Category Archives: poetry

‘Citizen’ Actress Tina Lifford on Racism: Take action now to bring hope for tomorrow

'Citizen: An Americam Lyric' at the Fountain Theatre

‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre

by Tina Lifford

“I don’t know how to end what doesn’t have an ending.”

This line begins the closing sequence in Claudia Rankine’s play Citizen: An American Lyric that I have been rehearsing since June 15th and blogging about since June 30th. Citizen depicts both everyday unconscious and overt acts of racism in America.

Looking through the lens of systematic oppression, hundreds of years in the making, it is easy to surmise that there is no end in sight to our historical predicament. However, this is not the lens through which I see.

Instead, I peer through the lens of social achievement. From this perspective, something within the human spirit seems to consistently triumph. The spirit that animates humanity continues to expand and advance. Crossing over ignorance. Trespassing upon man-made limits and ideas. Forcing change, no matter the circumstances.

Tina Lifford

Tina Lifford

From this purview, what happens to the line of dialogue – I don’t know how to end what doesn’t have an ending – when it is held up against the dismantling of apartheid, the fall of the Berlin wall, and the civil rights gains of gay, lesbian and transgender Americans? Next to these social accomplishments, an affirming thought emerges: our innate resilience is indomitable. It forges unprecedented paths and unpredictable outcomes. Hope for the future can spring from this thought.

Of course, in the face of recent racial strife, it is prudent to understand that the path ahead is not an easy one. The dismantling of institutional racism clearly takes time. But I find comfort in walking through the history of humanity and seeing the consistent presence of an indomitable spirit in action. The two-term election of President Barack Obama comes to mind.

I am also mindful of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Mountaintop speech, wherein he says that he has been to the mountaintop and seen the promised land. It is worth noting that the he never attached a completion date to his vision. I suspect that its fulfillment is an ongoing process. And, for it to be fulfilled we must all do our part.

Our job is to question, and then take actions that align with the march of humanity. When we’re trying to figure out what is best for us all, the question we must courageously ask is “What action most honors the idea that every human being is innately equal?”

When we give our attention to important questions like this, that attention empowers the question, making it strong enough to inform and conjure answers. This is the path of scientific discovery. It is also the path to social change.

Despite the current disquiet and heightened racial tension, there is cause for celebration. Against all odds, in 60 relatively short years, the civil rights movement has created massive change. We must not lose sight of this. Of course, more is still needed. But by acknowledging our gains thus far, we can gather the courage and determination needed to stay the course.

We cannot allow bloodcurdling injustices to blind us or distract us from getting to the promised land. Present challenges and heartbreak must not be permitted to obscure the bigger picture.

We must never throw up our hands, defeated.

Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick, Leith Burke.

Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick, Leith Burke.

We do not have to know how to end what doesn’t have an ending. We only need to commit to taking the small steps that are ours to take.

You and the actions you take are the hope for tomorrow.

To forge change we must turn the insights acquired here and elsewhere into action. Applying new insights to current life challenges creates more fulfilled and powerful lives. Lessons learned will support the dismantling of bigger issues, including racism.

When we approach both our personal well-being and the well-being of society with the belief that something inside of us is innately creative, resilient, empowered to make new choices, and undeniably whole and worthy, we become fortified in the ways that achieving change requires.

Tina Lifford is an stage, film and TV actress and founder of the Inner Fitness Project

Citizen: An American Lyric is now playing to Sept 14. More Info/Get Tickets

The American lyric of ‘Citizen’ matters

Leith Burke in 'Citizen' at the Fountain Theatre.

Leith Burke in ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre.

by Rick Chertoff

With the current discussion on race and apartheid in Israel/Palestine, Citizen couldn’t be more timely.

Only seconds into Citizen: An American Lyric  you’ll find yourself at the “ground zero” of any black person’s life in this country, faced with the inevitability of how it is, how it always has been, and how it looks like it always will be, to be the “Other,” and it presses on you.  You realize you are up against the implacable determination — you could even say a majority conspiracy — that your life matters less than others and that in an instant (any instant), it could be time for a large or small dose of humiliation…or it could be time for a ritual killing.  You are perpetually “it.”

What does it feel like to be Black in America?  That question is the Gordian Knot of the American psyche.  Racism is the drug of choice against painful self-knowledge in every society. Here in the U.S. it is in great measure dedicated to the denial of black suffering and of black value. The question of white supremacy and black suffering has asserted itself more forcibly now than at any time since the end of the civil rights movement.  As the ubiquity of hand-held cameras has repeatedly revealed, there is a structural violence deeply embedded in American society, even if most Americans are decent people who want to believe that Black Lives Matter.

