On civility, risk, and the demonization of dissent.
Maxime Dethomas, set design sketch for Les abeilles, 1917.
I’m using this fifth installment of my opera column to offer a primer on theater, protest, and safety, by people who actually know about theater.
As you’ve likely heard, at the November 18 evening performance of the musical Hamilton, Mike Pence was booed (and also cheered) by members of the audience. After the show, the cast assembled onstage to address him with a statement written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and read by the performer Brandon Victor Dixon. He said, in part, “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 to work on behalf of all of us.”
Donald Trump tweeted his reactions, writing in one message, “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!”
#BoycottHamilton trended on Twitter on Saturday. We witnessed the absurd spectacle of an incoming administration that threatens every kind of safety for marginalized people, yet demands an antiharassment safe space. Of one elected leader’s turning his back on a diverse group of Americans politely requesting protection and dialogue, and another’s attacking them. Although these Hamilton tweets are possibly a ploy by Trump to distract attention from the Trump University settlement, his reaction to the Hamilton incident is important: it’s about weaponizing the discourse of civility and respectability against the people who stand to lose the most in the next four years.
I asked for responses from playwrights, performers, directors, and scholars who belong to artistic and academic communities that are all endangered by the Trump presidency. Here are their answers, in alphabetical order by first name, with their own descriptors.
Ashley Lauren Rogers, playwright and joker with Theatre of the Oppressed NYC
The heart of theater is risk, is fire, is a lack of “safety.” Theater has always been a safer space for marginalized genders and sexualities, and, as the preferred medium of Brecht, Ibsen, Dario Fo, and Suzan-Lori Parks, theater is violently antifascist and fervently inquisitive of those in power. If you think theater is “safe” because you’ve heard a song from My Fair Lady and know that “The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music,” but know nothing of the shows themselves … You may learn that theater is not a “safe space” for you.
Ayanna Thompson, professor of English, George Washington University
As a performance scholar, I think it is great that the events at Hamilton have sparked a debate about the purposes of theater. While recent productions on the Great White Way rarely incite political controversy—aside from the perennial calls for more diversity in casting—popular theater historically has been a place where the limits of political, cultural, and even religious safety have been tested. The Puritans in early modern England, after all, believed that theatre was too dangerous to be tolerated, precisely because it could cause people to change political views, religions, and even sexualities. Theater, according to the Puritans, was about as far from a “safe space” as could be imagined.
While it is common today to mock the Puritans for their naïveté, they were not wrong in identifying the potential force of the immediacy of theater. When harnessed, theater’s force can cause audience members to take extreme measures like rioting (e.g., the Astor Place Riot of 1849, when nativists and immigrants battled in the streets of New York because of rival productions of Shakespeare!) and racial baiting (e.g., lynchings that occurred after blackface minstrel productions). Theater has also charged audience members to take less extreme but politically powerful measures like union organizing and forced desegregation. In the end, then, I think the only safe thing to say is: Theater = Power.
Ignaty Nivinsky’s watercolor rendering of his set design for Gozzi’s Princess Turandot, 1922. Bakhrushin Theatre Museum, Moscow.
Lakshmi Ramgopal, musician, visiting assistant professor of Classics at Trinity College, Hartford; of Indian descent
Performance spaces are sites of political critique, if not outright dissent. This was certainly true in classical Athens. Take a play like Sophocles’s Antigone. Its eponymous character risks her life by disobeying an order from her king not to bury her brother, a traitor to the city. Classicists differ on whether Athenian audiences would have viewed her decision to bury her brother as admirable or worthy of punishment. Either way, the play activates important questions about whether the state has the right to control aspects of private life. In turn, it was performed in colonial India to protest British rule, and reinterpreted by Fugard, Kani, and Ntshona as The Island to dissent against apartheid in South Africa.
Does that mean performance spaces are unsafe? I think we have to think about what constitutes a safe space. When it comes to theater and other types of performance, those spaces are often a refuge for those of us who are weird, who feel like misfits, people forced into the margins by a society that valorizes a white, straight, cis norm. The level of tolerance they demand has to be high, so they can be safe for the people who create them and use them to imagine different realities. That means they can’t be critique-free spaces: they have to be intolerant of Mike Pence and his ilk—people who reject the premise that difference should be encouraged. It’s a contradiction, yes, but not one that undermines the value of performance spaces. What needs more attention, in my opinion, is that performance spaces can fail the people who join them seeking safety.
Lameece Issaq, artistic director, Noor Theatre
Theater is indeed a safe space. It is a space to challenge stereotypes, address problematic one-sided thinking, a space to express, grow, disagree, create and stand up for what you believe. It is a forum. It is sacred. As a company who works with a diverse group of artists, we support the cast of Hamilton for speaking truth to power in a respectful, intelligent manner. Our leaders cannot speak of safe spaces while overtly courting those who show blatant disregard and hatred toward others. They cannot speak of safe spaces while creating danger for anyone who is unlike them. Where are the safe spaces for immigrants? For black Americans? For Muslims and Middle Easterners? For Jews? For women? For Latinos? For the LGBTQ community? Where if not the theater? The theater is not the place to quietly acquiesce. It is and always has been a place for courageous acts.
