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Transforming Silence(s)

Stages of Resistance

Mildred Lewis Headshot
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!

Is the world increasingly hostile and volatile? Deep chasms have been exposed all over the world. Some have been building underneath the radar for a long time. Others are crusted over sores we chose to ignore and now cannot.

Our corner of the world, the American theater, can justifiably claim we are better about diversity and inclusion than our cousins in film, television and, the digital space. The Tonys last year were an excellent rejoinder to #OscarsSoWhite.


I’m left to wonder about the chasm between myself and colleagues who have never not felt safe.

Who have never been challenged when lugging props out of a theater.

Whose guts didn’t churn when a squad car’s lights began flashing as you dragged yourself home from the dry tech.

Who have never had to explain hijinks to public safety, show an i.d., have to dig out a second, then be made to wait … to make sure you never forget who you are and who they are.

Some of you stood next to us when it went down. Despite good intentions, you were stunned or embarrassed into silence. Others shrugged it off, chuckled it away, or empathized until it became about them. Then there were those who did not see or would not see. The results too often look the same. A communications breakdown. The thread abandoned, never to be taken up again until it pierces the rock and births another chasm.

In this crucial moment, if political art is to mean something and accomplish anything, we have to enter each other’s spaces. And when we do, we have to remember we’re dragging this baggage behind us. We have to walk down, around, through, and over the chasms. If the work, especially our political work, is to have integrity, we have to confront what this all means.

We have to grapple with the resource barriers built by slaves, braceros, indentured servants, contract labor and sharecroppers. These things aren’t history. They dictate who’s got it today:  the space, the funding, and the capital, both human and financial. 

Let’s start by acknowledging how hard it’s going to be, especially in today’s topsy turvy upside down. The political urgency of the moment will not make it any easier. And we have to remember that for some, this moment doesn’t feel quite as pressing. Their distress has lasted long enough that they automatically accommodate. Forgive them if they don’t embrace your newly-found outrage. Things that you’re learning, they have to resurrect from memories of betrayal, mendacity, and denigration. This is compounded by a painful history that suggests those passions and that outrage might easily be cast aside if the worm turns.

So, what can we do? There are many points of possible attack. I urge us to begin with our rites and rituals, spoken and unspoken rules.

Something has happened to me three times as an African American playwright working with white companies that sums up the concern. A well-meaning company – and I mean this without cynicism – brings in a black (or other diverse) writer. This is a good, potentially a great, step forward. The company also hires an outside, black director. There are some problematic assumptions being made there, but in this political moment, as the French say, we don’t have time to indulge pessimism.

What’s the problem? Everyone means well. The goal is laudatory. Why isn’t this enough?


A new playwright and a new director don’t and can’t know all the (un)written rules and traditions. No one clues them in, not out of malice, but because this is the way they’ve always done things. It feels inherently right and good. It’s part of the company’s shared ethos, aesthetic, and history. It should be obvious, as transparent as glass.

But it’s not.

It’s as if someone invites you to his house and tells you to make yourself at home. You know they mean it. You also know there is more to it that isn’t being said. You’d better not put your feet up on the table. We don’t do that here. But where, then? This silence is the real starting point of politics for us, the thespians. It’s what’s underneath the dialogue and between the stage directions. Yes, the personal is political. We are not powerless against this. We are not powerless against this. We can correct this small “p” politics by making space and insisting on time for the conversations.

We can find the strength for this if we turn to theater’s traditions and rituals. Let’s use them to really see and hear each other. We must do this work before we make the work. This is not about the big conceptual gestures like color-blind casting, but the rites, intimate and sacred to us, that we use to define ourselves and our spaces. Any attempts to challenge or enlighten our audiences without doing this are probably doomed to irrelevance. We can’t afford that, not this time. The National Endowment for the Arts, The National Endowment for the Humanities, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting are on the chopping block. Education and health care hang in the balance.

As Audre Lorde argued so eloquently, it is time to “transform silence into language and action.” This is our charge and we must do it before the audience arrives.

See. Speak. Listen. Risk.