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the increasingly inaccurately named friday collection: political theater, occupy, and activism

October 8, 2011

Blogging was light this week, but writing was not. Expect a piece soon about a gang rape case in Nigeria that officials refuse to investigate despite the fact that it was recorded and they have the video, one about the state of reproductive rights in Texas, and a follow up to my piece on the personhood movement in Mississippi. Tonight I’m seeing a show at Center Theater Group by the Rude Mechanicals out of Austin that I’ll review. I just started watching The Walking Dead over from the beginning and plan to write about it’s wonderfulness as well as its disappointing gender essentialism soon. I’m still looking for theater outside of LA to write about, and am surprised by your inability to shamelessly self-promote by suggesting that I write about you (I’m looking at you, my facebook theater friends). Please do so.

Thursday I went to Orange, CA, to see a show at the university where I’ll be teaching in the spring. They were doing Urinetown, which I haven’t seen before. There is plenty for a theater dork and political theater afficionado like me in this one. The blantantly symbolic names poke at their own tradition: the ingenue is named Hope, the male hero Bobby Strong, the best character Little Sally Two Shoes. The music references just about every musical theater tradition it can, from an opener that evokes Les Miserables‘ “The End of the Day” to a negro spiritual about freedom sung by all white people. In a way the whole thing is both an ode to and send up of The Cradle Will Rock.

It’s a funny show, and a well-written one. Despite it’s mainly Epic sensibility, wherein a narrator talks about the fact that they’re in a play and you definitely get the sense they’ve told this story before, it does manage some fun surprises in the second act. But overall, the show confirms my sense that it’s really, really, hard to make political theater that actually makes the audience leave the room with the intention of taking action and making change. It’s not hard to give audiences political information. It’s not hard to show them why something is unjust. And it’s not hard to make them feel bad about that. But it’s very hard to make them leave the theater with the ability and desire to do something about it.

Urinetown‘s constant references to the oddness of its name, the opaqueness of its premise, and its own unsatisfying ending ultimately undercut its political message. The audience does not leave with a plan to live differently. In fact, the message of the show appears to be that it’s hopeless. There’s nothing we can do about the problems that will eventually destroy us (in this case, I think they were warning us about the overuse of natural resources, but as I said, the premise was opaque, so I’m not entirely sure), the show seems to say. The writers set out to do something great and they use all the right tools, but in the end they fail to propose solutions and to demonstrate the effectiveness of political action.

Generationally, it makes sense that this show comes from the same culture that has spawned the Occupy movement. From what I can tell, they’re putting a lot of energy and conviction into a performance that doesn’t actually demand anything specific or propose any specific solutions. Perhaps this is just the way movements are in the beginning; it was the way the Tea Party was, and they went on to achieve a number of specific goals, particularly at the state level. Perhaps leaders will emerge, demands will be made, and the spirit behind the effort will spawn some real results. But in life as in theater, it’s hard to make that leap. It’s easier to just be mad.

At least the movement has the potential to get the media to talk a little about the reality of wealth disparity. This reader at The Dish points out that

Democrats now insist that somebody making $999,000 a year is in the struggling middle-class and needs to be protected from tax increases. It was ridiculous enough when President Obama decided that $200,000 ($250,000 for couples) defined middle class. It was even stranger when GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney adopted that number. Median household income in the U.S. is, um, $60,000.

Actually the U.S. Census Bureau says the median income in 2010 was $49,445, but the reader’s point still stands. Technically the middle class should be defined as families who make around $50,000. Yet what most people think of as a middle-class lifestyle, including investments, asset ownership, and college, is not possible for four or more people at that amount.

I am in an extraordinarily privileged situation right now. I am doing an unpaid internship, which I’m able to do only because my husband is working his ass off to keep us above water, and because we have a small financial cushion created by selling our house last year. The majority of Americans simply don’t have the option of doing something like this–stopping mid-career to start an additional career from the beginning.

I’m really happy to be using this opportunity to work both creatively and as an activist. Writing every day, working with great editors, publishing that writing, knowing that people are reading it, and having people respond to it, is incredibly fulfilling. Equally fulfilling is the fact that the writing is an outlet for things I have been passionate about for so long but had only ever indirectly addressed through theory and performance. Last week I spent a big chunk of time reading and writing about women in Saudi Arabia, who were just granted the nominal right to vote but still live in a guardianship culture so restrictive that they can’t make do anything without a man’s permission, and they can’t do some basic things, like drive, at all.

I wrote a piece for Ms. on it, and then a woman in Saudi Arabia wrote a piece which I fact-checked (which meant I did a lot of research into the issue and learned a great deal), and in collaboration with a Saudi women’s group, I helped maintain an update page with breaking news about women who had been arrested for driving. One was sentenced to 10 lashings. As with the whole Arab spring, these women primarily used twitter and Facebook to connect with one another and the world. They made the story public and the resulting international media attention did not suit the royal family, who reversed the ruling. The Princess proclaimed this over twitter.

Watching and being a peripheral part of this was amazing. This time, I knew without a doubt that my work was not just a catalyst for action, it was action. I feel the same way about the reproductive rights writing, where the research and writing is a genuine tool in spreading accurate information and informing voters in ways that make a difference.

So expect more of that soon. In the meantime, I’d like to direct your attention to…

This piece by Andrew Sullivan about the great difficulty of grasping divinity with a human mind.

I also like this one about why feminists are being sexist when they call Bachmann and Palin things like cunt and bitch. I agree.

Talk to me.

Photo from flickr user _PhilS_ under Creative Commons 2.0

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