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The Urgency of Now:The Role of the Arts in Pandemic Times

Lisa Nanette Allender is a SAG-AFTRA actor and writer. Lisa enjoys writing poetry and has been published in numerous journals, magazines and anthologies. Lisa has been studying Usui Reiki for over five years now, and will receive her certification as a Reiki Master, soon. She is launching her Reiki practice in 2021.

Several years ago, I read about a program begun in Detroit for artists in every discipline, which guaranteed them a free house to live in -- and eventually own -- if they were willing to move into neighborhoods described as being in need of artists. Every city knows that when artists move in, the physical surroundings are made more beautiful, and quality of life improves, and then, commerce usually follows.

So we find ourselves in this time, the time of CoronaVirus and COVID-19. And here in the United States, we face an ever-more-urgent reckoning of race as well as this international pandemic. This race reckoning is long overdue. We find ourselves (Full disclosure: this writer is white) not quite as woke as we believed. We find ourselves hounding our friends of color, unfairly asking them to help us resolve the systemic racism from which we (whites) continue to benefit.

So, how do we define the role of the arts, the role of the artist? What can we ask for, from artists? When asked how to best fulfill one’s life as an artist, accomplished director and theatre artist Kenny Leon said, “The only thing you have on this earth is your time and your talents.”

If too many Americans thought they also “have” luxury cars, fancy homes and designer clothing, the Pandemic has made clear that those are merely possessions, and do not raise our status, and certainly not our quality of life during a time of quarantine and self-isolation. And with nearly fifty (50) million Americans unemployed, a full refrigerator and people and companion animals in a home where we can hold each other, are what we value. Indeed, “gratefulness” has become “a thing”, not just an aphorism.

Our time in quarantine, and self-isolation

With a lucky 40% of Americans able to “work from home”, and another 40% going to work as essential workers (not only medical personnel, but grocery and pharmacy clerks, delivery drivers, truck drivers)and 20% (and rising) completely without employment, there’s never been more time spent at home, as event after event has been cancelled. No theatre, no movies, no sporting events. Americans must learn how to survive -- perhaps thrive -- when left, literally, “to their own devices.” Our electronic devices, that is.

What connects us, what provides true communion, is interacting with others, being inspired by others. With no way to connect (other than “virtually”), we feel bereft.

Actors and other performers no longer have in-person, live audiences. From this void, “online” or “virtual” performances have begun to sprout up, searching for viewers just as sunflowers bend toward brightness. The necessity has been to create a new way of “seeing”, even as we discover a new way of “viewing” and experiencing, art.

Visionaries who illuminate our present reality, and offer solace for our future

The case can be made that artists are who we turn to when we need comfort, when we need assistance, both individually and when our society suffers the open wound, bleeding afresh. We look to artists to balm that wound. In modern-day racist America, artists such as writer/filmmaker/director Jordan Peele, multi-hypenate writer/actor/singer/rapper Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino) create works that allow the emotional to become visceral. Much like a victim of abuse will often cut herself, to ameliorate the emotional pain that she is afraid to feel, so that she can bleed, in order to make it real, so do we lean-into, or more accurately, perhaps, we bleed-into the pain, and what we cannot face on the television or on our computer screens: the real-life white knee, breaking the neck of George Floyd, the bullet wounds in the backs of black men (Jacob Blake, and too many others to list here) and black women (Breonna Taylor, and too many others to list here), the shots from law enforcement within two seconds of arriving at a playground, that kill a ten-year-old Tamir Rice, who was pretending with his equally-young friends -- ironically -- to be police officers. We look to artists to help us see these all-too-real atrocities through the lens of the film genre’ of suspense thrillers/horror, rap/hip-hop music, and dramatic plays.

Jordan Peele’s Lovecraft Country exposes the realities of race relations in mid-20th-century America, and uses monsters as metaphor for what black people faced -- and still do. In Peele’s “fiction”, extraordinary powers bubble up within those who have been subjugated, spat on, dehumanized.

Similarly, This Is America, Donald Glover’s explosive music video that adds an exclamation point to his music/lyrics, penetrates our collective numbness as we have borne witness to repeated beatings, chokings, shootings of black people, by law enforcement. And while Glover’s This Is America is reflective of American culture, and gun violence, it also feels eerily prescient (it was released over a year before George Floyd’s gruesome murder) in scenes where groups gather, and raise their arms, in a bid for justice -- however it may be won. We cheer for the protagonist in this video, because we need him to survive. In these Pandemic times, we are all trying, to survive.

Pandemic Poetry

In the week following 9/11, The New York Times received over 5,000 poems. The editors were inundated with submissions of poetry from well-known authors and poets as well as regular folks trying to process that horrific atrocity. I still recall a few lines from a poem by Nikki Giovanni from that time: Please, come have dinner with me

These words are words we all are thinking now, alone in our homes, dreaming of a mask-free day when we can gather, unafraid, in a restaurant, where we may dine, inside a space other than our home. The words reverberate from one terrible time, to this terrible time, and it is no accident that poetry has once again, found a way to reach out to us. In the past few months, online readings have taken root, including the Performance Poets of Palm Beach, a First Sundays afternoon reading with featured authors as well as a generous Open Mic. Dustin Brookshire’s Wild & Precious Life Series features acclaimed authors every Wednesday night. The title of the series is part of the final line of a famous Mary Oliver poem:

What will you do with your one wild and precious life?

For Atlantans, the famous Java Monkey Speaks series has gone virtual as well, with award-winning poet, host, Theresa Davis serving as raconteur every Sunday night for a stellar Open Mic, with voices from everywhere.

This writer was once asked “Lisa, you are an upbeat person; why is everything you write, so dark?” I heard myself say “You write what you don’t talk about, Dad.”

We need artists to give us the truth. We need truths that illuminate other truths. Or lies that illuminate truths. Author William Faulkner said: “The past is never past. The past is still here.”

We need artists who are unafraid, who will challenge us, not only in their roles as truth-tellers, but in their roles as sages, as comforters, as seducers, as those who ask us questions, who make us question. Everything.

Artists allow us a way into the world, by reflecting our current events, and/or creating a new universe -- a utopia, or conversely, an apocalyptic dystopia. Consider Sibling Rivalry Press’ (SBR) tagline: Disturb and Enrapture

The young publishing house which offers opportunity to all writers, specializes in giving voice to those voices traditionally silenced: LGBTQI+. SBR knows that the dynamic of art is to challenge us, and captivate us. Challenge the status quo, by disturbing our preconceived notions of what that status quo, is. Captivate us by the rapture of words, evocative/provocative. Change us!

This blog was first Published in In Motion Magazine September 25, 2020


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