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Predicting the Past

Stages of Resistance

This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections in this series throughout March and April 2017!

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Thornton Wilder’s 1942 The Skin of Our Teeth is currently in revival at the Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn. The play is philosophical, brooding, and off-kilter. The actors address the audience directly whenever the production falls apart (as it is scripted to do). Dinosaurs are family pets who sing and play piano. Mr. Antrobus announces he has invented the wheel as well as finished the alphabet. Wilder wrote these incongruous juxtapositions as he headed off to the carnage of World War II. He offered his fellow citizens an image of survival and hope as a bulwark in a world gone insane.

Seventy-five years later the play did the same for me. The production tossed me a life line pulling me out of the deluge of lies that now defines life in the United States. As I watched, the play reminded me theatre can be the harbor from which we launch our resistance.

When the family goes to Atlantic City to support Mr. Antrobus as the newly elected president of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans, they celebrate on the raucous and seedy boardwalk. One of the attractions is a fortune-teller who shouts out dire futures to the passers-by. “You’ll have six grandchildren. Avoid high places.... Cirrhosis of the liver.” When the stage clears she addresses the audience directly.

I tell the future.... Nothing easier. Everybody’s future is in their face. Nothing easier. But who can tell your past, —eh? Nobody! Your youth, —where did it go? It slipped away while you weren’t looking.

The night I was there the audience laughed at these lines. The laughs seemed to take the Fortune Teller’s comments as a comic oxymoron: the past we already know but it’s the future that is an unknown to be predicted! I didn’t laugh. For a moment, time stopped and my heart pounded. I had to remind myself to breathe. I looked around at everyone else. Were we seeing the same play?

That moment wasn’t funny to me. It was prescient. The Fortune Teller is right. It is the past people are interested in reinventing. It is the past that is invoked to justify present actions. Looking spectators one by one in the eye, the Fortune Teller forces this point home.

You’re like our friends, Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus; you lie awake nights trying to know your past. What did it mean? What was it trying to say to you? Think! Think! Split your heads. I can’t tell the past and neither can you. If anybody tries to tell you the past, take my word for it, they’re charlatans! Charlatans!

“Telling the past” is exactly how Trump came to be president. He and his white supremacist crew lie about what they said and what they didn’t say. They lie about other people. They champion a cause and when it goes wrong they deny they ever championed it. Repealing Obamacare? I never promised to do that right away, says the president. Cue several clips of him guaranteeing its replacement as soon as he takes office. They lie even when overwhelming evidence disputes their claim. The biggest crowd at any inauguration? Not even close. Just as the Fortune Teller said, Trump and his cronies are charlatans.

Why lie? Why do they do it? They lie because if they change the past they justify their present actions and the future they want to create. If the US is a violent, crime-ridden hellhole with murderous immigrants pouring across our borders and business hobbled at every turn by stifling regulations, then Trump’s actions are reasonable. Their lies are the method and subject of their repressive and hate-filled demagoguery.

“Make American Great Again” is the biggest lie about the past they could tell. To what greatness are we to return? The white America that never was? Their nostalgia for a lost patriarchy? The Fortune Teller was right to caution us. But how do we heed her warning? How do we resist?

We resist by making art everywhere and in every way we can. We offer stories, images, and ideas that show the world, as it is, in compelling ways. We counter the lies with truth. We perform the hard truths earned through lived experience and we write truth in all its diverse and contradictory manifestations. The art might be enormous, like a fully-produced play, or it might be fleeting, like improv. Nevertheless, we make it.

We resist through art that does not claim to tell the past but offers to explore it with us. We resist by refusing to have our past distorted and twisted beyond recognition. If our future is on our faces, as the Fortune Teller argues, then our past is in our hearts and our heads. The art we create with them will make a world in which we all want to live.