A version of the following speech was presented on June 23, 2016, as the opening plenary of Theatre Communications Group’s national conference in Washington, D.C., almost 20 years to the day after playwright August Wilson delivered his influential “The Ground on Which I Stand” speech on June 26, 1996, at TCG’s conference in Princeton, N.J. Portions of this text formed part of Notes From the Field, which Smith has performed at California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre, American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and Second Stage Theater in New York City.
End of summer, 1996.
I had stepped off the campaign trail—which was where I spent a lot of the summer and fall of 1996, doing research for my play, House Arrest: The American Press and Its Relationship to the Presidency. I was traveling on both President Clinton’s campaign plane and on Bob Dole’s. I even traveled with the Young Republicans on a train into San Diego, where the Republican convention was staged, and to Chicago for the Democrats’.
Into my road-weary suitcase, I threw Jack Kerouac’s alcohol-saturated piece Big Sur. I was bound for rest and reinvigoration in the dramatic landscape of the same name along the California coast. I tossed in some Etta James CDs, a copy of The Boys on the Bus, which I was carrying everywhere to read so I could better understand campaign culture. It remained unread, as did Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. When I finally read Fear and Loathing after Thompson died, I regretted that I had not read it before doing my massive swing state-to-state with the candidates. Ironically, Thompson’s irreverent whiskey prose would have kept me from taking the press as seriously as I did.
By the time I hit the campaign trail, the press corps drank Perrier instead of whiskey and still spoke of the nightmares they’d had while undergraduates at Harvard. They were very upper middle class—kids in private schools, etc. When I look back on that time, I realize how “inside” the press strove to be. Now I understand that we’d be better off with an edgier, less “mainstream” group. Current presidential politics reveal that we need outsiders who move in unexpected ways, in unexpected places, in the world of letters and ideas. Our world is unknown and unexpected—full of surprises. To strive for comfort and the life of the bourgeoisie cuts off curiosity and mobility.
This was the age of “gotcha” journalism. An age that would make many talented people wary of getting into politics. I am told that this hypervigilance was a result of the trauma of having been too “inside” while a couple of unknown reporters from the “outside” broke the Watergate story. As I look back on the ’90s, I see that this gotcha-ism, seen as a kind of necessary cowboy mentality, was only a performance. The gotcha-ism was still about appearances. As we see from our current presidency, for all their gotcha-ism, they were still setting their sails in the wrong direction. They were still too entertained by themselves and the theatre of their punditry to know what was happening in the country.
We in the real theatre must hear this as a cautionary bell. It’s within that frame that I tell you the story of August Wilson and Robert Brustein and our trip to Town Hall.
Just as I was about to head down Highway 1, I received a message (this was before text and the proliferation of email) from Don Shirley, a columnist and critic at the Los Angeles Times. He wanted to know my opinion of the debate. Debate? I was so ensconced in the campaign and the history of presidential campaigns that I thought he was referring to the 19th-century Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Shirley’s call was about what we now refer to as “Ground”—August Wilson’s speech at the 1996 TCG conference and critic Robert Brustein’s response. I did not know about the controversy. So before returning the call, I read both speeches. In actuality, there was no debate. Rather, there was a series of monologues and a metaphorical ringside audience that sat, for the most part, in shock but passive observance.
Wilson called for greater equity in the theatre, a larger presence of blacks in the theatre, and he denounced what was then called colorblind casting or nontraditional casting. Brustein attacked many of the premises in Wilson’s speech. Wilson responded. These three monologues were published and there was much discussion. Many were shocked at Wilson’s passion. Some told me that given his stature in the theatre, it would seem that he would be “happy” or “content.” He was widely decorated (Pulitzers, Tonys, etc.). In fact, Brustein proposed that Wilson’s passionate critique of the theatre came as a result of his not getting a Tony Award that very year.
My read? Wilson’s discontent was less about his own situation and more about the situation of his race. Brustein was among those critics and scholars in the ’90s who denounced what they called “victim art.” (Some would respond by pointing out that anything that was not written by a straight white male would be in that category.)
I returned the call from the side of the road, somewhere around Salinas. “Thank you for calling me back so soon,” Shirley said. “Sure,” I said. “But I can’t talk to you about the debate because I have not spoken to either Mr. Wilson or Mr. Brustein.” Long pause. “Oh,” was the response. He seemed surprised that I wouldn’t just spout off my opinion without having attended the conference, or having spoken personally to either Wilson or Brustein.
