What Is the Role of Art in Social Movement? Is Theater a “Safe Space”?

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Cast_and_crew_of_Hamilton_musical,_2015

Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

November 19, 2017; Washington Post

Is theater a “safe space,” as President-elect Donald Trump has asserted? If so, safe for whom? Or should it be a place to evoke questioning and discomfort, among other things? Artists and others must consider the meaning of a challenge to art being art in all its fullness and diversity.

The audience booed and cheered Vice President-elect Mike Pence as he found his seat in New York’s Richard Rogers Theatre last Friday evening. Pence, his daughter and nephew were there to see the Tony-winning musical Hamilton. Pence told Fox News Sunday that the boos were “what freedom sounds like.”

Breaking the wall between performers and audience, this is the message that Aaron Burr actor Brandon Victor Dixon read to Pence during the curtain call that Trump (not Pence) found offensive. A visiting dignitary would normally greet the cast backstage following the performance. Pence was on his way out of the theater, but stopped in the lobby to listen to Dixon’s message and then left.

“Thank you so much for joining us tonight,” Dixon said, on behalf of the production. “You know, we had a guest in the audience this evening. And Vice President-elect Pence, I see you walking out, but I hope you will hear us just a few more moments. There’s nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen. There’s nothing to boo here. We’re all here, sharing a story of love. We have a message for you, sir, and we hope that you will hear us out. And I encourage everybody to pull out your phones and tweet and post, because this message needs to be spread far and wide, okay? Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us at ‘Hamilton: An American Musical.’ We really do. We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values, and work on behalf of all of us. All of us. Again, we truly thank you for sharing this show, this wonderful American story, told by a diverse group of men, women, of different colors, creeds and orientations.”

The video of what was said can be viewed here:

In response to the message the cast delivered during curtain call, Pence said, “I did hear what was said from the stage. I can tell you I wasn’t offended by what was said. I will leave to others whether that was the appropriate venue to say it.”

President-elect Donald Trump is the “other.” Taking time out from choosing his Cabinet, here are his tweets Saturday and Sunday mornings: (Saturday) 8:48 AM: “Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing. This should not happen!” 8:56 AM: “The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!” (Sunday) 6:22 AM: “The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior.”

Some believe that the incident itself was contrived as a distraction from the Trump University fraud settlement. Perhaps it was, in a way, an example of what a reality star does for a living. But there is also a deeper question here for those of us trying to hold to principles of loyal opposition and free expression.

The Broadway musical celebrates founding father Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant allegedly born out of wedlock in the British West Indies. Hamilton was killed in an illegal duel with Aaron Burr, who had been named the nation’s third vice president when Jefferson and Burr tied for the presidency in the Electoral College in 1801.

Why this particular message at this time to this vice president-elect? In addition to the Trump-Pence campaign’s hostility toward immigrants, Pence, the outgoing governor of Indiana, has advocated for anti-LGBT policies; he has advocated to divert funding away from HIV/AIDS treatment programs to groups that provide the widely condemned “reparative” therapy; and he signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that at least initially permitted businesses to deny services to gay and lesbian customers before it was amended. (Javier Muñoz, who plays Alexander Hamilton, is both openly gay and HIV positive.)

Hamilton’s author, Lin-Manuel Miranda; the lead producer, Jeffrey Seller; and the cast members wrote the plea to Mr. Pence. They learned that Pence would be attending the performance at the last minute.

“We had to ask ourselves, ‘How do we cope with this?’” Mr. Seller said. “Our cast could barely go on stage the day after the election. The election was painful and crushing to all of us here. We all struggled with what was the appropriate and respectful and proper response. We are honored that Mr. Pence attended the show and we had to use this opportunity to express our feelings.”

Apologize? Art is grounding and an elevating force “in times of dread.” Toni Morrison wrote the essay “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,” about the necessity for art and by extension civil society to act:

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.

Hamilton was not the subject of Trump’s only complaint this past weekend. At 8:26 AM on Sunday Morning he tweeted: “I watched parts of ‪@nbcsnl Saturday Night Live last night. It is a totally one-sided, biased show – nothing funny at all. Equal time for us?” The Alec Baldwin Foundation responded via Twitter.

Do these Twitter tantrums presage Trump’s “presidential” temperament once he gets into office? Should Americans be concerned about the president-elect’s tolerance for dissent? Or is all of this merely the Trump organization’s own form of theater?

In his first interview since being named as Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon said, “Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement.” He goes on to explain how and what this means, how Trump won the election, and how “the establishment,” both Republicans and Democrats, never understood what happened. “Darkness is good… Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when [establishment parties]…get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.” Bannon ends the interview immodestly: “‘I am,’ he says, with relish, ‘Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors.’”

Civil society would counter that light is better than darkness. Hamilton also encourages us to know our history. Cromwell eventually fell from power and was executed by King Henry VIII for treason and heresy. Mark Harris at Vulture writes:

You can do two things if you’re on a stage: Show or tell. There are those who feel Hamilton should have stuck with the first; instead, the cast and production team chose, for one night, to do both. While this is going to be a very long and ugly fight, I’d award them a narrow victory-by-decision in Culture Wars, Round One. They saw an extraordinary circumstance looming before them, they stood up, they represented themselves and others with firmness and dignity, and they sparked plenty of meaningful, non-distracting dialogue by doing so. Chances to speak truth directly to power, even when power turns its back and starts walking up the aisle, may be rarer than we would wish in the next four years. When the opportunity comes along, there’s much to be said for not throwing away your shot.

—James Schaffer