The superb writing and acting in Citizen are realized as the six actors, each of whom star in small vignettes throughout this play, portray how casual everyday interactions can transform a fellow citizen … a human being … into objects of scorn by simple, stereotyped perceptions and behaviors that are driven by a submerged dark historical force that surfaces regularly to devour black people.

Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick, Leith Burke.

Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick, Leith Burke.

The stories carried by this monster force are fantasies that say white supremacy isn’t real, that racism exists because of inferior and defective black culture, that force is all that keeps them from devouring us, and that (the savages) are supported by naïve do-gooders, or “trouble makers.”  This is done subtly or brazenly by liberal and reactionary political forces using consolidated media to dismiss, distort, or exoticize the ritual violence (e.g. Geraldo Rivera), thus robbing us of understanding.  “Blame the victim” is the default.  The only effective weapon against this dehumanization is the humanization of all by all, and that must include listening to authentic and un-corporate black voices, which are typically marginalized.  By breaking the taboo against hearing and feeling the whole of black experience, including the pain, this play lays bare the mechanism woven into the fabric of American life, thus exorcizing the demon, one audience at a time.

Of course this dilemma of shifting perceptions is perfect for a drama as it contrasts conflicting and complimentary personas that vie and coexist in our social interactions; “individuality” and community, equality and privilege, dominance and “loving thy neighbor.”  For example, the property owner likes the prospective renter until they turn out to be black.  More contemporaneously, the lack of using a turn signal is an innocuous infraction unless it was a black turn signal, at which point the penalty is death.  Another “bad cop”?  Another bad department?

Tony Maggio and Leith Burke

Tony Maggio and Leith Burke

Robbed of accuracy and context, racism can seem incidental through the filters of white privilege, filters that have been refined for 400 years.  Once the filters are called out, it can be revealed as systematic and structural. The data proving the systematic nature of institutional racism has been amply available to anyone who cared to look for a long time, but it has not changed our murderous system.  Can drama?

Throughout this play, I found myself amazed that the inner voices of black people could be so faithfully portrayed.  It was like looking at Michaelangelo’s Pieta where Mary is holding her dead son.  In both we are deeply moved. How did they accomplish this in Citizen?  They insisted on granular accuracy, both in writing and in acting, that renders a depth to each reality explored so thoroughly that it is fully felt — and these are hard realities.  As spelled out in the subtitle and the blurb, Citizen: An American Lyric, “A provocative meditation on race in America,” it does have the quality of a six-person meditation, and yes, this play is very lyrical. It moves freely between everyday speech and carefully worked and compellingly elegant poetry using selected pieces of the black stream of consciousness, and very musically so.  At times the lines seemed fragmentary creating precarious tensions that always resolve, as freely as a jazz improvisation or a Brahms string quartet.

But I find the words “provocative meditation” the best description, because the entire play substitutes the arc of meaning for the arc of plot, which produces something akin to soaring.

“Black lives matter” becomes real by bearing witness to the black and white lives in this play through the enlivening skills of six excellent actors, their director, and an authentically original writer.

The American lyric of Citizen matters.

Rick Chertoff is an activist on behalf of Palestinian rights and an organizer with LA Jews for Peace. This post originally appeared in The Markaz

Citizen: An American Lyric runs to Sept 14 at the Fountain Theatre.  MORE INFO/GET TICKETS 

PHOTO SLIDESHOW: ‘Citizen’ author Claudia Rankine engages in Q&A at Fountain Theatre

 Claudia Rankine at the Fountain Theatre

Claudia Rankine at the Fountain Theatre

Author Claudia Rankine attended last Sunday’s matinée performance of our world stage premiere of her book, Citizen: An American Lyric, and engaged the audience in a Q&A Talkback discussion with the cast.  It was Ms. Rankine’s first opportunity to see the Fountain’s full production of the stage adaptation of her book  (she attended a reading of an earlier draft of the script two months ago). She was very moved by what she experienced on Sunday.  

Following the performance, Ms. Rankine and the cast addressed issues of racism dramatized on stage in the play and rendered in the book. Audience members shared their insightful comments and asked meaningful questions of the author and the actors. Rankine then signed copies of her book and a catered reception was served in the cafe immediately after.

