I Pledge Allegiance: Making a Performance
by: Devika Ranjan, Lab Fellow 2017–2018
When I moved to the United States, the first thing I learned was the pledge of allegiance; and before I even knew English, I could recite that this nation was “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” But that nation, the one I believed I lived in, is very different from the one I see today. Borders and walls everywhere you turn.
I was invited to devise a play for the American delegation to the International Theatre Institute’s World Theatre Congress right before the inauguration of President Trump, in January 2017. My team and I were tasked to create a performance exploring the theme “ACT!” I was overwhelmed by ideas, as well as by the political climate that surrounded me. I couldn’t separate the two.
I came of age between 9/11 and the Trump administration, when being brown — and an immigrant — was something of suspect. I wonder who I am in this era and what it means for me, and my family, and my classmates, to be American — more than being citizens, or voting, or filing taxes, what does it mean for us to be American? How could I engage with a country that rejects me and the things that I believe in? To what do I pledge allegiance?
William Sloane Coffin writes about three kinds of patriots, “two bad, one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country.” He goes on to say that you can only love another person if you don’t romanticize them; and the same is true of loving one’s country. But patriotism, I feel, is bound in the rhetoric of nationalism — and the extremist violence from which I want to distance myself. How, I wonder, can I be a critical lover of my country when the thing I want to do most is burrow under my pillows, fly across the world, ignore any complicity in the violence and sorrows?
When talking to the Hindu Chaplain on campus, I learned that the Maha Upanishads contain the phrase “vasudhaiva kutumbakam,” meaning love the world as your family. It is a call for unconditional generosity towards other human beings, treating other human beings as those you care for. But honestly, I don’t feel very generous. Similarly, the Christian tradition mentions “agape,” or boundless love; but I’m not ready for that either. Perhaps I search for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “beloved community” that envisions a realistic society in which exploitation, racism, and violence is not tolerated.
Within my community, in the last few months, I have felt a disturbingly palpable shift — and palpable silence.
Casual racism, slurs, hate crimes, and aggression have popped up in my community and on my campus. Many of the leaders I once admired have the privilege to ignore them, and do so quietly. I wonder what it means for our leaders to be silent in the face of nation-wide injustices — and what it means for me to speak out.
I don’t have any answers. I used the process of devising this piece for the World Congress to grapple with my questions — what does it mean to be an American? How do we reconcile this with our immigrant backgrounds? At the beginning of the process, my team and I gathered testimonies from the people around us. Amongst other things, we asked:
Where are you from?
Do you identify as American?
What does it mean to be American?
Are you a patriot?
And then we noted the interesting, resonating, or important stories from these sessions. Darren, who is half-white, told us that his teammate assumed his Chinese mother was his nanny. After the election, Jon’s mom told him that they no longer belonged in the United States and should move back to Korea — a place that he had never known as home. In elementary school, Tanvi hid her Indian lunch from her classmates for fear of mockery and exclusion. And we, as a team of first- or second-generation immigrants, could identify with almost all of these stories.
But some of the more interesting tensions arose when we started debating the finer points of what we knew and cared about — the micro aggressions towards non-white Americans, the racism embedded within communities of color, the rat-race embodied in groups like “Hindus for Trump” that claim supremacy over other immigrants, our national complicity in state-sponsored acts of violence against other brown and black bodies. And above all, we argued and vexed and grappled with the ideas of patriotism. Who is allowed to be a patriot? Is being a patriot even a good thing?
I Pledge Allegiance took shape out of these questions. The process of making a performance piece that includes pieces of my relationships, the stories I’ve heard, and the injustices I’ve swallowed has been cathartic and heartening. It is a piece about being outsiders, and not understanding the place in which we are in though it is the place we thought we knew for our whole lives. It discusses and challenges the ideas of American-ness, in the context of where we are in the world and who we want to be.
*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the interviewees.
Devika Ranjan is a first-generation Indian-American. Born in Nashik, Maharashtra and raised all over the United States, Devika found her roots in her family as they moved from the mountains, to the prairies, to the shining sea. Her first forays on stage were jugalbandis, entwined performances of Bollywood dance and classic American musical theatre to interpret her identities and cultural crossings. Devika studies Culture and Politics at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service with a self-designed concentration in “Human Rights in Crisis”; during her undergraduate years, she has conducted research on the India-Pakistan and Israel-Palestine borders to understand the nuances of human rights in these zones of exception. She performed in Amrika Chalo (Destination: USA) and Generation (Wh)Y: Global Voices on Stage as part of The Lab’s Myriad Voices Festival. After translating in a medical clinic for refugees in Germany and conducting theatre workshops for women displaced by border violence in Jammu and Kashmir, Devika’s interest in expression and displacement has led her to an interdisciplinary focus on theatre and international migration. In the fall of 2017, Devika plans to read Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford University as a Marshall Scholar. She will then continue to study theater in the UK.
Devika Ranjan is one of ten Lab Fellows, selected in the spring of 2017. Read more about the Lab Fellows program here.