverently in songs like “Crazy for the Red White and Blue” was productively jarring, given how the icon has been elevated to a symbol of virulent, unquestioned US patriotism. But rather than a full-throttle critique of knee-jerk nationalism, the moments of disrespecting the flag in this production chose instead to point up its post-September 11th corporate cooptation as a handy consumer commodity. During the song, a performer walked among the cast like a cigarette girl, selling flags and red, white, and blue souvenirs.
The war is only a holding place in Hair for the characters’ more private anger and angst; it gives them a common vocabulary, a point to focus their rallying cries, a public politic from which they can privately be different. The production’s last scene was moving and compelling: Claude, the boy who can’t burn his draft card, joins the Army and is killed, sacrificed as a martyr to the military industrial complex. The actor playing Claude is wheeled out with his hair newly shorn, standing in his uniform on a long, coffin-like box painted red, white, and blue. He can’t capture the attention of the Tribe, who don’t see him, but as we watch, “bullets” riddle his body and he falls in battle. He’s resurrected, Christ-like, to peel away his clothes and stand naked, with arms outstretched, illuminated by blinding white light as his coffin/box is wheeled back through the center stage curtain while the cast sings a very mournful and cynical “Let the Sun Shine.” The moment was dark and portentous; but at the curtain call that immediately followed, melancholy was erased, anger was forgotten, order was restored, and happiness ruled the night. Invited to come on down, many members of the audience eagerly joined the cast on stage for an encore of the title song, singing and dancing, nostalgic and carefree.
Instead of harnessing its abundant energy and rich visual imagery to engage directly with contemporary politics, this production of Hair rested safely in nostalgia. From a 21st century perspective, it’s easy not to see the show as a protest vehicle, but simply as an anthem of free love, and an undertheorized call to peace. Hair remained personal; I could see baby-boomers in the audience thrilling to songs they know, songs that have become part of public memory, detached from any context that might lend them new or even specifically historical significance. The personal won out over the political. The audience was encouraged toward memory, while the young cast clearly performed at a history of which they have no bodily knowledge. Janelle Reinelt, writing about the 1960s in the journal Theatre Survey, suggests, “[A]rtists and intellectuals have a responsibility to acknowledge their lived experiences of historical matters in the context of their artistic and academic work” (Theatre Survey 43:1 [May 2002], 38). Would the production have been different if the actors had been schooled in the saturated, complicated history of the moment they represented? Would they have valued the communal life they performed so casually, if they better understood how giving up nuclear families for group living and loving rocked and mocked American values in the late 60s?
Hair is in many ways a very open text. The characters are only schematic, its location is vague, and the number and kind of performers who might be cast is very flexible (which actually makes it a good choice for university and college productions). In a more conceptual version of the show, a director could virtually overwrite its generalities, place it in a more specific location, and take advantage of the opportunities it raises for contemporary analogy. A production could cross-gender and cross-race cast, to point up and critique, rather than simply parody, the book’s now rather racist and misogynist backbone. The show’s references to protest against the war in Vietnam might offer current corollaries to the war in Afghanistan and to the coming war with Iraq. A new production ofHair might reimagine the Tribe as a group of homeless teenagers or runaways; these are among the populations who live outside in today’s America. These days, groups of young people marauding through neighborhoods are often gangs—how might a production of Hair reimagine its youthful community through battles for power over urban space? How much more textured the production might have been, if it had stayed self-conscious of the complexities of the musical’s contemporary resonance, and if the resistance to war was analogized to our present political situation? Instead, it left the audience safe, in personally recalled, privately enjoyed remembrances of history.
Taking Risks in Performance
I’d like to suggest that university theatre departments, in their pedagogy and in their production, might take greater risks than this production chose to do. In “teaching the conflicts,” Gerald Graff’s evocative term, we might use historical theatre to interrogate the values of current politics. We might ask students to devise their own scripts, to work with community groups to develop theatre that acknowledges and questions the fear and intimidation, the discrimination and close surveillance, under which we’re being asked to live.
Molly Smith, the artistic director of the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, wrote in an issue ofTheater Magazine devoted to September 11th, that “[t]he listening, the sense of pricking up our ears, and looking for answers, trying to find a way through the chaos into some time of order, is very clear in the theater right now” (15) [Theater 32:1 (2002)]. September 11th leaves a lasting, emotional, historical, and political memory that needs to be fueled, tended, kept alive so that no one forgets. To grieve, as a nation, is powerful and moving, perhaps even binding. Theatre and performance can help us explore affectively, as well as socially, what it means to be “bound,” can help us question the covenants we now seem bound to, can help us remember the power of grief but also remind us of the power of a conservative administration, taking advantage of tragedy to send punishing, civil liberties-destroying SWAT teams into our lives. Theatre must preserve our right to resistance, to analysis, to be and to feel differently, and offer alternative sources of pride and action. Performance must use that powerful sense of empathy it often inspires us to feel, which I think we all felt on September 11th, toward social activism, toward dissent, toward a multivocal conversation about what constitutes a nation and its local and global, ethical responsibilities.
July 16, 2002
San Diego, California