Another memorable afternoon at the Fountain Theatre.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Citizen: An American Lyric runs to Sept 14th. MORE INFO/GET TICKETS   

Photo Slideshow: ‘Citizen’ Executive Producers and Fountain Donors Enjoy a Special Night

The CITIZEN company

The CITIZEN company

Friday night was an exclusive gathering at the Fountain Theatre of special patrons invited to enjoy an early performance of the world stage premiere that they helped make happen. Executive Producers of Citizen: An American Lyric and their guests were welcomed to the Fountain for a preview performance in their honor, followed by a catered reception with the artists upstairs in our cafe.  It was a lively evening of thought-provoking theatre, energetic conversation, and invigorating food and drink.  

Two months ago, the Executive Producers attended an exclusive reading of Citizen,  the new project the Fountain was developing about race in America based on the internationally acclaimed and award-winning book by Claudia Rankine. Even in that early phase of development, those gathered  recognized the urgent need for this project to blossom to fruition and offered their financial support. Their contributions were essential in guaranteeing that Citizen would be produced at the highest artistic level possible and reach a wide landscape of audiences.  Thanks to the partnership made by our Executive Producers, the Fountain was able to increase its marketing and promotional campaign for Citizen, reach out to more schools and engage more students, and establish a greater range of associations with a diverse variety of organizations for the project.  

The Executive Producers of Citizen are Barbara Herman, Susan Stockel, Dorothy and Stanley Wolpert, Diana Buckhantz, Marjorie Goldman, Debra Grieb and John Mickus, Karen Kondazian, Sophie and Leslie MacConnell, Brenda and Brett Marsh, Dick Motika and Jerrie Whitfield, Dr. Ejike and Mrs. Victoria Ndefo, Rita Rothman, Barbara and Barry Shaffer, and Lois Tandy

Too often, many may view or experience the daily sickness of racism and ask themselves , “What can I do?” The Fountain Theatre and this community of extraordinary and generous people joined together as a family and made the decision to do something. For that, we are proud and will forever be grateful.

Enjoy These Party Photos! 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Q&A with ‘Citizen’ Director Shirley Jo Finney: “To be fearless in the conversation and offer a place of awareness and healing.”

Shirley Jo Finney

Shirley Jo Finney

Shirley Jo Finney is more than an acclaimed and award-winning director. She is a force of nature and spirit. To be in her presence is to plug into a deep flow  of energy, to be charged by her kinetic jolt of honesty, intensity, raw vulnerability and joy. It’s the reason why actors flock to work with her and why the Fountain Theatre so values its relationship with her. Although she continues to direct in regional theatres across the country,  the Fountain Theatre is her artistic home.

Prior to Citizen, her Fountain productions are The Brothers Size, In the Red and Brown Water, Heart Song, The Ballad of Emmett Till, Yellowman, Central Avenue and From the Mississippi Delta.  She has been honored with Ovation, LA Drama Critics  Circle, Garland, LA Weekly and NAACP awards for her directing.  

CITIZEN company surround Finney (center).

CITIZEN company surround Finney (center).

How did you first get involved in this project as director? How did it come your way? 

I had not heard about the book before it was brought to my attention and was asked by Stephen Sachs to direct the piece. He said he had read a review and excerpt in the New York Times about the book Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine and felt that it had the makings of a theatrical work. He asked me to read it and give my impressions.

What did you think when you first read the book?

It was like walking through a door that I walk through every day of my life.

As director, what were the artistic challenges of staging the piece?

This is the third new work that I have collaborated on with Stephen. In the prior collaborations, Stephen had written linear story lines that had a clear three act structure. This did not. Conceptually creating a visual story that was non-linear was challenging. The book is poetry and reads at times like a narrative essay. The adaptation was created from the book with Stephen gleaning passages that would lend itself for stage.

Finney guides CITIZEN table work rehearsal.

Finney guides CITIZEN table work rehearsal.

How did real-life events affect the rehearsal process? 

Unlike most works, this story was being played out in “the theater of life” with the tragic deaths of so many black lives. The shooting of the South Carolina Nine occurred while we were in rehearsals. We were constantly being impacted by the headlines. There was no separating it from our daily lives. It heightened our awareness of everyday encounters with racism. We were all evolving as Citizens.

How did you confront and speak openly about racism with your multi-racial cast? Was that delicate to honestly navigate?

In the past, when I have dealt with projects that have themes rooted within the “American Wound”, the historic conversation, and racism, I find that as difficult as that conversation may be, actors must, as a company, face their own fears and come face to face with the dark side. Confront it. Acknowledge it. So they are free to tell the emotional truth in the work.

