Sunday, April 21, 2019

“Politicians don’t bring people together. Artists do.”

**This piece is part of a larger series of responses to TYA/USA’s Call to Action: Responding to Hate with Art and Action, written by a range of leading voices in the TYA field. Read other pieces in this series here.**


“Politicians don't bring people together. Artists do."
-Former Chicago Mayor, Richard Daley

A couple weeks ago my kids and I saw Spider-Man: Homecoming. It was a fun movie with cool effects, big action sequences, and a predictable plot. However, it was unique in that, besides Spider- Man, most of the characters were of color. While I was reading my friend and colleague, Jonathan Shmidt Chapman’s latest post on TYA, I thought about that movie. In the piece, he wrote, “We utilize theatre – a vehicle designed to specifically fuel empathy and challenge our preconceptions – and we create it specifically for young people – who are responsible for shaping the next chapter.” I felt this movie was a wonderful example of that. There was one moment when co-star Zendaya, playing MJ, was asked if she wanted to view the Washington Monument, and she said she had “no interest in viewing something built by slaves.” Her teacher played by Martin Starr said, “this monument wasn’t built by slaves.” As he said it, he looked at the security guard who made a “kinda” gesture with his hand. It was a very small moment in a very big budget movie, but it made the viewer think about our skewed perspective of history. It brought a little reality into an otherwise fantastic movie. It made us “challenge our preconceptions.” It showed us, cinematically, that Black Lives Matter. This is exactly why we make art. It is our duty to broaden people’s perspectives, every time we create something.

Zendaya in Spiderman: Homecoming / Sony Pictures

This is exactly why we make art. It is our duty to broaden people's perspectives, every time we create something.

I also saw a wonderful example of using art for social change as I watched the recap of the MTV Video Music Awards a few weeks ago. The MTV VMAs are another example of popcorn entertainment. Yet, I was impressed by how some of the artists used music and performance to spread their messages of diversity and equity.

When Alessia Cara came to the stage to perform her hit “Scars to Beautiful,” she was wearing an extravagant red ball gown, red lipstick, and her hair was in a tightly coiffed bun. As she went through the song, her back up dancers removed all of the accoutrements to reveal a young woman singing in a simple all black outfit about how “you’re beautiful just the way you are.” Her message of self love and acceptance was underscored by the choreography of her costume change, and it was a powerful message to see at a time when there is so much intolerance in the world.

Later in the show, she came back onstage with Logic and Khalid to perform a song about the stigma of mental illness and how that can lead to suicide. Their back up singers and dancers were all survivors, and Logic ended the song compelling the audience to fight racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and white supremacy, because we are all equal. We are one.

Robert W Lee IV at the MTV VMAs – Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP


After the commercial break, Robert E Lee’s descendant Robert W Lee IV came out to decry the actions of white supremacists, most recently in Charlottesville. Here’s what he said:

“We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism and hate. As a pastor, it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin. Today, I call on all of us, with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on. We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement; the women who marched in the women’s march in January; and especially Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs in Charlottesville.”

A man whose forefather is THE symbol of the confederacy was publicly denouncing the confederacy.

The audience (myself included) was awed.

Before he left the stage, he introduced Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer. She delivered a message of unity and hope. She also announced the, which provides scholarships to those interested in fighting for social justice.

If you have a platform, use it.

If you have something to say, say it.

If you can do something, do it.


Know when it isn’t your turn.

Ed Skrein is an actor, most famous for Playing Ajax in ‘Deadpool.’ He was cast in the Hellboy remake as Detective Daimio. When he agreed to play that role, he did not know the character was written to be a man of Asian descent. When he found out via social media, he withdrew from the project. He thought, rightfully so, that the character should be played by someone that is also of Asian descent.

I applaud the actor for stepping out of the movie, despite knowing it would be financially lucrative. Those actions earned him more respect than he will ever get with a movie credit or an award. It also reinforced how important it is to know when an ally needs to step back to allow others to shine.

It is not easy, but it must be done.

There is strength in numbers.

We are in this together.


If you are an actor, ensure that you understand the cultural references of your character. Take roles that push the narrative. Deny roles that do not.

If you are a director, make sure that you are thinking globally without centering the dominant narrative. Costumes, set, props, and lights can be used to convey messages just as thoughtfully as words.

If you are a producer, think outside the box regarding playwrights and narratives that you put on your stage.  Look at playwrights such as Nikkole Salter, Antu Yacub, Dominique Morisseau, and others. Remember TYA can also be poems, music, circus, film, and/or other types of experiences. One of my favorite pieces of TYA is called Soundtrack ’63, which details the African American experience through visuals and an 18 piece orchestra. Check that out here.

Lastly, if you have a chance to invite young people to the table, invite them. Always. They should be central in any decisions made around any TYA that they consume, and if possible, empower young people to make their own theatre.

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