Artists Who Speak Out

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By GAETANA CALDWELL-SMITH

Philosopher and essayist Susan Sontag was skewered for voicing in The New Yorker her analysis of the atrocities of 9/11, which countered those of Bush’s government spokespersons and the media pundits who pontificate on television news, talk shows, and in mainstream newspapers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

“Politically Correct” TV talk show host Bill Maher was reviled as well in the media for his comments, a short time after the hijacking, on the suicidal hijackers vs. the U.S. military. He had responded to Bush’s calling the hijackers “cowards” by suggesting that perhaps it was the U.S. military who were the cowards for lobbing missiles from the safety of ships far out at sea.

Then, the publisher of the Sacramento Bee, Janis Besler Heaphy, was booed off the stage during a commencement speech she was giving for the graduates of California State University in Sacramento, Calif., in which she opined that since the events of September our government appears to be eroding civil liberties. (Indeed, they’ve already been eroded. The argument is whether this is justified.)

Actor Danny Glover is on the coals as well: A columnist for the Trenton, N.J., newspaper The Trentonian has suggested that the actor leave the country for his questioning of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan in a recent talk he gave at Princeton University. This prompted a right-wing group to try to organize a boycott of the movie “The Royal Tennenbaums,” in which Glover has a part.

How long before more aggressive censorship is forced upon writers and artists than what’s now in place? How long before arrests are made? Already some writers feel that they must couch their output so that they’ll not be targeted by the likes of White House press secretary Ari Fleisher or Attorney General John Ashcroft-who warned people last month that by raising the “phantoms of lost liberties” they were aiding terrorists.

In the months after Sept. 11, I attended performances in San Francisco theaters that were presenting the works of three artistic rebels of earlier years-Bertolt Brecht, Jean Genet, and Langston Hughes. What these writers had in common was their drive to expose, in satire and allegory, the injustices that those in power have wreaked upon the masses, as well as to illustrate people’s struggles and triumphs.

Though the plays had been written in 1929, 1956, and 1961, the message in each can be viewed as a metaphor for today’s climate, including both domestic and foreign perspectives on U.S. goals.

Each of these authors, of course, was reviled in his own time for “unorthodox” viewpoints, lifestyles, and activities. In 1947, for example, Brecht, who had escaped Nazi-occupied Europe and was living in Santa Monica, Calif., was interrogated by the House UnAmerican Committee (HUAC) as part of their investigation of “communists” in the motion-picture industry.

In a written statement Brecht had prepared for the HUAC hearing, which he was prohibited from reading aloud, he said, “Looking back at my experiences as a playwright and poet in the Europe of the last two decades, I wish to say that the great American people would lose much and risk much if they allowed anybody to restrict free competition of ideas in cultural fields, or to interfere with art, which must be free in order to be art…”

One of the plays I saw was Brecht’s “Happy End,” with music by Kurt Weill. It deals with the banding together, after much conflict and tragedy, of two disparate groups-the Salvation Army and a gang operating out of a saloon-against the greed of the corporate world. In the final scene of this San Francisco production, members of both groups cowered and fell lifeless beneath giant corporate logos representing McDonald’s, Pepsi Cola, General Motors, KFC, etc.

Jean Genet’s “The Balcony” concerns the illusion and folly of power. The theme is that nothing is what it seems. The play is set in an elegant brothel, run by an Eva Peron-type madam. Nondescript clerks, high officials, and gendarmes play-act their dreams, with complicit prostitutes, in front of screens and mirrors. All takes place against a backdrop of duplicity, evil, and violence, ending in a revolving door of bloody revolution and takeover.

Throughout, each character assumes many guises.

One never knows exactly who is who, or who is doing what to whom, or who is speaking the truth. And what is the truth? The motif seems to parallel what we are being told or not told by Bush, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, and military spokespersons subsequent to Sept.11 and the anthrax incidents.

Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity,” a musical celebration of the Christmas story, played at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. The production was dedicated to the author. An audience of all races and ages participated.

The performance was partly a recounting of the birth of Jesus, with brilliantly costumed principals, shepherds, and kings in West African dress, and a church revival complete with dances and soul-tearing gospel songs. The play portrays Mary and Joseph as being discriminated against because of their poverty and race.

In 1926, Hughes wrote his famous essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” for The Nation. It concerned Black writers, “who surrender racial pride in the name of false integration.” Many Blacks now feel for Muslims and Middle Eastern immigrants who suffer as targets of racial profiling-as they have and as they still are.

Of “Black Nativity,” one reviewer wrote that it “is a stirring testament of faith.” Faith in our own beliefs-no matter how unpopular-is much needed these days, in light of threats coming not only from radical religious fundamentalists but from our own government (and the likes of Jerry Falwell), with its “yer either fer us or agin us” mind-set.

The directors, members, and actors of the theater companies mounting these plays are to be lauded for their courage to get them produced post-9/11, despite recent harbingers of the erosion of free speech and the rest of our civil liberties. Still, their messages would go unheard were there no audience to support them.

 

Marx in Memphis

“Workers of the world, unite!” the famous phrase from the “Communist Manifesto” by Marx and Engels, is inscribed in the pavement outside the new central library of Memphis, Tenn. The artists placed the quotation near a Dr. Seuss cartoon figure as part of a display of the “history of information.”

It all seemed innocent enough until three city council members charged that “workers of the world, unite!” is the voice of “communism … our enemy” and should be sandblasted out of existence. Though the city arts commission has rejected their idea, the politicians insist that since “we are at war,” the offending quote must go.

But not all feel that way about Marx’s phrase. One unemployed worker told The New York Times, “I don’t see anything wrong with it.” He noted, “a lot of workers have been laid off.”

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