Madeline Sayet, theater director; Mohegan, Jewish, Millennial
The night of the election, I was in orchestra dress for [Monteverdi’s opera] The Coronation of Poppea. After the death of Seneca, we took intermission and found Trump winning the election. By the time Nero and Poppea had ascended to power at the end of the opera, Trump had won. None of us knew if the world would be a safe space the next day. For so many, it never is. This opera was written in 1643, in response to politics both then and 1600 years earlier in Rome.
A few days later, I started work on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, with its astute criticism of tyranny and the divide between men and women: also from the 1600s, but now being performed by an all–Native American cast in NYC (Amerinda Inc. at HERE). Theater is and always has been a space where we gather to question. We come together, open our hearts and minds to a story in the hopes of understanding each other better. This requires listening. From all of us. We have to listen to each other through our fear: a brave space is sometimes far more important than a safe one.
Isaac Rabinovich’s set for Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, 1923. Bakhrushin Theatre Museum, Moscow.
Melissa Crespo, theater director, ¡Figaro! (90210)
Trump’s misunderstanding of theater as a “safe and special place” where artists should apologize for their beliefs also speaks to his ignorance of what makes America great. The theater is special because it challenges us. It is a place for discourse where many different voices can be heard, and I imagine that is a scary thing for a demagogue like Trump. If artists making a respectful plea for fair representation makes him upset, he’s not going to enjoy the rest of the country exercising their first-amendment rights. Because that’s what makes America great.
Susan Nakley, professor, author of Living in the Future: Sovereignty and Internationalism in the ‘Canterbury Tales’; Arab Jew, Rustbelt native
Medieval drama was, in some very crucial ways, the space of the laity: in late medieval England this meant it was a rare literary/artistic space relatively free of the authority of the Church and the Crown, the clergy and the nobility, despite the fact that medieval drama was overwhelmingly religious and Biblical. Late medieval Christian lay folks, guild members, produced most medieval drama, certainly the great Northern Corpus Christi cycles like York. These plays gave regular people—bakers, carpenters, shipbuilders, blacksmiths—a chance to engage with big questions like the natures of man and the divine, the legitimacy of sovereignty, the dangers of tyranny, and the possibilities for violence, conversion and sometimes even tolerance in mixed race/religion societies. (This was, by and large, amateur community theater where workers acted and improvised, designed sets and costumes, raised money to make it all happen, et cetera.)
This does not mean that drama was then or ever a “safe” space—on the contrary, it is/was/must always be a very dangerous space in order to be a deeply meaningful space, a space of performance. Drama in the medieval tradition always brings artists and audience, low and high, into close proximity. The bottom line is that the theater has long been a place where marginalized voices talk back—and where political leaders sit, listen, and learn, if they can. Those actors on stage at Hamilton did exactly what theater had always done—exactly what we have always needed it to do, but explicitly. They challenged the dominant powers that be to be better, more just and more fair, from their proper place: an alternative, key, and intermediate seat of authority, the stage.
Rosamond S. King, associate professor, Brooklyn College
Our leaders should go to the theater. They should go to museums and poetry readings and opera and dance performances. They should read books and listen to music—and some of it should make them feel uncomfortable, and perhaps even unsafe. Politicians should understand that the voices presented within art are deeply important not only to our culture but also to our body politic. However, they should also realize that artists also have more explicitly political voices, and that these will also be raised, as happened last week, after the curtain goes down.
No space is safe for everyone, all the time. In Shakespeare’s time, it was not uncommon for the audience to throw rotting fruit and vegetables and actors whose performances they did not like. At the same time, writers for the stage—including Shakespeare, including the collective authors of ancient epics, including some of the most revered artists and writers—often use performance to critique (or to laud) those in power.
Our leaders should have thick skins. If, for instance, their e-mails are hacked by Russian operatives, or their mother is insulted by the Filipino head of state, they should be able to remain calm and collected. And they should certainly be able to endure ninety seconds of respectful comment from the public whom they have (or will have soon) pledged to govern. Indeed, Mr. Pence himself has stated that not only was he not offended, but that he told his children “that’s what freedom sounds like.” We can only hope that Mr. Trump will learn from his second-in-command that dissent is not harassment, that actors can and do speak more than lines that they’ve memorized, and that the American people speak their minds loudly and often.
Tazewell Thompson, opera/theater director, playwright/ librettist; African American
Theater here or theater anywhere in the world is necessary, because as long as people have existed there has been a hunger and a deep curiosity to know and learn about the deeds of man and womankind; a great need to hear the stories about who we are, where we came from, where we journey next, and how we are to learn and to live and to love one another. It is in the communal meeting in a darkened theater that we see ourselves confronting each other, sometimes hurling harsh words and tough emotional exchanges, political sentiments, acting out our desires and dreams, our disappointments, on a lighted stage, and we exit, not with answers about life’s challenges necessarily but new questions that begin us on a renewed journey of seeking understanding.
