PORTLAND, ORE.: “Hello, my name is Cheryl Strayed,” deadpanned author/journalist Anand Giridharadas. “And though transformed by a recent bout of bronchitis, I am here to tell you what hiking can do for theatre and what theatre can do for hiking.”
The 900-member audience, gathered in a ballroom at the Hilton Portland Downtown, cackled with laughter at the collective in-joke. No one could mistake the blonde and female Strayed for the male, salt-and-pepper-haired Indian-American Giridharadas. But this wasn’t a random reference: It was an acknowledgment, and a kind of tribute, to the logistical hiccups and last-minute saves that characterized Theatre Communications Group’s 2017 national conference, titled “Full Circle.”
Strayed had been scheduled as a featured speaker at the conference on Thursday but had to back out a few hours prior to her speech due to bronchitis; author Lidia Yuknavitch replaced her with aplomb. And Saturday morning’s featured speakers were suppposed to be the artists of theatre troupe the Universes, who were stuck in Ashland, Ore. after their flight to Portland had been cancelled. Giridharadas wasn’t a last-minute replacement, but his originally scheduled plenary was Saturday afternoon; at the last minute he shifted his schedule to fill the morning slot. “Planning this conference is starting to feel a lot like ‘Game of Thrones,’” joked conference director Devon Berkshire to the laughing crowd. “Don’t get attached to anyone.”
(Another last-minute change: HowlRound director P. Carl was supposed to interview Giridharadas during the plenary, had to bow out because of a knee injury; performance artist Andrea Assaf replaced him.)
But despite the programming changes, the audience at the conference remained receptive and jovial. The first order of business on Saturday morning was the giving of the Peter Zeisler Memorial Award, bestowed on an artist or organization that demonstrates artistic integrity. The crowd gave a standing ovation to awards recipient Latinx Theatre Commons, the democratically run collective dedicated to advancing the work of Latinx artists.
Steering committee member Abigail Vega accepted the award with some 20 members of the LTC committee behind her. She spoke about the gaping hole the LTC was formed to fill. “The LTC was founded to make our own table, instead of waiting to be invited to join one,” said Vega, emotion in her voice. She issued a challenge to the room: “The Latinx Theatre Commons is just one intervention to create the new American theatre. What can we all do to create a theatre that is an inclusive and equitable representation of all the people and cultures that make up this nation? Today we ask you to consider: What is your intervention?”
In his subsequent address, author and journalist Giridharadas offered his own call to action to the audience. He opened with a true story, about the tense encounter on Sept. 21, 2001, when white American Mark Stroman entered a Dallas mini-mart where a Bangladeshi Muslim immigrant, Raisuddin Bhuiyan, worked and shot him in the head. Though Bhuiyan survived—and Giridharadas would write about the event in his best-selling book The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas—that encounter illustrated what Giridharadas called the “two Americas, a republic of dreams on one hand and a republic of fears” on the other. For Bhuiyan, an educated immigrant who would eventually land a tech job in Dallas with a six-figure salary, America was the former. For Stroman, who grew up in poverty and would eventually be executed for his crime, America was the latter.
“Their story was a story of America’s fracturing, and maybe, just maybe, of how it might be put back together,” said Giridharadas. Bhuiyan eventually forgave his attacker and sought to have Stroman released from Death Row. Though he failed in that effort, in their final phone call, according to Giridharadas, a rehabilitated Stroman said to Bhuiyan, “I love you, man.”
Said Giridharadas, “Rais believed that Stroman was a product of a hurting America that couldn’t be lethally injected away.” The crowd murmured in agreement. Both parties in this tragic confrontation, Giridharadas said, are worthy of compassion, and the roots of the division run deep. “America is simultaneously the most and the least successful country in the industrialized world,” he surmised. “We saw life expectancy as a whole drop in this country last year,” while “we still have all of the world’s best hospitals.”
The point, said Giridharadas: “I don’t think we have done the best job of being loving citizens to our fellow citizens, even when they don’t deserve it, who are grappling with surrendering their privilege and struggling to do so.”
The racism and fear of millions of Americans in the face of the country’s cultural and demographic changes in America need to be acknowledged and understood, Giridharadas said, if they are to be overcome. “When many people in our society feel something, real or imagined, it becomes a political fact that must be dealt with,” he said. “And ideally early and with love, rather than late with the election of a violent demagogue.” He didn’t mention the name Trump in the speech; he didn’t need to.
Giridharadas was careful to point out that it’s not the responsibility of those who are oppressed and harmed because of their gender or race to extend empathy toward bigotry. Still, he said, our nation has “a huge reconciliation need and we have a huge resistance need. And anyone who tells you we need to do one without the other is lying to you. It’s a two-flank war.” And that’s where the work of artists comes in. “Art has a role to play in resisting, but it has a huge and deeper role to play in reconciliation,” he said.
It’s a tall order, but it echoed Jeff Chang’s speech from the previous day. Giridharadas concluded with a statement of hope. While, for a long time, Americans believed that civic engagement wasn’t necessary, the urgency of the moment may be changing that. “Your civic life is as good as you make it,” he said. “If you live your life as a kind of blind consumer and economic actor, and don’t really deeply think of yourself as a civic actor first, you’re not going to get a good society. The ancient Greeks knew that; the Romans knew that.” We may have forgotten it, but, said Giradharadas, “I think we’re remembering it again, and that gives me immense hope.”