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Sustained Ire.

Stages of Resistance
Headshot of Jule Odendahl James

This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more!


Sustained Ire.


This has happened before.
It’s OK if you are shocked.
Perhaps,
when it was happening before,
it wasn’t happening to you.
Or near you.
Or your community.
Or your family.
Or the theater you made or patronized.
But it has happened.
So, welcome to the resistance.

It has never stopped happening for many.
Periods of lessened public animus may have ruled,
but
exclusion, suspicion, and privilege
have always driven choices of
what plays to write,
to perform,
to acclaim
and
what artists to fund,
to hire,
to champion.

In light of this understanding,
in the wake of this current administration,
it is important,
no, essential
that American theater institutions
exercise humility.
We should not assert ourselves,
as equal
or impeachable
in the struggle.

After 11/9, I read and heard
about how American theater must
continue
deepen
sustain
its political duties to
free speech
free expression
dissent
and critique.

But
of the resistance plays
that populated an initial
crowd-sourced list,
at least 75% traced lineage
back to
White
European or American
Cis-gender
Men
of often formal education and secure economic position
in society or the academy.

I wondered
at the lack of women-identified writers on the list.
Of writers of color.
Of multi-lingual, indigenous writers.
Of trans and queer writers.
Of artists making work that falls outside the conventional “play.”

Foundational dramaturgical questions nagged at me.
Why this play? Why now?
And to these
I added:
Why a play? What else might theaters contribute to the resistance?
And then to that, this:
From what actions does American theater draw its leadership position in this resistance?

Frankly,
we are still more comfortable
representing an ideal through our stories
than living their truths.
We give more advice about
inclusion
and equity
and community
than is reflected in our organizational
hiring,
funding,
and programming
models and practices.

We are evolving
but while we can engineer a full costume quick change,
an entire scenic shift in time and space,
in under 30 seconds on our stages,
like magic,
behind the scenes,
we move
glacially,
sometimes bitterly,
and cowardly.

Now more than ever,
we must do better to exemplify
in our deeds
not just our words
imperfect but decisive steps
towards a more perfect union.

To that end,
What if
we committed our programming to those writers the canon has yet to find?
What if
we committed our seasons to plays from the recent past and the now,
the ones that name names of living agents of oppression
not their historical effigies?
What if
we committed our artistry to acts that illustrated the art of dialogue
not between on-stage characters but among the citizen-audience?
What if
we committed our stages for use as town halls, for anti-racist training and targeted political actions?
What if
we committed full equity, parity, and inclusion in hiring practices across all facets of our organization with a target of the 2020 election?
What if
we committed ½ the budget of a major production to arts organizations with even
more tenuous funding prospects,
more experimental narrative practices,
with ways of working that are not our ways?

We might
lose some of our audiences.
We might
run afoul of granting organizations.
We might
encounter protests,
be shut down or arrested by authorities.
We might
change the very character of American theater
as an industry,
a discipline,
an engine of civic life.

Of course,
such courses are not equally available to all artists.
Risk presumes choice,
a choice between the risky action and
being able to bear
physically, emotionally, ethically
whatever consequences that action might bring.
So these
“What ifs”?
are really questions for
those with privilege.
And sometimes,
as we have seen all too many times in our history,
those with privilege
are the ones
with the most to lose
and thus, the most resistant
to change.

Those of us
with nothing to lose
because nothing was guaranteed us
to begin with,
perhaps we can be your guide.
We’ve managed
(those of us who have stayed in the theater)
in ways large and small
to sustain our ire
our rage at the forces
outside and in
that constrain our work,
the transformations we see as needed
essential
for American theater to survive.
No, not just survive,
to thrive, in ways it’s not yet begun to imagine.

Many of us have been
collaborators, contributors, cajolers
whenever and wherever we can.
Often our participation has been along the
edges, fringes, outskirts
but in those places
we have developed strategies for
resistance with resilience.
Trust us.
We have been here before
because we never left.

Perhaps if we work together,
consciously, conspicuously,
we might make change that
not only derails the behemoth of awful currently devouring and destroying
what small progress we have made,
but also, change that allows us
to embody the hopeful promise
of the stories we tell.

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