A Theater of Protest
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Thu Feb 6 07:24:14 MST 2003
NY Times, Feb. 6, 2003
Mobilizing a Theater of Protest. Again.
By JULIE SALAMON
When Sam Hamill, a poet and founder of Copper Canyon Press in Port
Townsend, Wash., was invited to a poetry symposium by Laura Bush last
month, his response was to send e-mail messages to 50 friends and
colleagues asking them for antiwar poems to send to Mrs. Bush. In four
days he received 1,500 responses.
"I didn't know there were 1,500 poets in America," he said. After
learning of the protest, the White House postponed the symposium on the
works of Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman. Noelia
Rodriguez, Ms. Bush's press secretary, said: "While Mrs. Bush respects
and believes in the right of all Americans to express their opinions,
she, too, has opinions and believes that it would be inappropriate to
turn what is intended to be a literary event into a political forum."
For those opposing war with Iraq, the cancellation of the poetry
symposium symbolizes the part the arts can play in politics. Hearing the
drumbeat of a new war, through readings, concerts, art exhibitions and
theater, artists are trying to recapture their place as catalysts for
public debate and dissent.
If the immediate artistic response to the Sept. 11 attacks on New York
and Washington was the theater of grief, some of the nation's poets,
musicians, writers, actors and playwrights have moved on to the theater
of protest. The prospect of an imminent military confrontation with Iraq
has incited a new sense of creative urgency.
"I don't think it's an accident that in totalitarian societies they
always arrest the artists first, though we don't seem particularly
dangerous," said André Gregory, the theater director and actor. "I think
the responsibility of the artist, each of us in our way, is to tell the
truth. And the truth generally involves a great deal of ambiguity, and
in times of war ambiguity and paradox are the first things to go. People
want simple black and white answers."
With Wallace Shawn, his collaborator in "My Dinner With André," Mr.
Gregory presented a theater piece at Cooper Union in October called "An
Evening of Conscience," along with a variety show of well-known
performers including Edward Asner, Eve Ensler, Tony Kushner, Danny
Glover and Pete Seeger. That event was sponsored by Not in Our Name, a
nonprofit group formed by writers, artists and academics in May to
organize opposition to the war. Among those who have endorsed the
group's "statement of conscience" are Alice Walker, Barbara Kingsolver
and the artistic directors of the Goodman Theater and the Steppenwolf
Theater Company in Chicago.
Grace Paley, a writer of short stories and a lifelong political
activist, was one of those who responded to Mr. Hamill's call for poems.
Ms. Paley, one of the founders of the Greenwich Village Peace Center in
1961, said she was impressed by how fast writers responded. "Some of us
were in the street about the Vietnam War in 1961, but there were no big
demonstrations for four years," she said. "This is moving much faster,
but so is Bush."
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