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Cambridge Goes to the Theatre

smalina's picture

Toward the end of the summer, I went to see Anna Deavere Smith perform her latest piece "Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education." Smith is an incredibly skilled performer with a unique style; she interviews hundreds of people who have some relationship to a certain conflict or situation, and performs their words as a series of monologues. This piece was a collection of monologues related to the school-to-prison pipeline, and those featured included leaders of the NAACP, Bree Newsome, teachers in the Philadelphia public school district, formerly incarcerated people, James Baldwin, and many more. The performance had three parts: Act 1, which featured a series of about a dozen, back-to-back monologues, Act 2, which consisted of small audience discussion groups around the building, and Act 3, which was a final few monologues performed by Smith. I had heard about Smith's work several years ago, when I was doing an independent study on theatre for social justice. During the Arts of Resistance 360, we very briefly grappled with the ethics of her work taking on the voices of other people and telling their stories.

At the performance, though, I found myself far more critical of the audience that I was a part of. Since leaving Cambridge, a city which I had always considered to be statistically diverse but socially segregated, I have begun to see more and more the many ways in which racism is just as present in many ways as it is in more conservative areas that host overt acts of discrimination. Watching this play, I felt like I was observing white liberal Cambridge's racism under a microscope. The venue was the American Repertory Theatre--a widely renowned theatre affiliated with Harvard, which often hosts productions that are on their way to Broadway. Although the theatre is definitely "socially conscious," they focus on producing "high quality art" above all else, meaning tickets can be VERY expensive. The production was by no means accessible to most of the people about whom the play was written. I think for many, going to see the performance was a "treat," or a "novelty"--a night out at the theatre, and not inherently activism. As I watched a very largely white audience (of which I was a part) take in this highly emotional piece, including videos of police brutality against black bodies, I felt like something was terribly wrong.

I thought about recent critiques about the latest season of Orange is the New Black, and the notion that the show has become not much more than "trauma porn" for its white audiences, offering them a means by which to feel that they are empathizing with poor POC and doing something important just in watching the show. I thought about Smith's assertion that even our presence alone was radical, something I've heard many times in spaces where theatre for social justice is being performed. Mostly, I thought about the danger of the complacent white liberalism that filled my hometown. It felt, in that space, even more dangerous than overt racism. These people were well aware of recent events in this country--they knew that black people were being brutalized and killed--and as a result, many people in the audience murmured disapprovingly but knowingly to themselves ("mmm. mm mm.") when a video clip was played. It was, to them, enough to know--enough to simply be disgusted--and for this reason I worried that Smith's performance, in this space, was pointless. I wondered what it would take to drive people to action in a city that takes so much pride in how many POC live within its limits that most people can't even recognize the racism happening around them (see recent article about BLM activists chaining themselves to Cambridge City Hall doors). I thought about my own place, too, as another white Cambridge resident, who grew up within these structures, within a very segregated high school. My own positionality made me no better--unless I did something about what I saw. 

In light of our conversation about Beyonce, though, I've also been thinking about the meaning of Smith performing in this space. She is a performer with a following, and one who has garnered immense respect from people of all races. No, she did not perform "Notes From the Field" outside for free--but by taking up space in one of the nation's most respected theatres, she is building an audience and a platform that she is using to voice her truth and the truths of so many others. While I don't believe that our very presence that night was revolutionary, bearing witness is an important part of recognizing the problem at hand, and that is something she has certainly encouraged people to do.