Black Lives Matter is a human rights movement, Frank Roberts was saying from the stage, but it’s also an artistic movement. Given where we were, it was hard to argue with him. Roberts was one of the participants in “Broadway for Black Lives Matters,” a three-hour event held at Columbia University on August 1 that combined a concert with a conference and featured such Tony-winning theatre artists as Audra McDonald, Billy Porter, Alexander Sharp, and Brian Stokes Mitchell. (See the video from the full event here).
Wearing a t-shirt that said “Unarmed Civilian,” Roberts, who teaches a course at NYU about the three-year-old political movement that began as a hashtag, pointed out that some of the main organizers of Black Lives Matter are artists. After all, organizing protest rallies, he said, “takes directorial vision and composition and theatricality and choreography—all the things that artists are naturally inclined to provide.”
If politics can be theatrical, theatre has been political since it began. As L.A. Times critic Charles McNulty put it recently: “The great playwrights provoke us not for provocation’s sake, but to wake us up. Inciting fury over a ludicrous status quo has been part of the dramatic tradition since the ancient Greeks.”
But if such political involvement by theatre artists recently finds its most visible expression in the public arena—amply demonstrated by the heavy Broadway presence at last month’s Democratic National Convention—it still exists on stage as well, if you know where to look. An unusual drama entitled Apprehension was presented Off-Off Broadway the week before “Broadway for Black Lives Matter.”
Even “Broadway for Black Lives Matter” was, in effect, hatched on stage, during the Broadway run of Shuffle Along, a reworking of an all-black Broadway musical from 1921. In her introductory remarks, Audra McDonald, who starred in the musical, explained:
A group of African-American artists in 1921 got together and created something that was bigger than the sum of its parts, a show that changed Broadway and the world, by being one of the forces that paved the way for the Harlem Renaissance. While we were doing this show, we were witness to the many disturbing acts that were happening in our present-day world—acts that have continued to demonstrate the need and amplify the voice of the Black Lives Matter movement. One of our cast members, Amber Iman, put out a Facebook post saying we need to do something, and it was a post that other cast members responded to.
The result, free to the public, was a mix of entertainment and political discourse. Some of the songs sung were specifically appropriate to the issue; some were not. Columbia law professor Kendall Thomas led the audience in singing Holly Near’s anthem, “We are a justice-seeking people and we are singing, singing for our lives…” while Broadway performer Norm Lewis spoke on a panel, recalling the first time he experienced racism, at age sixteen. Composer Jeanine Tesori talked about the need for “radical empathy.”
In the back of the room, people offered pamphlets from a few organizations, including Theatre of the Oppressed NYC (TONYC). For more than five years, TONYC has been partnering with community organizations to create theatre troupes that try to effect political and social change, based on the techniques developed by the late Brazilian theatre artist Augusto Boal, the founder of the original Theatre of the Oppressed in the 1960s. (Theater of the Oppressed NYC founding artistic director Katy Rubin trained directly with Boal shortly before he died in 2009.)
One troupe, Concrete Justice, published a collection of poems and photographs entitled “Street Poetry.” Other troupes were comprised of HIV+ homeless New Yorkers, undocumented immigrants and refugees, and New York City public school students and teachers. A play I saw three years ago, Save The Drama, which was in partnership with three LGBT groups, The Hetrick-Martin Institute, The Ali Forney Center and The Door, presenting scenes based on the troupe’s real-life experiences, including one vivid one of police “stop and frisk” humiliation.
TONYC’s latest play, Apprehension, was presented in a theatre in midtown in collaboration with the Covenant House Troupe. All of the performers are residents of Covenant House, a shelter for runaways and homeless youth. In Apprehension, two police officers had been using a young black man arrested on a drug charge as an informant in exchange for a reduced sentence. But in the first scene, they were pressuring him to make fake deals, against his will, so that they could make arrests. He gave in, buying drugs with “marked money.” The woman who sold him drugs gave the marked money to her sister, an unemployed single mother with a three-year-old child. The police confronted her in a park, interrogated her and threatened her, saying they would put her in prison and take away her child, unless she gave up her sister. She was led away in handcuffs.
The handcuffs were real, and so was the scenario, according to the theatremakers. They say it is based on the experiences of members of the Covenant House Troupe or people they know. But the play did not stop there. “You’re not spectators,” Liz Morgan of TONYC told the audience. “You’re spec-actors.” She was wearing a TONYC t-shirt printed with their slogan: “Watch. Act. Vote.” And so the scenario was replayed again and again with different audience members portraying the young man or the young mother. In one case, an audience member portrayed a new character—a passerby who used a cell phone to record the police confrontation with the mother. In another, the audience member playing the mother simply walked away from the police when they asked to speak with her. She turned out to be a lawyer (one of several in the audience), who explained in some detail why she was within her rights to ignore them. There was indeed plenty of discussion in-between the makeshift performances. One man who stood right next to the theatre exit talked about the arrests and police confrontations he has had, though he was college educated with a good job. “It’s not about what I think about myself,” he said. “It’s how they think about me.”
At a TONYC performance, it can be hard to tell the actors from the reactors, which seems to be much the point. “I believe that when theatre artists use their creativity to address entrenched social issues, then, yes, they make good political organizers,” says Katy Rubin. “And when political organizers recognize that fun, surprise, and silliness can draw in the crowds and make people excited to take civic action, then they become theatre artists as well.”
Jonathan Mandell’s newcrit piece usually appears the first Thursday of each month. See his previous pieces here.