By: Jessica Taghap, Contributor
When President-elect Donald Trump tweets “The Theater must always be a safe and special place”, I wonder; how safe should it really be? It has always been the job of artists to spotlight the darkness that exists in the world around us. From war and poverty, to capital punishment and abuses of power, what unfolds onstage can often be ugly. But theatre is at its best when it shows us at our worst.
Last Friday Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended a performance of Hamilton where, upon arriving, he was booed by the audience and, upon leaving, was addressed by cast member Brandon Victor Dixon. As Pence stood by the theatre doors, Dixon and the cast respectfully requested his ear, calmly stating their fears of a Trump-Pence administration and what it might bring:
"We, sir, 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."
Barely twenty-four hours later things got ugly on the internet — beginning with live reports from the audience, rising with hashtags like #BoycottHamilton, and ending with Donald Trump’s claims of harassment by the Hamilton cast. On Fox News Sunday Pence attempted to do damage control, telling anchor Chris Wallace that he wasn’t offended and had actually told his children “That’s what freedom sounds like.”
That is also what the modern theatre sounds like. There isn’t a play or musical today that doesn’t challenge traditional performative norms.
In Sarah Kane’s Blasted and Martin McDonagh’s Lieutenant of Inishmore, both unapologetically use horrifically graphic depictions onstage to comment on war and its effects on the desensitization of violence in our culture. Experimental theatre troupe The Living Theatre uses street theatre as means to bring to light many political issues, particularly the death penalty. Each time an execution is scheduled they perform the anti-death penalty play Not in My Name by the NYPD station in Times Square. Only when we hold a mirror to society’s ills can we turn an audience from passive to active spectators.
Since the results of the election were announced two weeks ago many have feared the prospect of a Trump-Pence administration. Collectively the two have discriminated against people of all walks of life — blacks, Latinos, Muslims and members of the LGBT+ community.
So was the Hamilton cast right to call out Mike Pence in the middle of the Richard Rodgers Theatre that night? Was the audience right to boo him? Sure, they were — just as people are right to laugh or fidget during an uncomfortable scene, scream at a frightening one, or feel compelled to dance and sing along. In the theatre there is no right or wrong way to feel or react; there is only participation. And if we do not participate, if we do not challenge, then how can we progress as a nation?
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