Activism Through Art

David - Oberlin, Ohio
Entered on February 8, 2009
Age Group: 18 - 30
Themes: creativity

“Clint: We all stick to the script and we all get through this. So get back to your places. And you – stop being gay.

Characters start to move to places. Chris stays where he is.”

I became Chris in a middle school play called Stuck In The Middle. Ken “Buzzy” Buswell wrote that play, and cast me as Chris. He showed me the world of someone who felt oppressed and shunned by society, helping me to realize the importance of challenging the status quo. Our theater was activism. It was about compelling an audience to vicariously empathize with the taboo distress of students in the community, through an actor who exhibited that anguish. Mr. Buswell showed me that eloquent demands for change – art – can truly inspire. Art is not simply a painting, sculpture or play, but the living force which binds an artist to an audience, through any medium. Thus, creating the connection that defines art is the best way to approach activism.

Buzzy founded a theater troupe, the Brown Theater Experience, writing and directing plays which dealt with bigotry, sexual identity and other not-talked-about aspects of life in middle school. In Stuck In The Middle, I played a gay middle-school actor named Chris, who came out during the commercial break of a live TV show. As Chris, I proclaimed that I would not maintain a pernicious status quo. After Clint, another actor, made numerous homophobic statements, I felt myself, as Chris, come alive with desperate contempt. Playing Chris, I threw a chair through a wall, creating a hole through which I could escape. I would not allow other people to keep me in an agonizing corner; I would not stay put in a group which defined itself by exclusion; I would not stand by and do nothing. I would act.

Years later, Buzzy’s work continues to inspire me as I strive for social change on a larger, often global stage. Through concerts and rallies I have understood, and helped others to understand, the plight of refugees. I have experienced the compassion that unites those who oppose the genocide in Darfur. In concerts, hundreds or thousands can scream in frustration, and then sing softly along to a song about pain, loss, and suffering. At a die-in rally, hundreds can prostrate themselves on the ground, side by side, as they mourn the loss of their fellow human beings, while concurrently making a strong statement that investors in a genocidal regime cannot ignore the crimes which they are indirectly funding. Buzzy showed me that the strongest, most intense social activism is fearless art: creating powerful images of interpersonal understanding and compassion, but also inciting indignation and thus inspiring action. Unflinching art has the capacity to make the stomach churn. But, more crucially, Buzzy taught me that art has the power to ignite change, protest cruelty, challenge the status quo and fuel hope.

Buzzy never wrote plays with easy answers. Instead, he said that “the medium is the answer.” Theater can challenge the way things are. In the same vein, all social activism must be art, for only through art can one evoke the depth of emotion provoked by an issue such as genocide, as well as instill the hope to solve the problem. In Stuck In The Middle, Clint demanded that we “get back to [our] places,” and stop challenging his world of bigotry and exclusion. Chris refused to step back. The play was a demand for social change, and through it Buzzy empowered me to demand a better world. Indeed, by the time the play ends, every character has exited the stage, inspired by Chris to leave Clint’s world behind. Left alone on an empty stage, even Clint exits.

I believe that art is the most effective means to foster hope for a problem that seems fraught with despair. Activism shows us the world we hope to have, and puts us on the path to living in it.