Can Theater Play A Role In Bringing America Together?

By Henry D. Godinez

I am an idealist.

The first play I ever saw on Broadway was The Man of La Mancha, the musical adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic tale about Don Quixote, an aging gentleman who imagined himself a knight whose quest was “to right the unrightable wrong.”

It was 1977, I was 19 years old, and I understood his views made him a target of ridicule and scorn. As a young immigrant and naturalized citizen, I related to the lyrics of The Impossible Dream, words I personally equated with being an American.

Like Don Quixote’s rusty, dented armor, however, that idealized vision suffered many a beating on my journey to adulthood. I grew increasingly cynical over the hypocrisy evident in our government’s actions both at home and abroad. In spite of that, or maybe because of it, as a young man I choose to pursue a profession almost as quixotic; I became a theatre artist.

Since the 2016 presidential election, like so many of my colleagues in the arts, I’ve been deeply troubled by what seems to be rampant, unveiled racism, and hate-filled violence toward immigrants, women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks.

In the days following the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented the hate crimes and their targets. As of mid-December, there were close to 1,100 hate crimes against immigrants, blacks, Muslims and LGBTQ persons. The most recent hate crime in Chicago against a disabled teen shared on Facebook even shocked President Barack Obama.

Given the deep divisions that have emerged in our country, many of us whose job it is to tell stories that represent and define our shared humanity are left wondering what we can do to more effectively promote empathy and compassion. We know that seeing live theatre significantly increases empathy and tolerance levels in young people.

So, the urgent discussion among my colleagues at Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and across the country, is about how to avoid simply preaching to the choir, and better serve, include and reflect the experiences of all Americans. As a result, some of the leading artists in the American theatre, including Tina Landau, Lisa Peterson, Lisa Kron, and Moisés Kaufman launched the Ghostlight Project, which has grown into a consortium of virtually every major theatre company, and many educational institutions across the country.

The project’s name refers to the one light that is left burning 24/7 in a dark theatre in between performances. The goal is to create solidarity by coming together on the eve of the presidential inauguration on January 19th to demonstrate the values of community, compassion, and inclusion that are central to the mission of most theatres, and “to create spaces — both literal and symbolic — that will serve as lights in the coming years, and to activate a network of people across the country working to support vulnerable communities.”

Many cultural institutions, especially theatres, are by necessity located in large urban centers, where access to audiences and funding sources is greatest. You can visit dozens of live theaters in New York City, Chicago and other major cities, while many states have a only a few professional theatres, making attendance a daunting challenge for many rural audiences.

To be sure, rural communities understandably feel disenfranchised, and disconnected from what may easily be perceived as the elitist urban mainstream, and therefore develop what University of Wisconsin professor Katherine Cramer calls, “rural resentment.”

Yet, for those who can access it, as a live and ephemeral art form, theatre functions as a proverbial finger on the pulse of society.

Since ancient times, theatre has been civilized society’s most effective way of reflecting and addressing our aspirations and our shortcomings. It was the foundation of democratic Greek society, demonstrating the destructive effects of unchecked hubris, and providing a communal cathartic experience.

At the peak of the high Renaissance, great dramatists like William Shakespeare and Cervantes, infused theatre with the ability to articulate both man’s enlightenment and his tragic flaws, moving their mostly illiterate audiences to sympathize with kings and beggars alike.

Fast-forward to the 20th century, when great American playwrights like Arthur Miller and August Wilson managed to captivate even the most sophisticated audiences with characters who personified the struggles of the American everyman.

In 1935, very much in the spirit of the Sanctuary Project, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration established the Federal Theatre Project under the direction of Hallie Flanagan, primarily to create work for unemployed theatre artists during the Great Depression.

The result was the creation of a federation of what we now call regional theatres, reaching culturally isolated communities across more than 40 states, producing relevant new dramas, musicals, children’s theatre, and documentary theatre, also known as Living Newspapers. The Federal Theatre Project helped launch the careers of legendary theatre artists like Orson Welles, John Houseman and Elia Kazan, and remarkably, included companies that presented African-American, Yiddish, and Spanish productions.

The Federal Theatre Project, which made it possible for millions of Americans to see live theatre for the first time, often for free, is an inspiring example for the American Theatre today. In the spirit of the FTP, the Sanctuary Project is a clear indication that the American theatre senses the need to reconnect with broader segments of American society.

Sadly, it is hard to imagine the federal government sponsoring a program like the FTP in our country’s current political climate, especially given that it was terminated by congress after only four years for what was considered its left-leaning political tone.

And while the National Endowment for the Arts was established in 1965 to make the arts accessible to all Americans, it has constantly been a target of conservatives.

As recently as 2009, conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart attacked the NEA for allegedly attempting to promote President Obama’s social agenda. Given president-elect Donald Trump’s agenda, it is hard to imagine the NEA being empowered to pick up where the Federal Theater Project left off.

Nonetheless, it may be that like Don Quixote, the American theatre community’s dream of supporting the vulnerable and challenging injustice is an idealistic fight we must never give up.

Henry D. Godinez is resident artistic associate at Goodman Theatre in Chicago, a professor of theatre at Northwestern University, and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.