If you’re like me your social media has been inundated with the latest video from Childish Gambino (Donald Glover), “This is America.” I watched it drop on SNL, and since then it has blown up! It is shocking, violent and has sparked millions of comments and conversations about what he’s trying to show us. The general consensus (is) that "This Is America" (is) a condemnation of gun violence, which disproportionately affects African Americans. Gun violence is the top killer of African Americans aged 15 to 34, according to the NAACP, and blacks are nearly half of all gun homicide victims, while making up only 13 percent of the population.”
He’s not sugar coating anything, he’s putting the gun violence up close and very personal. People (and specifically people of color) are being shot. A lot. And though there is protest, not much has changed. I’ll add a hopeful “yet.”
I started thinking, why is this video so shocking? Here’s an artist who, using his medium, his popularity, his platform, is holding up the mirror! THANK you! It’s ironic to me that more people seem to be reacting to this piece of art than the actual horrors of our current reality. It’s an odd imbalance of desensitization. But it’s great if artists can stir the proverbial pot and force awareness.
I decided to do a little digging.
The concept of “art as protest” has a long history, especially during periods of political and/or civil unrest. And if art is defined as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination,” Protest art refers more specifically to creative works that concern or are produced by activists and social movements. It includes (but is not limited to) performance, site-specific installations, graffiti and street art, and crosses the boundaries of art genres, media, and disciplines. While some protest art is associated with trained and professional artists, an extensive knowledge of art is not required to take part in protest art.
In the middle of a movement.
Look around. In our world, country, and even local community, we are confronted with injustice! Movements like Black Lives Matter, #metoo, Everytown, The Women’s March have gained momentum and “Since November 2017, activists have been more committed than ever to raise voices in collective resistance” against systemic violations of human rights. At the center of it, thank goodness, we’re seeing more and more people in the entertainment industry (like Glover) using their public platforms to do just that, in spite of of potential backlash. It’s inspiring. I’ve decided to highlight a few of these people, productions, and visible platforms that are nationally and locally raising awareness. Here are (just) a few examples:
Colin Kaepernick kneeling for Black Lives Matter has been an “thing” now since 2016. Can you believe it? “Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refuses to stand during the singing of the national anthem, sparking a heavy dose of criticism.” Kaepernick said he would not “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” according to an NFL interview. Kaepernick’s protest lands him among several other athletes and entertainers who have used their fame to speak out about political issues of their day and has just garnered him "The Ambassador of Conscience award” by Amnesty International and celebrates the “spirit of activism and exceptional courage.”
Tarana Burke and #metoo. Over the past few months, our culture has seen a shift in dialogues around sexual harassment and sexual assault. Brave individuals, like Tarana, have shared their stories and experiences, putting a face and a name to the epidemic of sexual violence in our schools and workplaces. What we now see is the truth: sexual harassment and sexual assault happen across all walks of life, to people of all genders, abilities, ages, races, and sexualities. More alarming is that we are immersed in a culture that not only ignores sexual misconduct, but rewards and protects sexual predators from the legal and economic ramifications of their actions.
“Grace and Frankie” on Netflix. Using a brilliant cast (albeit predominantly white), and hilarious writing, Netflix has tackled a subject that gets little to no attention. Ageism. The youngest and most attractive women have to fight for their place in Hollywood. Older woman are practically non-existent. A ruthless combination of sexism and ageism in (and behind the scenes of) our media can leave women fearing for their careers, and their self-image, after a certain age. A lack of representation, or a negative one, can lead older women to feel that they’re invisible or unwanted, and Grace and Frankie is a heartening sign that Hollywood is beginning to address that.
An Enemy of the People at the Guthrie Written by Ibsen in 1882 this play has never been more relevant to our country than it is today. We learn at the beginning of the play that the public baths are not the “healing balm advertised to tourists but a poisonous stew.” HOW long has Flint Michigan been out of clean water? Why is no one doing anything about it? Puerto Rico ring a bell?...still without power and water WTF?
The Guthrie’s current adaptation follows the protagonist Stockmann, trying to make this discovery public until, isolated in a spotlight as the play closes, he finally realizes he is alone in his fight. The audience was all over a scene in which two characters debated the existence of alternative “truths”: “Your facts are not the only facts, Tom,” says Stockmann’s brother, Peter, who is the town’s mayor and wants the polluted baths to stay open. Didn’t Kellyanne Conway just say that on the news?
Marisol presented by Theatre Coup d’Etat Winner of the 1993 Obie Award, Marisol is an apocalyptic urban fantasy which urges society to "wake up" and somehow find a way to recover the long-lost and much-needed compassion for our fellow man, as this is the only way to save our world. Hey how about we try being nice to one another.
Good Person of Szechwan newly adapted and produced by Ten Thousand Things: The play explores what it means to be a good person, which has always been relevant but is even more so in an era when the Supreme Court has decided that corporations are also people. But the ending, which throws the issue back on the audience, makes it clear that goodness is not something to be decided by courts.
Other local groups that should be noted for their work in the community and for staying “woke”:
The Theatre of Public Policy: Self described as “learning disguised as entertainment” The Theater of Public Policy advances the understanding of complex ideas and issues by drawing on improvisational comedy.
Blackout Improv Comedy: Blackout Improv is a mix of comedy, social justice, and arts access. Their mission is to “put more Black performers on more stages, to create comedic dialogue around serious truths.”
CLIMB Theatre: In order to inspire change, CLIMB’s theatre artists “write, produce, and perform plays and classes on topics like bullying prevention, self control, respect, friendship, job skills, and more.”
CFPA Mpls ReClaim Series: ReClaim is an assembly space to connect all kinds of audiences, artists, experiences, and stories. Events explore the vitality of American identity, and the ways in which creative works reflect lived experience (or not). The goal is lively questions, dynamic conversation, and to encourage new ways of understanding each other’s lives.
These are just a few of our local treasures engaging in this work. GO out and find more!
Even I have been working on a new web series that aims to raise awareness, (shameless plug), “FEM 101.” It’s a goofy, mockumentary style, like Community or The Office and we’re having a blast. I feel very lucky to be working with the talented group of creative, local people. And, although it’s a comedy, it was inspired by the continued battle for intersectional feminism and gender equality. At the risk of sounding cheesy the notion of art imitating life and vice versa is a thing. It is a way we feel and express ourselves, and though art is often considered entertainment, at the same time, it can also be used for teaching and raising awareness.
I applaud people, producers, companies and communities that are continuing the conversation! There is so much worth talking about and point of views to learn from. If we are willing to look at the issues, talk about things, we’re all the better for it. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s ugly, but it’s not going away. As artists and entertainers we have a voice...when we use it, sometimes people listen. To quote one of my favorite closing lines of a play “Go on…”