Big Sur inspired me with an idea. I thought about one of my favorite recorded human interactions, A Rap on Race. Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, had invited James Baldwin to have a long recorded conversation about race. They had never met before. They talked for hours and hours. Decades ago, I had purchased the six-record set at the American Museum of Natural History. It is a long, thrilling sharing of ideas. It ultimately breaks into a full-fledged verbal battle.
Intoxicated by the magnificent rock arch at Pfeiffer beach in Big Sur, I thought about the exchange which I’d first heard at the tail end of the 1970s but it always stuck in my mind. It got fiery sometimes, but often ended in a good and new perception. Take this, for example:
[Performing both parts]
Margaret Mead: What I’m trying to consider is, whether there is an inevitable difference in the spiritual stance. In your—
James Baldwin: We can’t talk about the spiritual stance unless we talk about power! I’m talking ’bout power. I am talking about that South African miner on whom the entire life of the Western world is based.
Mead: Well, I’m just sorry, because it isn’t only based on that South African miner. It’s based on miners in this country! And miners in Britain that are underground!
Baldwin: It’s the same—it’s the same principle.
Mead: It isn’t the same principal! As long as you are going to make—continually make it racial.
Baldwin: I’m not being racial!
Mead: But you are being racial! I bring—I present you—
Baldwin: Charles Dickens talked about kids being dragged through mines long before they discovered me.
Mead: That’s right. But you know we’re not having a rational conversation.
Baldwin: We’re talking about the profit motive.
Mead: We’re not— We weren’t!
Mead: You said if it’s power. There’s a difference in power. So, I said okay, you reverse it, did you reverse it?
Baldwin: Look, lemme put it this way—
Mead: What I feel is this. We agree that we’re both Americans. We agree in the sense of responsibility for the present and the future. You have approached this present moment by one route and I have approached it by another. In the terms…in the colors of our skin you represent a…a course of victimization and suffering and exploitation and everything in the world—we can make any number that…and I represent the group…Now wait a minute. If you just use skin color, I represent the group that were in the ascendancy, were the conquerors, had the power, owned the land—you can say anything you like. All right. Now here we both are. Now, furthermore, however, I do not represent and I never have been a part in the whole of my life, because of the accidents of my upbringing and so forth, of the kind of psychology that would perpetuate this. You also have moved around, have lived in many parts of the world, and although you completely understand what happens here, but you have included a lot of other things in your psyche. Now is it necessary for you to…to narrow history, and I still want…to think this is a phrase…and express only despair or bitterness while I express hope? And is this intrinsic to our position at the moment? Or can we…both of us out of such a different past and such a different experience—and a contemporarily different experience because you in your own country, wherever you go, are likely to meet with insult, with indignity—
Mead: Yeah. Whereas wherever I go, on the whole—if they haven’t heard me say I was in favor of marijuana—I am greeted with, on the whole, kindness. So that contemporaneously your experience and mine will continue to be different. Now, given that fact, can we both, nevertheless, stand shoulder to shoulder, a continent or an ocean away, working for the same future? Now, I think this is the real problem.
I had always wanted to see a modern rap on race, but frankly there were almost no white people around then (or now) who would speak as truthfully as relentlessly openly as Margaret Mead. Both Mead and Baldwin were in pursuit of an American truth.
“Okay,” I thought. “Gotta get Wilson and Brustein together.” Wilson had the fire of Baldwin and Brustein had the candor of Mead.
Back in Washington, D.C., my headquarters for the research on the campaign—research which would become my play House Arrest—I made the calls to Brustein and Wilson. This was the perfect place to plan the convening. I lived in a 19th-century townhouse owned by a Republican congressman who was married to a liberal, Boston Brahman Democrat. We often had lively debates across party lines. There was a bumper sticker in the kitchen: “The Road to Hell Is Paved with Republicans.” In magic marker was written, “except for Amo” (Amory Houghton, the Republican Congressman). The Democrat, Priscilla Dewey Houghton, was a faithful board member of the Arena Stage, which had commissioned my play. During my stay, Priscilla had gotten papers on the history of the house, revealing that slaves had worked and lived there.
