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Six Hundred and Ninety-Two Million

On Art, Ethics, and Activism

Wake early to an alarm clock before it actually rings.
You look for your slippers. Something to warm your feet from the cold of the bare floor.
You look out the window. It’s not even dawn yet. The darkness of the morning is alive and pulsing.
You stretch your legs. You stretch your body.
You go into the kitchen and get the coffee going.
This is routine. This is a kind of safety.
But you know that the demands of the day have barely begun, least of all the ones that will test your overall sense of morality and ethics.

In the near dawn, you are not thinking about writing or making art, even though this is what you do most of the time. You are only thinking about waking. Facing another day.
But wait. Art-making is also about waking.

We make this
to awake the moment, our senses, our hearts, and the way we do things.

We make this
to wake each other up from the habitual lethargy of being (in late capitalist, neo-liberal democracy) in the eventful non-event of our lives.

Forget not the event
of actually
in this moment.
It will slip away from us all too soon.

The coffee’s brewing. Our mind wanders.
More news about the polls and the grotesque spectacle of the 2016 US Presidential election season.
More news about no news.
And little said about six hundred and ninety two million dollars raised by one campaign, and three hundred million raised by another…
to pay for advertising.

Think what six hundred and ninety two million could do…
Think what three hundred million…

I meet with a woman in rural North Carolina who tells me that one in five children that attend the local elementary school go hungry every night.
I meet another woman that was homeless during her adolescence. “My mom and I slept in the car,” she says. “Going to high school was an epic journey every day."

Poverty and hunger. This is what we face.
In this here America.

The sun streams in through the blinds.
On the radio, the news continues in the background.
Chaos and disaster in Syria. Assad smiles while the country burns.
Violence and unrest on US city streets.
Which story will grab the attention of the empathy engine?

A colleague asks me about art and activism. “We’re doing a series on it. What are your thoughts on social justice?”

Now, I’m not one for categories. I find ticking boxes to identify myself as this or that or the other a rather limiting endeavor. I believe in potentiality and freedom. We are whatever we can be at any given moment. I believe in the beautiful unfulfillable demand of the impossible. But I also want to be part of the conversation, because to speak of justice in times of injustice is necessary as much as it is to speak of justice in times of justice (has there ever been such a time?).
And there is such a thing too as necessary theatre.
Even in conversation.
So, I respond to my colleague.

At the local mini-market, I buy some orange juice. The person behind the counter eyes my shoulder bag. They remark, “Ah, I had one of those when I was a kid.” A snide smile. I reply, “This is the most comfortable bag I have. Everything fits in it.” Another smile. I can almost hear the unspoken refrain: you’re too grown up to go around with childish things.
But actually, this is not about the youth movement and the infantilization of culture. This shoulder bag is just that. Something in which to put my stuff. It belongs not to one phase of life or another. It simply is… A functional object.
But when you make art with social justice in mind, my colleague interrupts.
Ah, yes, that is what we were talking about. This object lesson.

Can I just say that I think all theatremaking is about civic engagement?
We make work in, for, and with the public.
We are always in a civic dialogue, whether the subject matter is climate change or divorce.

But of course, that’s too easy, because what are we really talking about here?
The encounter with the ethical demand.

Shall we ignore the fact that we live in a world where Assad smiles while his country burns?
Shall we ignore the fact that nine hundred-plus million combined is raised for two Presidential campaigns, and no one seems to bat an eye or effing protest?
Shall we turn our back on our fellow poor and hungry?

What are the choices we have before us about what stories we will tell when we face
the page and stage?

An old friend smiles. What stories indeed we could tell about everything that has happened, and what we thought might happen, too.

Is theatremaking an act of telling?

a performer reading
Natasha Yannacanedo performs in the first AFTER ORLANDO international theatre action event which was held at Hostos Community College in the Bronx on September 12, 2016.

Anger is a primary political emotion. Creative outrage gets me out of bed sometimes, and makes me want to write.

Let me tell you a story, then.

We lived here once.
We spoke these languages.
We cried at these things.
We laughed at others.
We raged at others still.
We made love.
We made war.
We made this earth bleed
With our bare hands
And our bare hearts
Until we forgot who we were.
And what we stood for
And what we meant when we said
We would take a stand.

Anger is a primary political emotion. Creative outrage gets me out of bed sometimes, and makes me want to write.
Sometimes too the writing is being.
Or what a colleague of mine calls “knowing.”
Writing is knowing. Or better put: learning to know.
And writing too can become a call to a friend to ask whether through art we can do something about…

Disaster chaos violence inequity poverty racism sexism global capitalism ecological negligence abuse brutality censorship

In the Greek, drama means ‘to do.’ So, we do things. We make things. And we try to effect a little bit of change.

Can we do something?

In June of 2016 after the news of the massacre at the Pulse nightclub, it was not I that called a friend, but rather friends Zac Kline and Blair Baker who called me and asked “What can we do?”

Through this ask, the AFTER ORLANDO international theatre action was born as a collaboration between Missing Bolts Productions and NoPassport theatre alliance & press.
A deceptively simple ask.
A yes in reply.
And then, after some curatorial conversations amongst us, sixty-some asks to dramatists to see if they would make something in response.

In the Greek, drama means “to do.”
So, we do things. We make things.
And we try to effect a little bit of change.

I am under no pretense that taking a stand through the art of theatre will change how we live during a time of military neo-liberalism, or how we apprehend and comprehend acts of terror.
Active resistance may be a futile struggle against forces in politics over which citizen-artists may have little control, outside of the vote (and even then…), but the hopefulness of its futility is something I believe in.

The world may be dashed.
The world may be in pieces.
But to make…speak… do…
In the face of
In the midst of
grief and mourning
Means that we still have faith
In the possibility of
But also in
A politics that could acknowledge
That we are all grieving and mourning

That this is the ground upon which we all stand

So. Art and efficacy. What is the use of art? What are its uses?

I am wary of art being used for anything. That is, toward any other means other than its own.

I am wary because while the road may be paved with good intentions, at the other end, art may be asked to always be of use, and to justify its usefulness someday.
The censor may wish to know why this word and not another, why this subject matter and not another, why this form and not another, and because the art was put to use once, it is therefore beholden to its past. And so must perforce perform its usefulness.

A person I meet at a conference tells me rather blithely, “yes, well, we all know we don’t really need art,” to which another person chimed in “oh, we need it. we need it to feed our souls.”

A silence.

The ethical demand stares us in the face.

The sun sets through the blinds.

Coffee grounds sit at the bottom of the cup.
When we were in Greece once, we met someone that could read the grounds.
They said they could tell us the future.
We said we’d rather wait, and make it ourselves.

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Can we do something? Yes!
I can't wait to share this essay with the diverse, international cast of students who are in rehearsal for one of Caridad's beautiful plays -- THE ORPHAN SEA -- at Skidmore College. Just last week in rehearsal an actor raised a question about the efficacy of art and now I have a timely and poetic response from the playwright to bring back into the rehearsal room. So grateful for Caridad's support in allowing us to produce a multilingual version of her play and so blessed to have had her with us on campus. During her visit, one of the actors was so inspired that she immediately responded with YES to organizing an AFTER ORLAND theatre action at Skidmore. So YES, we can "do things. We make things. And we try to effect a little bit of change." Thank you, Caridad, for this exquisite, clarion call.

I really love the last line, i love other contents of the story but the last line strikes a nice chord.
"We'll rather wait, and make it ourselves".