I am beyond fortunate to live in an area that practically explodes with theatre in the summertime and to also be drama critic for a local publication. So I get to see a lot of plays, musicals, readings, and other assorted acts every summer. How cool is that?
This year, the Peregrine Theatre Ensemble (who couldn’t make a mistake even if they tried) put on Cabaret, a chilling reflection of the times in which we live nearly a century later. As we left, I asked my theatre companion what she’d thought of the performance. She said it had taken her a bit to warm up to the woman who played Sally Bowles “because she is so thin,” but that she’d then realized Sally was perfectly cast. “But there were some girls in the ensemble who were a little buxom,” she said.
I agreed. “It’s more a reflection of real life,” I said, thinking of recent commercials (Dove, for example) that reflect a diversity of body types as well as race. It’s a good thing. Fewer anorexic teenaged girls, maybe.
“You wouldn’t have seen that twenty years ago,” my friend said. “It’s a real problem in this country, you know, obesity.”
Whoa. You had me for a while there, but the lead actress is too thin and the others are too fat?
I’ve been thinking a lot about that conversation. And about another conversation, a moderated one that took place recently at the Fine Arts Work Center in which several visual artists and writers — who are all also activists — talked about the artist’s obligation, not just to confront injustice in their work, but to also be in the streets as well, what one of them called “active activism.”
In both cases, I think the point is being missed.
Artists (and perhaps especially writers) wield what I think of as a magic wand: yes, it’s important to reflect and comment on and challenge people around reality, but it’s also important to imagine something better.
I want to live in a world where different body types are considered normative and beautiful. I want to live in a world where people have enough to eat, decent health care, fulfilling work. I want to live in a world where race and religion and gender/sexual identity are all components of one’s whole self and not cause for fear and division. And I have to ask myself, how do we get there? How can I help us get there?
I can do it with my magic wand. I can help us imagine better.
My current mystery series includes a Muslim man who is clearly one of the “heroes” of the novels. He’s a complex, attractive, appealing person who has a challenging job, intriguing interests, family issues, a stable and positive relationship. He isn’t just (or even primarily) Muslim; he is Ali, a real person not so very different at the end of the day from the readers of my mysteries. I imagine that world, where being Muslim is perceived to be as normative as being atheist or Christian or Jewish.
I imagine that world, and then I bring it to thousands of people all over the country who read the series. I challenge them, as the casting of Cabaret challenges its audiences, to see that there’s room for everyone.
I don’t want to detract from all the artists who add an activist component to the practice of their art. I do want to say that activism takes many forms — it has to, because different people can be reached in a myriad of different ways, and if we really do want to change the world, we have to find all of them.