“Have you and Robert Brustein actually debated your ideas in person?” I asked Wilson.
“Have you ever met him in person?”
“Would you do so if I could arrange it?”
“Yeah. If you will moderate it.”
I called Robert Brustein. I asked the same question, and got the same answers, including, “Yeah. If you will moderate it.”
My original idea was to have a small event in a nice conference room at New York University, where I was going to be in residence that fall. As part of the residency, I had been asked to do some public panels, discussions, and debates. An assistant in the department that hosted me had been given the task of setting up logistics. Something went wrong in the way she approached Brustein’s office and he decided not to go forward.
I needed a Plan B. How could three monologues go down as debate—in the theatre?
I called John Sullivan, who was then executive director of TCG. The “debate,” after all, had started at a TCG conference. He was excited about this idea. He called me back and suggested that Town Hall in New York would be the perfect venue.
That seemed like a much bigger event than I had in mind, but if the staff of TCG felt the idea warranted such attention…
I started doing in-depth research on both men. Somewhere close to the event itself, I was told to call the PR agency that had been hired to promote the event. A lot of excitement came from the other side of the phone. The press rep was taking bets. “Wilson will take the fight,” he said with assurance.
I had not planned on a circus.
In my introductory remarks, I alluded to the conversation between James Baldwin and Margaret Mead. But much to my dismay, neither of the two conversants had much appetite to engage in a conversation. A sinking feeling descended from my head to my throat to my stomach. Though I had stepped onstage with a healthy amount of adrenaline, my blood pressure dropped significantly.
During the intermission, TCG staffers descended upon me as if I myself were a boxer about to be eaten alive, with many notes scrawled on pieces of paper, meant to help me pick up the pace, ask provocative questions, and make the event more exciting. If memory serves me, there were also 3×5 cards with questions from the audience—headless, voiceless, presence-less questions.
Back onstage I went, resigned that I was in a different reality than the staff.
As the timer indicated that the end was coming, I asked each gentleman if they had learned anything from the other. Brustein said that he had learned that August Wilson was really a teddy bear. Wilson responded that he was, make no mistake about it, a lion. These brief last words were reported in The New York Times.
Lani Guinier, legal scholar then at Penn, now at Harvard, had come to town to see the event. I have met very few scholars who are as generous and openhearted as Lani. The next morning, she called me on the phone. “I want to help you,” she said.
Lani said I should have assembled Brustein and Wilson in a room alone, or with just a few people. “Just like that Margaret Mead/James Baldwin conversation you talked about.” What could have been a deep dive into different ideas about art and theatre was not the boxing match people thought it would be. I think the two gentlemen said all they had to say in print. In short, the onstage debate was a disaster in my view.
A New Civil Rights Movement
My experience on the campaign trail should have prepared me for what the theatre of the event was meant to be. If 1996 was the peak of gotcha journalism, my colleagues in the theatre seemed to be after a gotcha conversation. Alas, as I look back on that era, I see that these “conversations about race”—which were often prefaced with a promise that it’d be “like a living room”—did us a disservice. I’ve been on several of those panels of the last two decades. They are simply awful. They are shouting matches where people with great verbal acuity seek to take up as much time as possible. Very little is accomplished. It’s kind of like rap music: It is a display of verbal virtuosity. The audience sits in judgment and passive observance.
What we need are events where the audience is provoked to do something.
Ringside is not where we ought to be. We ought to be in our world making a difference. That’s what we promise in mission statements and grant applications. Theatres have an opportunity to disrupt and even take down the ring; to reconstruct the position of the audience. Theatres could lead the way and pump up the health of an active citizenry.
For decades, I have been traveling around America with a tape recorder. My grandfather said, “If you say a word often enough it becomes you.” I have been trying to become America, word for word. If there are any perceptive psychiatrists in the audience, you would say that my search for American character is a healing strategy, a balm against the de facto segregation into which I was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Segregation hit me in a way that caused me to question the degree to which survival required me to lose some of my own empathic imagination. To cite Martin Buber’s I and Thou: We can have either I/it relationships where we turn persons into things, or I/thou relationships where we struggle with what I now call “the broad jump toward the other.”
The tape recorder has given me the necessary distance to come close to strangers. I tape-record people, usually about controversial events, in principle on both sides of the controversy but in reality not always. I then learn what I have recorded, word for word. I am trying to put myself in other people’s shoes by putting myself in their actual words.
