I haven’t attended a protest since 1992, the year I marched with a group of college students across the University of North Carolina’s verdant campus, demanding a freestanding black student union. The reasons are myriad: privilege, definitely; apathy, certainly; but mostly, personality. That student march was an aberration. I am, by nature, more recluse than activist. I read books on planes to avoid eye contact. I hide from the dry cleaner when he drops off clothes. When a stranger in the check-out line comments on the weather, I have to curb an instinct to growl. In short, I can think of nothing less pleasant than joining a crowd of strangers and chanting loudly.
Except now I can think of one thing.
So when my friend Nancy invites me to join her for a protest—actually a rally, not a protest, the organizers want to stay positive—at the Kansas State Capital three hours away, I agree. Besides, Nancy is a professional do-gooder: a minister, a farmer, mother of three. It’d be churlish to decline. She’ll pick me at 6am, she says.
Oh shucks, maybe this isn’t such a good idea. I have a deadline...
“Joan’s coming too,” Nancy says brightly.
Joan is a family practitioner in a rural, underserved area and mother of five. I guess this underemployed playwright can get her ass out of bed.
At five til six, I roll out of bed, throw on yesterday’s clothes and stuff my purse with water bottles, sunscreen, and twenty bucks from Laura’s piggy bank. I know I’ve miscalculated the moment I get in the mini-van. The two other women have dressed business casual; I look like I’m headed to a barn raising, sporting flannels and a baseball cap. Why the fancy duds, I ask?
We’re going to lobby our legislators afterwards for a more progressive state agenda. But you look fine, they say, clearly lying through their teeth.
I run my hands through my hair, test my breath. Did I even brush my teeth?
As it turns out, the rally is held inside the spacious state house rotunda, not on the capital lawn with picket signs, as I’d imagined. It’s all, in fact, very civilized. We waltz in through surprisingly security-free doors and take a couple of seats. I think maybe this won’t be so bad—no one’s chanting or playing drums yet. The noise level’s really manageable. There’s even a stage.
Then the rally kicks off at the appointed hour by a young white man who has composed a rap about Black Lives Matter.
Look, I believe white people should support the Black Lives Matter movement; I believe we should talk about it and support it and preach it. I remain unconvinced, however, that we should rap about it.
I’d like to say my attitude improved, but there’s a real downside to being a theatre artist at a staged event: you can’t turn off the inner critic. Do all protests—sorry, I mean rallies—involve so much spoken word? Just reading something aloud with a lilt does not poetry make. And why are we singing South African hymns? Are we making a direct analogy between state politics and apartheid? That seems hyperbolic. And someone should tell those speakers to speak directly into the microphone, because we’re missing every other word. I mean, did they even do a sound check? Not that anyone’s giving MLK Jr. a run for his money.
Between every speech, an earnest green-eyed boy strums his guitar and leads us in a round of call and response, only I have to ask my neighbor what he’s saying. She shrugs and claps happily along, then screams at the woman in front of her, wearing the telltale scarf of a chemo patient, “Sit down, I can’t see!” Where’s the house manager, I wonder? This lady is being so rude!
At the back of the rotunda, beneath a statue of Amelia Earhart, an old gentleman with a ponytail and guitar strapped to his back gets into a heated discussion with a police officer. Someone starts filming them. I edge closer, sniffing for conflict. The ponytailed fellow wants to know why he can’t remain after the rally to play protest songs. The officer tells him, according to the permit, everyone needs to clear out at eleven. The protestor counter-examines him like it’s his moment in front of the Supreme Court; the officer remains unfailing polite. The filmmaker keeps her camera aloft, whirling. I resist the urge to tell her good stories require conflict.
I escape to the bathroom instead.
I take my time returning, descending the stairs to the lower levels, each sign and name more interesting than the rally, echoing above me, which is why I’m surprised to find myself two minutes later, standing in the middle of the state capital, crying my head off.
When I return home, Lizzie will ask me what the rally was like. This is what I will tell her:
On the first floor of the rotunda, I can look up and see floor after floor of protestors holding hands in a circle and singing that damn South African hymn. Their rhythms fill the vaulted dome, and my cynicism melts like snow on salt. It’s a small miracle, this. That we, the people, with all our human failings, all our rudeness and posturing, bad poetry, misanthropy, and inability to do proper sound checks can gather at this center of power and sing our hearts out. That we can, in our baseball caps and flannels, our business casual, our ponytails and our dreds, walk into our legislator’s office and tell him (yes, in this instance, him) what we want to change is nothing less than a miracle of human progress. Let’s not take it for granted.
Next time, you’re coming with me, baby girl.