Why artists be­come ac­tivists: It’s about more than the elec­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY NEL­SON PRESSLEY

It wasn’t Trump. It was De­cem­ber 2012, and the shoot­ing at Con­necti­cut’s Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary School so shook Arena Stage artis­tic di­rec­tor Molly Smith that she al­most im­me­di­ately got busy, ac­cel­er­at­ing her protest mind-set and or­ga­niz­ing a rally.

“Suzanne and I were on the train com­ing from New York,” Smith says of her long­time com­pan­ion, Suzanne Blue Star Boy (they mar­ried in 2014), “and this came out on my feed. It was a sock to my gut.”

A month later, Smith wrote an opin­ion piece for The Wash­ing­ton Post and led a rally on the Mall for gun con­trol. It put the most public face she could muster on her per­sonal ac­tivism, which she said she did “as a pri­vate ci­ti­zen.”

At the same time, Smith was steer­ing her the­ater to­ward a po­lit­i­cal iden­tity that has sharp­ened dra­mat­i­cally over the past few sea­sons. John Strand’s An­tonin Scalia drama “The Orig­i­nal­ist,” Lisa

Loomer’s abor­tion law his­tory “Roe,” and Jac­que­line E. Law­ton’s Valerie Plame scan­dal “In­tel­li­gence” are re­cent mar­quee at­trac­tions, and just weeks af­ter the elec­tion, Smith an­nounced Arena’s 10-year “Power Plays” pro­gram to cre­ate 25 top­i­cal-his­tor­i­cal plays, one set in each decade of the coun­try’s his­tory.

“It shows an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of what it means to be an Amer­i­can,” Smith says of the se­ries, which had been in the works but was an­nounced ear­lier than planned be­cause of Novem­ber’s un­ex­pected elec­tion re­sults. “That’s the time we’re in. That’s how we an­swered it.”

The art-ac­tivism re­la­tion­ship has no­tably heated up since Pres­i­dent Trump’s elec­tion was met with demon­stra­tions and an on­go­ing “re­sist” po­si­tion. Yet for artists such as Smith, the im­per­a­tive has been ris­ing for years to blur or erase any bar­rier be­tween per­sonal con­vic­tion and pro­fes­sional cre­ativ­ity.

Di­rec­tors, dancers and mu­si­cians have been mo­ti­vated by such is­sues as Black Lives Mat­ter, Oc­cupy and the 2008 fi­nan­cial col­lapse to speak per­son­ally and to shape their cre­ations. The most di­rect ac­tivists be­lieve that the times call for art that’s as ex­plic­itly con­nected as pos­si­ble. “I’m just not in­ter­ested in do­ing ‘Julius Cae­sar’ as a way of talk­ing about con­tem­po­rary prob­lems any­more,” says Michael Dove, artis­tic di­rec­tor of Fo­rum Theatre. (Dove said this be­fore the fra­cas over the Public The­ater’s Trump-as-Cae­sar stag­ing in Cen­tral Park.)

In­ci­den­tal ac­tivists, on the other hand, such as Wash­ing­ton Na­tional Opera artis­tic di­rec­tor Francesca Zam­bello or chore­og­ra­pher Kyle Abra­ham, say that the con­nec­tions are hard­wired as part of art’s tra­di­tional role. “It’s how Aristo­phanes talked to so­ci­ety,” says Zam­bello, whose re­cent se­lec­tions have in­cluded “Cham­pion” (about a gay boxer) and the cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment opera “Dead Man Walk­ing.” And some­times, po­lit­i­cal read­ings are in­escapable, given the so­cial mo­ment.

“‘Ac­tivist’ is such a loaded word in some ways, or la­bel,” says the New York-based Abra­ham, whose works in­clude the top­i­cally themed dances “Ab­sent Mat­ter” (around Black Lives Mat­ter) and “Un­ti­tled Amer­ica” (pris­ons). “I make work from my per­spec­tive. As a black, gay chore­og­ra­pher, the work is al­ways go­ing to be politi­cized in some way.”

Mo­saic The­ater Com­pany’s found­ing artis­tic di­rec­tor, Ari Roth, ac­tu­ally lost his job at The­ater J bat­tling over artis­tic con­tent deal­ing with Is­rael, yet even he puts the ac­tivist la­bel in per­spec­tive. “If I was re­ally com­mit­ted, I’d be out there work­ing harder for change, work­ing more on the ground and less in the the­ater,” Roth says. “But we who have cho­sen the arts love the art more than the cause. Oth­er­wise we’d re­ar­range our lives.”

By com­mit­ting to the art, the per­for­mance scene’s po­lit­i­cal radar has been sharp­en­ing for years. And in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, where un­til very re­cently po­lit­i­cal work was re­garded as a tough sell, few have been as per­son­ally and pro­fes­sion­ally ag­gres­sive as Smith.

“If I were to say that any time in my per­sonal his­tory is any­thing like this time,” Smith says, “I would hark back to the 1960s and ’70s, when the whole coun­try was on fire.”

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