I am writing a new play called Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education. It was inspired by my learning of what is often called “the school-to-prison pipeline.”
The U.S. Department of Justice released statistics revealing that poor black, brown, and Native American children are disciplined more harshly and expelled and suspended much more frequently than their middle-class brothers and sisters. These suspensions and expulsions often result in residencies in juvenile hall. As California’s Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, says, “If you are not in school, you are in trouble.”
I have been traveling in four geographic areas: Northern California (to Stockton, a bankrupt city, and further up the coast to the Yurok Indian reservation near the Oregon Border), Philadelphia, Baltimore, and most recently South Carolina, to Charleston, and all along the “Corridor of Shame,” so named because of the state of its public schools.
People say that we may be on the verge of a new civil rights movement, and Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, says it will happen at the intersection of education and law enforcement. She calls for an investment in public education and fairness in law enforcement that will be as large and as grand as the interstate highway system. Imagine that.
In the meantime, we have a public school system that is in dire need of repair, and policing looks pretty bad these days. But we cannot expect, as Obama said after the riots in Baltimore in 2015, to be able fix our problem of inequality by fixing the police. The police are the front line, the guard dogs keeping the rich from the poor and vice versa.
Here are some excerpts from my play.[Performing]
I don’t even look the police way, tell you the truth, that’s not even me, like…I don’t even pay the police no mind, like, they look at me, I turn my head, I look ba—if I’m gonna look back at you, I’m not gonna mug you, I’mma just look away, you feel me? That’s all it is to—
Because, if you look at a police so hard or so straight—I don’t know, like—see how it was. You feel me? In the way, like, see, how he was [Freddie Gray], you feel me, in the way he was around this neighborhood—if the neighborhood police—they don’t care, they do not care about none of that. You—if they know you in that neighborhood, they gonna do something to—I don’t care what neighborhood you in, it could be a quiet neighborhood, anything, the police know you from…being bad, or not even being bad, but being around the area—anything, hangin’ with somebody that they know that’s bad? They gonna harass you, and if they gonna harass you: “Why you lookin’ at me like that?” They will ask you: “Why you lookin’ at me like that?” In a smart way, you feel me? Jump outta the car, pull their stick, all that, you feel me? I had the police ask me why am I walkin’ in the street, why am I crossin’ the street, like. “What you mean? Why am I crossin’ the street?” I’m sayin’ something back, he jettin’ out of the car, so I get back on the curb. You feel me? There’s no need for you to get out of the car and—you feel me? And talk to me. You could see why am I walkin’ across the street. They don’t say “Excuse me, sir,” “Come here,” none of that. You just ask me why am I walkin’ across the street, you feel me? It’s not late outside, it’s not none of that, so what is [it] you—I don’t know, there’s just a lot of police out here that’s…being police, being what they do.
Be smart, that’s what I would gotta say to you. Be smart. That’s all that’s—that’s all [there] is to it, if you know you—say if you—I don’t care what you do out there, that’s your hustle, and if you got somethin’ on you, don’t even pay the police no mind—you feel? Don’t even draw no attention, but you not doin’ nothin’, I still don’t expect for you to draw no attention to the police. Like, the police out here don’t care, even if you don’t got nothin’ on you! Why look at the police, you ain’t got no—why mug the police, you feel me? No reason at all, so, I wouldn’t even pay the police no mind, I don’t pay the police out here no mind. They mug me all day, I don’t care about none of that—they doin’, like, I see ’em, you feel me, like, I don’t say too much stuff, the police and all that, like for no reason at all, like, I’m just sayin’ that like. I’m out in these streets.
[I got beat]—it only happen—it happen ’bout four times, four times, that’s what I remember, four times. You can’t protect yourself! When it come to the police, you can’t say too much, but run your mouth and once you—once they see you really runnin’ your mouth, they try catch you or try do something to you. And especially if they ain’t got no reason, you feel me, to touch you, they definitely won’t touch you, like, they chase you, all this, and you ain’t got nothing on you, and they just chasin’ you? Man, they—they worth it—gonna make it worth they while, they gonna find—they gonna not even put nothin’ on you, they gonna beat you. Straight like that, it ain’t no, “Oh, I’mma plant something on him,” they just do [what] they wanna do, at that time, at that moment.
