On 18 November 2016, the cast of the Broadway show “Hamilton” stood after their bows while one of the leads read a short, polite, but pointed speech from a prepared script. It was a plea for the recognition of human diversity and the upholding of American values of liberty for all. It was directed at Mr. Pence, the recently elected vice president of the United States. It made president-elect Trump sore, as everything does, and he complained about it on Twitter, as is his all-too-familiar way.
An evening in the theater, at its best, is not a hot bath after a hard day. It is not a place devoid of conflict, argument, or political point of view. The arts have always been points of statement, argument, protest, and controversy. They always will be thus. Mozart took vigorous jabs at the aristocracy in his operas. The 1960s were full of lyrics protesting the government and demanding justice. Negro spirituals were coded messages of shared experience and the encouragement to hang on for better things to come, even if that meant waiting until death.
The arts – all of them – have been places that look back, look around, and look ahead. There is nothing comfortable about that. Saying “things are not right” will always rattle some people. It can rattle the perpetrators, whether they know they are perpetrators or not. It can rattle the artists, who get challenging reactions to their statements. It can rattle the average “uninvolved” citizen, who gets upset about people from all sides making trouble.
Many people “just want to get on with their day to day lives” and hope that problems will work themselves out. Sometimes problems do work themselves out. But for the artist, telling a truth (I dare not say THE truth – what is that?) is what art is about. The same truth that is accepted or tolerated by many can seem very different when presented through a new lens. Suddenly something that has been tolerated or ignored is thrust into the bright light of public consciousness and has to be dealt with.
Great art can lift veils, it can explain, it can project, and it can even change things.