Feature: #OpenYourLobby: The Latest in The Theater Community's History of Protest

By: Jun. 30, 2020
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Feature: #OpenYourLobby: The Latest in The Theater Community's History of Protest

As our nation continues to grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic and our country's deep history of racial injustice, one bright moment has been watching support come in unexpected formats. One such point of light has been the #OpenYourLobby movement, a push within the theater community to open the lobbies of theater spaces shuttered by the pandemic to provide a safe haven for protestors, particularly in major cities like New York and Washington, DC. #OpenYourLobby is a coordinated effort to provide safety and access to services and supplies for protestors who are involved in the Black Lives Matter protests across the nation; most theaters are providing bathroom access, Wi-Fi, outlets for charge devices, hand sanitizer, water, snacks, first aid, and even sign-making supplies, voter registration, and pumping stations. #OpenYourLobby is also distributing information about barring police entry while protestors are sheltering inside, as well as links to resources such as the ACLU, local jail initiatives, and supply access. Within the DC community, Studio Theatre, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Atlas Performing Arts Center, Arena Stage, the 9:30 Club, CulturalDC at Source Theatre, Keegan Theatre, Compass Rose, and Shakespeare Theatre Company are currently participating on select dates - the full spreadsheet of participating theaters can be found here.

While it's a pleasant surprise, it's not really unusual to see the theater community take an active role in supporting protests - theater has a long history of protest in its own right: from Hair to American Idiot to Angels in America to Rent, theater has long been a medium for protests themselves. We've seen shows subtly and directly take on issues of their time, and revivals come up at times that messages have felt relevant once again. As the daughter of a late-60s/early-70s protester and Vietnam War Refusenik, I was fascinated to hear about my father's friends who appeared in the original Broadway cast of Hair, a show whose cast recording was a staple in our home. As a teen and young adult who came of age during the Bush Presidency and the War on Terror, I saw American Idiot and the 2009 revival of Hair to be the embodiment of my own frustration with the government and our wartime activities. There's something empowering about chanting "Peace now, freedom now" with a theater full of people just as we were urging the new Obama Administration to take steps toward ending the conflicts of the Bush years. Angels in America and Rent, which are now incredibly popular pieces that have already seen revivals, were initially radical protest pieces drawing attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis, and La Cages Aux Folles portrayed a normal gay couple in the face of the assumptions and fears that crisis had bolstered. Recently, I had the pleasure of reviewing both She the People and Heroine for BroadwayWorld, and my colleague Andrew White reviewed the powerful Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies- all of which are not only commentary on major social issues, but protests within their own right.

Theater has also preserved protests for us. Shows like Billy Elliot, Hairspray, and Bandstand are more historical in their purpose, but highlight key protest movements of their time: Bandstand's "Welcome Home" addresses PTSD and the difficulties soldiers face when returning home from conflict, Hairspray's "I Know Where I've Been" is a powerful reflection on the Civil Rights Movement, and Billy Elliot's "Angry Dance" is a potent scene that displays both economic struggles and police brutality; today, each of these pieces would read with audiences differently than they did when they premiered, as these are issues at the forefront of our current political discussions, though their intention initially was to record these movements.

Additionally, theater has given us some broad and timeless social commentaries: Pippin features anti-war messages, Urinetown portrays the dramatic results of economic disenfranchisement, South Pacific addresses racism and how we internalize it, The Scottsboro Boys grapples with the legacy of racial injustice and slavery in our nation, Wicked explores themes of oppression and otherization, and the monumentalHamilton highlights immigrants' and women's rights within its retelling of the American Revolution. The broader social justice themes that we see in performances transcend the specific time periods portrayed, and while the pieces themselves may not stand as protests, they can inspire and inform movements all the same.

It's not just the productions that give voice to movements though - one thing I have always loved about the theater community is that it gives a platform for people both on and off the stage. Broadway Cares/Equity Fight AIDS is one of the largest and most influential theater charities, providing medications, healthcare, and emergency financial assistance to members of the theater community, and it began its groundbreaking work as Equity Fight AIDS in 1987 when it began raising money to support members of the community impacted by the AIDS crisis; Broadway Cares/Equity Fight AIDS has, as a result of its scope and influence, been at the forefront of advocacy in this area as well as providing services. At the 1983 Tony Awards, John Glines accepted a Tony Award for producing Torch Song Trilogy, and became the first person to publicly acknowledge their same-sex partner on national television when he thanked his partner in his speech. In 2016, following the Pulse Nightclub Shooting, the cast of Hamilton removed the guns typically used in their "Yorktown" choreography, and Lin-Manuel Miranda used his award acceptance to read his beautiful "love is love is love is love" sonnet. And today, amidst the Black Lives Matter movement, Black actors are using their theater and social media platforms to draw attention to key issues: Billy Porter, of Kinky Boots and Pose fame, delivered a particularly powerful message that addressed the intersection of Black Lives Matter and Pride.

And, along the lines of #OpenYourLobby, we've seen theaters using their spaces to promote voices and movements. The Public Theater initially planned a "We Are One Public" virtual gala in early June to raise money in light of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting theater closings. Instead, the Public postponed the gala and instead posted a notice that specifically addressed the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and Breonna Taylor, the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Black Americans, and the need to elevate Black voices, particularly in the theater community. Although this is an area in which we know theater can certainly improve, it's a positive step to see such a direct effort to recognize and prioritize these voices.

One of the main values of theater is its ability to reflect on and engage with society - it's a creative space that, when used correctly, gives voice to the voiceless and raises up movements. It has a history of promoting ideals and pushing for change, as well as providing a space for those who belong to marginalized communities to not only belong, but to lift up their communities in turn. #OpenYourLobby is the latest example, and one we should certainly embrace right now, but it's not an anomaly - it's a reflection of theater at its best.

#OpenYourLobby image taken from the @OpenYourLobby Twitter account.


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