It don’t—it don’t even matter this—at this point. It don’t—it don’t even matter if they black or white. I never—I don’t even—it ain’t no black or white situation. I ain’t tryin’ to hear that. I seen plenty of black officers do it, and I’m black, you feel me, to black people. And I seen plenty of white police do it. And I done seen ’em do it together. It ain’t no—no racist thing, if that’s what I—I don’t see no racist thing comin’ into play. I think it’s a hatred thing. Like, they hate, you feel me, like, if I ca—if you can’t find nothing on me, what’s the whole point of you lockin’ me up, or you beatin’ me up, you feel me? For no reason. Cause I made you run? Come on now, like, you train to do this, like. Stuff happen every day in Baltimore City.
I don’t know, like the hood police be hatin’. Like, they just a hateful—they just hateful people, like. They could see you have a couple of dollars in your hand, no drugs, no nothin’, just a couple of dollars, and think you doin’ wrong. You don’t know me, I work! So what are you sayin’, like. But you pullin’ me over, ask where my money come from. You don’t got no right to ask me where my money comin’ from. You don’t got no right to check me, you feel me. Like, you don’t have no warrant, no nothin’. To put your hands on me, period, but hey, they do it. I don’t fuss with you over nothin’ like that. I know you the police and you gonna do what you want, regardless. And you got a big stick, so. So, hey.
From A Rap On Race
By Margaret Mead and James Baldwin
“Walk on a Leaf”
Somebody said, Allen Ginsberg said, “Don’t call a cop a pig. Call him a friend. You call him a friend, he’ll act like a friend.” I know more about cops than that. What I do know—what I do know—is that I do not like to be corralled. I don’t like being a subject nation. That I do know. And I don’t care how well the cops are educated! I know what their role is in my life! And I will not accept it. I know that my situation cannot be endured. It cannot be endured.
And if I turn into a monster by trying to change it, that is something, a risk, my soul will have to take. I’m not being objective. I’m trying to say this: We been talking about time present, time past. According to the West I have no history. I’ve had to wrest my identity out of the jaws of the West. We did that on a famous day in Washington. I was there. And do you know the answer we got? Two weeks later? Ten days later? Out of that enormous petition? Know the first answer that the Republic gave us? My phone rang one morning. I was back in Hollywood, God knows why. And a CORE worker was telling me—she could hardly talk—that four black girls had been bombed into eternity in a Sunday school in Birmingham. That was the answer the Republic gave! The Republic includes you, includes me too. You are responsible. I am responsible.
It doesn’t matter what one tries. God knows, you know…I—I’m not the least interested in carrying on the nightmare. Nevertheless, if I don’t, I, Jimmy, don’t accept the very brutal fact, which is not extraordinary, it’s happened to everybody else in the world, too, but if I pretend that it did not happen to me, that I was not there, then I cannot live. I—I’m not talking about…I’m not talking about going back. Nobody—nobody can, anyway. But the past is the present, my situation is—our situation, really—my situation presents itself to me as exceedingly urgent. I cannot lie to myself about some things. I cannot—I don’t mean anybody else here. I mean that I have to know something about myself and my countrymen. The most terrible thing about it is not the lootings, the fires, or the burnings, the bombings; that’s bad enough. What is really terrible—is to face the fact that you cannot trust your countrymen. That you cannot trust them. For the assumptions under which they live, are antithetical to any hope you may have to live. It is a terrible omen when you see an American flag on somebody’s car and realize that’s your enemy. In principle, it’s your flag, too.
If I, Jimmy, really offend you, Margaret, and I pretend I haven’t, I have sealed my life off from all life, all light and all air. I will not get past my crime if I pretend I did not. If I have offended you, then I have to come to you and say, “I’m sorry, please forgive me.” I’m only talking about that, and if I can’t do that, then I cannot live. I don’t mean I have a bill to pay back. We are living in a kind of theology. You are identified with the angels. I’m identified with the devil. That’s what I mean by history being present.