Sharing a laugh with her cast.

Sharing a laugh with her CITIZEN cast.

What kind of actors were you looking for in the casting process?

Their training. That when they say “yes” to a project, they are committed and willing to experience whatever discomfort the project raises. I have been fortunate that the Universe brought the right group of actors to this project. Creative, open-hearted, generous, intelligent and fearless.

Can you describe your process as a director? Your approach with actors?

As a director, it is up to me to create a safe place of trust. I love actors and I live for the process and playing in the creative playground with them. There is nothing like the relationship between director and actor. There is a zone, a dance, that is experienced through discovery of human behavior.

What kind of experience do you hope the audience will have with Citizen? 

We have created something we are proud to present, knowing that it will have an impact with our audience and do what Claudia’s book intended. To be fearless in the conversation and offer a place of awareness and healing.

The World Stage Premiere of Citizen: An American Lyric opens Aug 1st. 

MORE INFO/GET TICKETS

Claudia Rankine: With ‘Citizen’ hopes “to see my community, to understand my place in it, what it looks like, and yet stay on my street anyway”

Claudia Rankine reads at Shakespeare & Company, Paris.

Claudia Rankine reads at Shakespeare & Company, Paris.

by Lauren Berlant

I met Claudia Rankine in a parking lot after a reading, where I said crazy fan things like, “I think we see the same thing.” She read a book of mine and wrote me, “Reading it was like weirdly hearing myself think.” This exchange is different from a celebration of intersubjectivity: neither of us believes in that . Too much noise of racism, misogyny, impatience, and fantasy to weed out. Too much unshared lifeworld—not just from the difference that racial experience makes but also in our relations to queerness, to family, to sickness and to health, to poverty and wealth—while all along wondering in sympathetic ways about the impact of citizenship’s embodiment. Plus, it takes forever to get to know someone and, even then, we are often surprised—by ourselves, by each other. Claudia and I have built a friendship through consultation about whether our tones are crazy, wrong, off, or right; about whether or not our observations show something, and what. And, through frankness: a form of being reliable that we can trust, hard-edged as it can be, loving as it can be (and sometimes the former is easier to take than the latter). We are both interested in how writing can allow us to amplify overwhelming scenes of ordinary violence while interrupting the sense of a fated stuckness. This interview, conducted via email, walks around how we think with and against the convenience of conventionally immiserated forms of life and art.

Experimental work always forces us to imagine analogous genres around it: Citizen: An American Lyric , Rankine’s new book, has the same subtitle as her previous book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004). That’s one route to take. Each is like a commentary track on the bottom of a collective television screen where the ordinary of racism meets a collective nervous system’s desire for events to be profoundly transformative. Both books have tender, sustaining intimacies. Citizen also acts as a kind of art gallery playing out the aesthetics of supremacist sterility, each segment being like a long, painfully white hall we’re walking down, punctuated by stunning images of black intensity and alterity. And then come some moments of relieving care, not just with people but also in the very fact that an aesthetic encounter can make you feel that you have a world to breathe in, after all. Or that you don’t. In the director’s cut of Citizen , many pages ended with the forward slash (/) we associate with the end of the line in a cited poem. On Rankine’s page this / designated the previous writing as a line of poetry embedded in a history captured through citation. These slashes were deleted at the end of the process, but do not forget to read for the breathless cut and join of enjambment, as it figures the core intimate fact of relation in Rankine’s Citizen .

Lauren Berlant

Lauren Berlant

Lauren Berlant What kind of tone do you associate with the word citizen? I ask this because the book Citizen is so much about tone—of voice, atmosphere, history—the unsaids (James Baldwin’s “questions hidden by the answers”), the saids, the spaces within a conversation holding up the encounter both in the sense of sustaining it and of blocking it …

Claudia Rankine Tone is an everyday kind of maneuver. It disrupts and communicates aggression, disgust, dis- respect, and humor, among a myriad of possibilities, thereby allowing language to morph into a blanket or a gun. It helps me know how to read the spaces between things. One has an ear out for it always. It’s a thing to be translated. Yours is a good question because it presupposes certain expectations for tone in public encounters, places where equality and sharing are legislated to happen, places where one has expectations for justice, for evenhandedness, and for “we are all just people here” indifference. I don’t exactly expect disdain when paying for my bagel. Not at 9 AM in a café, anyway!

