The face of wokeness

The face of wokeness

On Sunday evening, the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, in collaboration with Columbia Law School, presented an event in their political and social activism series titled “The Invitation”. This installment of the series, “The American Hangover”, featured several segments of ‘artivism’ — a fusion of art and activist performances. Bwogger Lexie Lehmann shares her thoughts on the event below.

When my friends asked me what I was doing on Sunday night, instead of attending the weekly Bwog meeting, I had trouble answering. A few weeks ago, I reserved tickets for the Broadway Advocacy Coalition’s event “The American Hangover”; the event promised to feature performances and speeches in response to the election. Additionally, the event boasted big appearances from Brandon Dixon CC ‘03, who recently received flack for calling out VP-elect Mike Pence during a performance of the musical Hamilton, as well as Tony award winner Ben Vereen and Tony nominee Condola Rashad. The described content of the event was intentionally vague: “artistic collaborations between dialogue, panel discussions and performance to educate and empower the public to continue creating the world we imagine in spite of the disappointment of this election”. I was intrigued, but I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

As I walked into the event, I was unsure of whether or not it had already started. In the front of the room, two young women were reading letters on their post-election thoughts while loud, upbeat jazz music played in the background. On a chalkboard behind the women, an artist was drawing large, pastel-chalk pictures of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In the back of the room, a camera crew was setting up video-cameras and microphones for the event’s live stream. After the two women completed reading their letters, the room was silent as a woman clad in black began a contemporary dance performance in the center of the room. She was joined by 4 other dancers, all moving to a strong drum beat. Their dance was fluid and clean, providing a striking juxtaposition to the first act’s disorganization.

After the dance finished, Kendall Thomas, Nash Professor and director of the Center for the Study of Law and Culture at Columbia Law School, and Jeanine Tesori, a Tony-winning composer, came onstage to introduce the event. Thomas talked about the intersection of art and law in his life; how he began his career as a performer but shifted gears to pursue law because he saw a capacity for both art and legal studies to practice justice. The inspiration for this event came out of that ideal: using art as an outlet for healing after Donald Trump’s win. He likened the experience of post-election America to waking up with a hangover: feelings of fatigue, regret, and discomfort — hence the title of the showcase: “The American Hangover”.

Thomas and Tesori ended by introducing Brandon Dixon CC ‘03, who plays Aaron Burr in the musical Hamilton. Dixon began his act by describing justice as fully seeing and being fully heard; thus his connection between art and activism was to spread love and encouragement to those who are hurting. He ended his comments with, “remember you have more allies than enemies”, before beginning to sing Ben King’s, “Stand by Me”. Dixon received a partial standing ovation.

Dixon exited and was followed by Richard Gray, Director of Community Organizing and Engagement at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. Gray commented on the necessity of healing and safe spaces for mourning individuals. He also referenced the necessity of the space of the event himself: “This is a sort of church for me”. Gray argued that art can serve as a sort of antidote for the “Age of Bullshit” he believes we are living in; a place where bullshitters don’t care about the truth and rather are just looking for emotional kicks. This art, he believes, cannot be commodified, rather it should be used to initiate conversations about political struggle and cultural continuity. I was struck by his level of intimacy in describing his personal ties to this event and its importance; his genuineness made the room of hundreds seem incredibly small and close.

The introduction was followed by a spoken word poem composed by Solomon Hoffman and Ben Wexler, New York-based composers. Then, Alexandra Carter, Director of the Mediation Program and Clinical Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, introduced the next segment. She explained that her position in the Mediation Program was to negotiate difficult conversations between people in conflict. A young man joined her on stage, dressed in a large oversized, tan jacket and Pittsburgh Steelers hat. Carter introduced him as Dillon Carr of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, a Donald Trump voter. The audience was stunned… a Trump supporter to follow the previous, incredibly intimate act? What would he say? What would the audience ask him?

Carter started by asking him about his community in Aliquippa. Carr described it as a small steel town that had been hit badly by the 2008 recession. He said that Aliquippa and its citizens were deeply struggling, and that he was inspired by Trump’s promises to bring jobs back to his community. An audience member asked him how he reconciled Trump’s hateful rhetoric with his promise to make America great again — to which Dylan responded, “I’m not really consolidating anything, just choosing to acknowledge some parts of Trump’s wishes and misalign from others.” With every question, Dylan became more visibly uncomfortable. As the audience grilled him on his thoughts over the spike in hate crimes following the election, he continued to explain that he did not consider himself a racist nor an ignorant voter. He said he considers these wide-sweeping narratives dangerous and offensive, while rocking in his chair and clenching his Steelers hat. After only a few minutes of harsh question and answer, Carter paused the conversation. Then, she reintroduced Dylan Carr as Alex Cramer, an actor. The whole segment had been an experiment to demonstrate just how difficult conversations between conflicting sides can be.

Next the event turned into a discussion about tools for conflict resolution; Carter began by introducing a panel of Patricia Okonta, Columbia Law School student and co-president of Student Public Interest Network and Susan Sturm, Jaffin professor and director of Center for Institutional and Social Change at Columbia Law School. The panelists discussed methods of spiritual and political organizing. Although I am not a very spiritual person, I was especially struck by the spiritual commentary. While not explicitly advocating for a reliance on God for healing, the panelists discussed adopting a more generous, sacred mindset that all individuals should adopt in Trump’s America. To exemplify, one of the panelists said: “Before crossing the street when you are afraid of a couple of black boys on the street wearing the outfit-du-jour, ask yourself: I wonder what college they go to?”

Following the panel, the event featured speeches from Tony nominee Condola Rashad and Tony winner Ben Vereen. Both speakers focused on a call to action; now, more than ever, it is every American’s responsibility to “put their boots on the ground” and do something different. Rashad called out individuals for using social media as a crutch in this activist work: “Use social media, but do not let social media use you”, she warned. As the event drew to a close, the whole audience stood as Vereen asked: “Are you ready to begin the change?”, to which everyone answered: “Yes! Yes we are!”.

Although The American Hangover was nothing I had expected, it was easily one of the most powerful events I’ve been to thus far at my time at Columbia. In the weeks that have passed since the election, I have noticed some of the initial activist response start to dull, yet this event gave me positive proof that the activist spirit was still alive and roaring. I am very excited to follow the future initiatives of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, and I recommend the entire Columbia community to pay attention to their artivist movement as well.

Edit, 12/6/2016 at 3:40pm: The post has been updated with factual corrections.

Peep the cool chalkboard drawings

Peep the cool chalkboard drawings