Luckily, I’m not 15, but if I were, how in the world would I achieve any respect for human life, or any sense of history? What I’m trying to say is that if I were young, I would find myself with no models. That’s a very crucial situation. When you consider what we have done! Our generation! The world that we’ve created. If I was 15, I would feel hopeless too! You see what one’s gotta do is try to face…what I’m trying to get at, is…I read a little book called The Way It Spozed to Be. And it was poetry and things written by little black children, Mexican, Puerto Rican children, various schools in—land of free and the home of the brave. And the teacher, he made a compilation of the poetry that his kids wrote. He dealt with them as though they were in fact, as in fact all children are—all human beings are—a kind of miracle! And for that very tiny book, about 30 pages long, one boy wrote a poem. Sixteen years old. He was in prison. It ended—four lines I never will forget. “Walk on water, walk on a leaf. Hardest of all is walk in grief.”
What I’m getting at, I hope, is that there is a tremendous national, moral, global waste. And the question is: How can it be arrested? That’s an enormous question. Look. You and I are both whatever we have become. Curtain will come down eventually. But! What should we do about the children? We are responsible, in so far as we’re responsible at all, we are responsible for the future of this world.
Congressman John Lewis
On our way. On this trip that we been takin’ for the past 13 years. I been going back every year since 1965. Back to Selma. To commemorate the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, that took place on March 7, 1965. But we usually stop in Birmingham for a day. And then we go to Montgomery for a day. And then we go Selma.
But on this trip, to Montgomery, we stopped at First Baptist Church, the church that was pastored by the Reverend Ralph Abernathy. It’s the same church where I met the Dr. Martin Luther King and the Reverend Abernathy. In the spring of 1958.
Young police officer—the chief—the chief came to the church to speak on behalf of the mayor that was not available. And he gave a very movin’ speech to the audience. The church was full. Black. White. Latino. Asian American. Members of Congress. Staffers. Family members, children and grandchildren. And he said, “What happened in Montgomery 52 years ago durin’ the freedom ride was not right,” he said. “Fifty-two years ago was not right. The police department didn’t show up. They allowed a angry mob to come and beat you,” and he said, “Congressman! I’m sorry for what happened. I want to apologize. This is not the Montgomery that we want Montgomery to be. This is not the police department that I want to be the chief of. Before any officers are hired,” he said, “they go through trainin’.
They have to study the life of Rosa Parks. The life of Martin Luther King Jr. They have to visit the historic sites of the movement. They have to know what happened in Birmingham and what happened in Montgomery and what happened in Selma.” He said, “I want you to forgive us.” He said, “To show the respect that I have for you and for the movement I want to take off my badge and give it to you.”
And the church was so quiet. No one sayin’ a word. And I stood up to accept the badge. And I started cryin’. And everybody in the church started cryin’. There was not a dry eye in the church.
And I said, “Officer. Chief. I cannot accept your badge. I’m not worthy to accept your badge. Don’t you need it?”
He said, “Congressman Lewis, I can get another one. I want you to have my badge.”
And I took it. And I will hold on to it forever. But he hugged me. I hugged him. I cried some more. And you had Democrats and Republicans in the church. Cryin’. And his young deputy assistant. A young African American. Was sittin’ down. He couldn’t stand. He cried so much, like a baby, really.
It was the first time that a police chief in any city where I visited or where I got arrested durin’ the ’60s ever apologized, or where I was beaten. Or where I was beaten. It was a moment of grace. It was a moment of reconciliation. [The Chief] was very young, he was not even born 52 years ago. So he was offerin’ an apology and to be forgiven on behalf of his associates, his colleagues of the past.
[It’s a moment of grace.] It means that sufferin’ and the pain that many of the people have suffered have been redeemed.
And then for the police officer, the chief, to come and apologize. To ask to be forgiven. It—it felt so good, and at the same time so freein’ and liberatin’. To have this young man come up. He hugged me and held me. I felt like, you know, I’m not worthy. You know, I’m just one. But many people were beaten.
It is amazing grace. You know the line in there, “Saved a wretch like me”? In a sense, it’s saying that we all have fallen short! Cause we all just tryin’ to just make it! We all searching! As Dr. King said, we were out to redeem the soul of America. But we first have to redeem ourselves.
This message. This act of grace of the badge says to me, “Hold on.” And, “Never give up. Never give in.” “Never lose faith. Keep the faith.”
Even in this day and age for a city like Montgomery. For this young man, somethin’ moved him. And it takes what I call raw courage. To go with the spirit. To go with his heart. His soul. He’s a very, he’s really a very interestin’ man. I been thinking about callin’ him. “How ya doin’?”