Theater, a special place: yes. A safe place: no. Not now. Not ever. It was never the intention or the invention of theater to be a safe haven or refuge or escape from what ails man in his eternal quest to grapple with, to quote a Negro spiritual: “Oh, Lord, how come me here?” Ever since ten thousand spectators sat on a hillside in ancient Greece and watched actors stand on an altar, raising their fists and voices toward the heavens, cursing the gods for their miserable fates to themselves and the houses of their families, theater has always lived on the edge; a public place of the unexpected; a place of enormous risk, danger and courage, where scenes familiar and unrecognizable are played out.
Theater, not safe but always a space of provocation and dissent; a tribunal. In this forum or tribunal, passion and the imagination and endless leaps of creative energy rule, so that everything and anything is possible to consider and is allowed to be spoken and presented and made new, without apology, appendages, baggage or accessories, but taken at its word, left out there over the footlights for the audience to appraise, conclude, to be made aware, or even reject. Our senses are assaulted. Men and women have lost their lives in the theater when the transformation of the actor has been too convincing, too real, too embodied in political, social, or domestic beliefs not their own.
A set design by Bernhard Dilling, ca. 1965.
I’m responding as a writer, Asian American and immigrant, who grew up not in a liberal bubble (whatever that is), but in a white Republican Christian small town, with not two but three white working-class grandparents at the mines. Also, as an adopted person of color who grew up terrified by the Klan rallies near church, the neo-Nazis at school, and racist attacks on the street. Who learned, as so many of us have had to learn, that nobody from that part of the world, who professed to love me, would take a stand against bigotry.
I bring that baggage to this moment of political self-scrutiny, when I’m hearing the ethnically and sexually diverse cast of Hamilton engaging in the decorous, kindly conversation that everybody says liberals are supposed to be offering to conservatives—and being shamed and rebuffed by the president-elect. What were they supposed to do, keep quiet? And I stumble, on this site that I love, into a well-meaning piece that suggests, again, with more than a little white privilege, that “We forgot about ‘regular folks,’ ” advising, “Speak truth to your [conservative] neighbors with dignity and without violence.” And another piece, again, that delegitimizes thousands of peaceful anti-Trump protesters with words like “angry,” “violent,” and “faceless mob”: “Their crudely made signs were chilling in their simplicity: FUCK TRUMP. I appreciated my peers’ passion and readiness to action, but I was still too numb to be moved. What was the point? Trump won the election fairly.” (Did that intentionally echo Trump’s recent tweet? “Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!”)
I understand that these pieces were meant to be conciliatory, introducing varying points of view, and attempting to welcome people taking different paths toward empathy. I wish the authors all the best in their efforts to win souls, to ensoul, perhaps, anybody who’s just now joining the resistance. Yet I never stop being aghast at the tone-policing, the dismissive attitudes toward protest and anger, the ways in which the language of supposedly mutual respect and decorum gets deployed to condemn the mildest, most pacific forms of dissent.
Then I hear from yet another friend who’s been attacked, or whose child has been terrorized, who’s been afraid to step outside her apartment, who’s afraid of losing family members or partners or being forced out of the country, in this violent escalation of the unbearable that’s coming on yet again. What are they supposed to do? Respectable America sets the bar for acceptable political expression so high that it’s a sick joke. Booing at the theater is rude. Chanting at protests is rude. Painting signs is rude. Pushing back against bigotry is rude. Asking people to acknowledge violations of your human rights is rude. It’s “angry.” It’s “violent.”
Under these circumstances, anger, noise, and outrage can be protections against despair. Anger can become an impulse toward survival, toward empathy for other people’s suffering, and toward resistance, in which there’s hope. For so many people who’ve learned that their neighbors, and their leaders, will respond to a dignified, respectful appeal only with hatred and violence, allowing themselves to be angry can be lifesaving. That’s why the only words here, of late, that have resounded with me have been those of my editor, who said: “write to destroy complacency, to rattle people, to help people, first and foremost yourself. Lodge your ideas like glass shards in the minds of everyone who would have you believe there’s no hope … There’s too much at stake now to pretend that everything is okay.”
I’m responding to that call: let’s not accept, internalize, or in any way normalize the new administration’s attempts to police good and bad protest. Let’s speak out against the suggestion, no matter where we find it, that we should keep our voices down, not swear, be respectable. Let’s not mandate decorum or civility from people scared for their lives, their loved ones’ lives, the nation, and the world. Let’s value the safety of people whose lives are endangered, over the disgruntlement of those who’re on the fence about defending them. Let’s create spaces for our art where we can be angry and outraged, where we can disagree, struggle, love, laugh, and grieve with each other—protecting and saving each other—and saying, as elegantly or as crudely as we like, FUCK TRUMP. Now and forever, in politics, in theater, and in our literary magazines, FUCK TRUMP.
Alison Kinney is the author of Hood and a correspondent for the Daily. Her writing has appeared online at Harper’s, Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, The Atlantic, Hyperallergic, New Republic, the Village Voice, and VAN Magazine.
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