LB “A blanket or a gun”! What a narrow margin. There’s not a lot of laughter in Citizen. No doubt, that sense motivates your use of the word maneuver—it means, etymologically, “to work with one’s hands,” but it’s usually a way of talking about unsticking something, getting around an impasse or an obstacle course, or dealing with touchy subjects. It’s a word for the delicacy of manner that people develop while trying not to incite unwonted violence.

So yes, tone maneuvers. I might have said alternatively that tone adjusts, pointing to arcs of implied communication and to the spontaneous action of shaping the event while losing and regaining our footing. Your view of it is more intentional. For sure to notice tone is to experience it as a pressure on consciousness. You are very interested in what tone does. The action of the mind’s hands as they move through the air of the encounter. (Thoreau: “My head is hands and feet.”)

This must be what ballasts Citizen’s great phrase about your being “too tired even to turn on any of your devices,” which is metapoetic but also implies that the maneuver of tone is one of your citizen-actions, a weapon for resisting defeat and depletion in the face of the supremacist ordinary. The you that you use that also sometimes means I and we, needs such devices to defend, refuse, and reinvent the ordinary, despite, as you say, being sick with John Henryism and other maladies of the racially subordinated. The more devices the better—Citizen meditates on counter-uses of the pronoun, the metaphor, the catastrophic event, and the wedging phrase. Take the repeated tag, “What did you say?” It’s tone that reroutes the damaging verbal exchange from its target into the shared space of a disowned violence.  Continue reading

Free Reading of New Stage Adaptation of Award-Winning Book ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre

citizen-crop

The Fountain will present a free reading of its new stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine‘s acclaimed, award-winning book Citizen: An American Lyric, this Sunday, May 31 at 7pm at the Fountain Theatre. This will be an exclusive first-time reading of the script that is currently in development, adapted for the stage by Stephen Sachs and directed by Shirley Jo Finney. The world premiere full production is planned for this summer.

Citizen: An American Lyric is a provocative meditation on race fusing prose, poetry, and the visual image. A lyric poem, snapshots, vignettes, on the acts of everyday racism. Remarks, glances, implied judgments. Some of these encounters are slights, seeming slips of the tongue, and some are intentional offensives in the classroom, at the supermarket, at home, on the tennis court with Serena Williams and the soccer field with Zinedine Zidane, online, on TV — everywhere, all the time. Those did-that-really-just-happen-did-they-really-just say-that slurs that happen every day and enrage in the moment and later steep poisonously in the mind. And, of course, those larger incidents that become national or international firestorms. As Rankine writes, “This is how you are a citizen.”

Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine

Born in Jamaica, Claudia Rankine earned her BA in English from Williams College and her MFA in poetry from Columbia University. She is the author of five collections of poetry: Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press, 2014); Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press, 2004); PLOT (Grove Press, 2001); The End of the Alphabet (Grove Press, 1998); and Nothing in Nature is Private (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1995), which received the Cleveland State Poetry Prize. Her honors include fellowships from the Lannan Foundation and the National Endowments for the Arts. In 2005, Rankine was awarded the Academy Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement by the Academy of American Poets. She is currently the Henry G. Lee Professor of English at Pomona College.

Citizen: An American Lyric has earned international critical praise and has been honored with the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the NAACP Image Award, and is a PEN Award finalist.    

The actors featured in Sunday’s script reading include Bernard K. Addison, Chris Butler, Tina Lifford, Simone Missick, Linda Park, Amy Pietz and Larry Poindexter.

Author Claudia Rankine will be in attendance at the reading.  

The stage reading on Sunday, May 31 at 7pm, is free of charge. Seating is limited.  Click here to reserve your seat, or call (323) 663-1525.  

 

Is Art Failing Us in These Hard Times?

Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'Death of a Salesman'.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in ‘Death of a Salesman’.

The social responsibility of art

by A. O. Scott

Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, I’ve been waiting for “The Grapes of Wrath.” Or maybe “A Raisin in the Sun,” or “Death of a Salesman,” a Zola novel or a Woody Guthrie ballad — something that would sum up the injustices and worries of the times, and put a human face on the impersonal movements of history. The originals are all still around, available for revival and rediscovery and part of a robust artistic record of hard times past. But we are in the midst of hard times now, and it feels as if art is failing us.

global-economyFor the past few years, like a lot of other people, I’ve been preoccupied — sometimes to the point of obsession, lost sleep, free-floating dread and active despair — by the economic state of the world. I spend more time than is healthy pondering the global labor market, the minimum wage, rising inequality, the collapse of the middle class, Thomas Piketty, Janet Yellen and the gross domestic product in China, India and Brazil. Closer to home, I’m grateful for my luck and worried about my neighbors, anxious about my children’s prospects and troubled by the fissures that divide my city and my country.