The only time somethin’ happened like this before was a member of the Klan from Rock Hill, South Carolina, that beat me and my seatmate. On May 9, 1961, durin’ the Freedom Ride. He came here to this office in February ’09. His son had been encouraging his father to seek out the people he had wronged.
And he came in the office and said, “Mr. Lewis, I’m one of the people that beat you on May 9, 1961. I want to apologize.” He said, “Will you forgive me?”
I said, “I forgive you. I accept your apology.”
His son started cryin’. He started cryin’. I started cryin’. He hugged me. I hugged him. His son hugged me. And since that time, I seen this guy four times since then.
He called me “brother.” And I call him “brother.”
We stop the show in the middle of the play. I know my limitations. And I know that there are people in the audience who can make a real difference. We divide the audience up into small groups of 20 and send them off for facilitated conversations. They talk about the performance, but they make commitments about what they are going to do.
Thank you to Berkeley Rep and the American Repertory Theater for working with me on the first experiment that we call the Second Act. It is challenging, and Berkeley and ART went for it, logistics and all.
I want someone somewhere in the audience of Notes From the Field to do something to break the school-to-prison pipeline and/or ignite the new civil rights movement.
The Ground on Which “We” Stand?
“Ground,” as Wilson’s speech is now called, is “The Ground on Which I Stand.” I see and hear it referred to as “The Ground on Which We Stand.”
Wilson was a “race man,” as we blacks who fought for the race are called. He proudly carried the blood-stained banner of black struggle. From the point of view of his “I,” some among us were moved, others motivated, others outraged, others frightened, others perplexed, others full of guilt.
In 1996 and after, many of you stood in relationship to Wilson’s ground.
Those of us who were moved, are moved, must move.
So an action, a move-ment, requires as many movers, shakers and seekers as it can attract.
Our ground seems to me to be very complex.
We all meet here with different histories, different banners of struggle, and we meet at different junctures in our histories. We are a map with some intersecting points and many straying lines in search of connection. Most of us want to board the train toward progress, equity, self-fulfillment, helping fulfill the lives of others, toward protecting all living beings and natural resources. And toward love.
I have now visited the Island of Gorée in Senegal. The holding pens where many Africans were held before being put into the bowels of slave ships and sent to this country.
But before my forefathers got here, Native Americans were on this ground. Many of them, too, were transported from their homeland to another place. The Trail of Tears. A national disgrace. Some now live on fractured lands, among fractured lives and disrupted joys; sometimes in beautiful surroundings, sometimes not. Their youth have, statistics tell us, an epidemic of suicide, despair, and depression. I was welcomed to the river on the Yurok reservation in Northern California. I found myself saturated by their history, their dances, their modern struggle against poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism, teen suicide, and violence.
Trump promised a wall. When I was doing research for my play Twilight: Los Angeles, journalist/musician Rubén Martínez told me that that no wall will hold Mexicans back, because it is not only jobs that they seek. They seek their homeland. After all, some Mexicans are pulled by deep ancestral forces. They believe that California is Mexico.
Migration is human history. Migration is human present and human future. Those who came in a variety of migrations from Asia. A variety of migrations from Europe, throughout American history, running from genocides or poverty or dogmas. We would not have imagined the profound otherness of Muslims 20 years ago.
Our ground is complex because 20 years have passed since Wilson/Brustein nailed their edicts to the pages of American Theatre.
Wilson/Brustein was before:
9/11. Which burst our world open in all ways, and certainly in racial ways.
The iPhone. Which has connected us around the world, in ways that both foster brother and sisterhood and threaten to bring us closer to evil.
High school students, primarily Latino, staging walkouts in Los Angeles, Houston, and other cities, boycotting schools and businesses in support of immigrant rights and equality.
Mainstreaming of the TED conference. Mainstreaming of TEDx.
The proliferation of places and journals that gather free content and charge money for the public to access it.
A sitting U.S. president visited a federal penitentiary (Obama). A sitting U.S. president visited an Indian reservation (Obama).
Jeremy Lin became the first American born NBA player to be of Chinese/Taiwanese descent.
Minutemen Project, with its civilians, took it upon themselves to sit down at the Mexican-American border in their version of a neighborhood watch.
“The West Wing” television show.
The term “white privilege” moved from primarily academic circles to mainstream parlance.
Rashes of violence reached the peak that is sweeping us now.
Orlando. Which happened just shy of the one-year memorial of the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston South Carolina.
The first black president.
Expectation of a potential first woman president.
Black Lives Matter.
Hamilton. Imagine a conversation between Lin-Manuel Miranda, Wilson, and Brustein. What would Wilson or Brustein think of a Latino playing Alexander Hamilton, translating a white man’s book? Or a black man playing Aaron Burr?
The Ground on Which the American Theatre Stands Is Not Just
Theatres are convening places. Communities need them, our country needs them, the world needs them. But some communities do not have this experience in their schools or inside of theatre buildings.
Many of us in this room are concerned, even horrified, by the growing gap between rich and poor in this country. Many of us want to do something about inequality. Our mission statements and grants applications make us sound as though we are world renewal projects, projects that would lead to the betterment of mankind. But let’s look in the mirror.
The DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland released a report. Many of you know of it. There was controversy surrounding its release. To my eye, it gives valuable history and statistics. Among them:
The highest reported compensation for leaders in mainstream theatres is $605,361. The median is $388,812. The lowest is $316,134.
The highest reported compensation for a leader at a Latino theatre is $88,539. The median is $51,298. The lowest is $9,970.
The highest compensation for a leader in African-American theatre is $110,000. The median is $62,692. The lowest is $29,408.
What shall we do about our problematic statistics? Who is welcome in leadership roles? What kinds of theatres are welcome in communities and in this country? What kind of artists are radically welcomed? To whom is hospitality extended?
The theatre does not exist in a vacuum. Scholars of contemporary theatre look at the ’80s and point to a severe decline in smaller arts groups. Some say survival required a corporate attitude on boards. Alisa Solomon wrote a deeply researched article in the Village Voice in December 1992, titled “Identity Crisis: Can the Arts Survive Capitalism?” She quoted one director who said, “In the ’70s, when you went to meet a funder it was enough to wear a suit. But in the ’80s, the whole organization had to be dressed like Wall Street.”
Our situation now needs different and new economics. How can we say in our mission statements and grant applications that we support and perpetuate the best in human instincts and live with the inequality that is so evident in the arts?
Take what was learned by figuring out how to increase square footage and increase the wages of actors, designers, and other artists. We can no longer assume that people are willing to starve for the theatre. We lose them to other professions in the entertainment industry and we lose out on talent who would never dare try because the economy is so bad.
Perhaps we should combine our forces. Invest in some large facilities in which a diverse group of people with diverse missions can share administrative costs, share rent costs, share the responsibility for making a healthy endowment, share the development plan, and potentially share and crisscross audiences. By diverse I include those who announce themselves as the white privileged as well as the other cultures sometimes considered marginal. And though I’d like to see work that is activist and dedicated to social justice, I am not a snob. (I myself just played Hawkwoman’s past life on “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.”) Artistic experimentation would be the goal. Artistic innovation. Economic innovation. Leadership innovation. Developing skills for new leaders and new artists would be the goal. Revealing more about the grounds on which we stand would be the goal.
We find ourselves in the midst of an economic, security, and moral crisis. In the arts, we cannot save the world, we cannot teach reading and math through drama, music and dance, but we can prick and instigate the growth of the public moral imagination. Develop a radical welcome.
The idea of a radical welcome comes from the Christian church. To quote: “Radical welcome is first and foremost a spiritual practice. It combines the Christian ministry of welcome and hospitality with a faithful commitment to doing the theological, spiritual and systemic work to eliminate historic, systemic barriers that limit the genuine embrace of groups generally marginalized in mainline churches (young adults, the poor, LGBT people, people of color, people with disabilities).”
Develop a spirit of hospitality, of radical hospitality. As Derrida wrote:
Let us say yes to who or what turns up, before any determination, before any anticipation, before any identification, whether or not it has to do with a foreigner, an immigrant, an invited guest, or an unexpected visitor, whether or not the new arrival is the citizen of another country, a human, animal, or divine creature, a living or dead thing, male or female.
Develop a radical hospitality towards one another and toward the global public on whose ground we stand.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. This Giving Season, please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!