Strictly speaking, none of this has much to do with my designated area of professional expertise, which could reasonably be defined as writing about the stuff that people seek out to escape such worries and anxieties. Serious art and popular entertainment, in their diverse ways, offer refuge and distraction. Their pleasures and comforts are not trivial, but essential. Art is the domain of solved problems, even if the problems are formal and the solutions artificial.

But if art, ideally, floats free of the grim reality of work, need and sustenance, that reality is nonetheless its raw material and its context. Intentionally or not, artists in every form and style draw on and refashion the facts of life that surround them, and the resulting work takes its place among those facts. What I’m grandly and abstractly calling “works of art” are more concretely and prosaically books, songs, movies, plays, television series, environmental installations, paintings, operas and anything else that falls into the bin of consumer goods marked “Culture.” These goods are bought and sold, whether as physical objects, ephemeral real-time experiences or digital artifacts. Their making requires labor, capital and a market for distribution. The money might come from foundations, Kickstarter campaigns or retail sales or advertising revenue. The commerce between artist and public is brokered by the traditional culture industry (publishing houses, television networks, record labels and movie studios) and also by disruptive upstarts like Amazon, Netflix, Google and iTunes. But the whole system, from top to bottom, from the Metropolitan Opera House to the busker in the subway station below it, is inescapably part of the capitalist economy.

media icons

And that economy, in turn, provides an endless stream of subject matter. Much as I respect the efforts of economists and social scientists to explain the world and the intermittent efforts of politicians to change it, I trust artists and writers more. Not necessarily to be righteous or infallible, or even consistent or coherent; not to instruct or advocate, but rather, through the integrity and discipline they bring to making something new, to tell the truth.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen

If I want to understand the dreams of the gentry and the nightmares of the poor in early-19th-century England, I turn to Jane Austen and William Blake. All the news you need about class divisions in Paris and London later in that century can be found in the pages of Balzac, Dickens and Zola. The history of European painting from the Renaissance to World War I is, in large measure, the history of power, wealth and social status. In the 20th century, film, theater and television tell the same story, as comedy, tragedy, thriller and farce. Class consciousness in Depression-era Hollywood ranged from tuxedoed and mink-coated swells in Manhattan penthouses to strikers on the picket line. Postwar Broadway was the kingdom of Willy Loman and Stanley Kowalski, and as television became a fixture of middle-class homes, it chronicled the struggles and aspirations of families — the Kramdens, the Conners, the Jeffersons, the Simpsons — trying to achieve or maintain middle-class status.

blackish-key-art-fullAnd now? Should we be looking high or low? At sitcoms or science-fiction allegories or realist dramas? At a movie like “Snowpiercer,” which imagines a train speeding across a frozen, apocalyptic landscape as a microcosm of global inequality? At a television series like “Black-ish,” which illuminates the contradictions of upward mobility in a decidedly non-post-racial America? Some of my previous Cross Cuts columns have tried to plot the contemporary intersections of culture, class, work and money. In the past year and a half, I’ve written about how movies like “The Great Gatsby,” “Pain & Gain” and “Spring Breakers” reflect our ambivalence about wealth and materialism; about how Leonardo DiCaprio has become the movie-star embodiment of that ambivalence; about the gentrification of Brooklyn and the eclipse of middlebrow taste; about the contradictory status of creative labor and the state of the working class as depicted in the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

But I want to go further. I want to know more about the political economy of art at the present moment, to think about how artists are affected by changes in the distribution of wealth and the definition of work, and about how their work addresses these changes. So I decided to ask them.

This fall I sent out a plea, accompanied by a questionnaire. My intention was to conduct a bit of unscientific research, and also to advance a discussion about what art has done and should do at this moment of political impasse, racial tension and economic crisis, which at once resembles earlier such moments and has its own particular character. My questions were simple and far from new. The social responsibility of art has been a topic for debate since the ancients. But the answers that came back — from playwrights, filmmakers, rappers, poets and storytellers who have directly confronted these issues — testify to the complexity and the urgency of the issue. These thoughts — largely shared by email, and edited and condensed for space here — convey the sense of a conversation that is going on wherever audiences and creators grapple with the relationship between art and the world. It is my hope that what these artists have to say will provoke reactions from other artists and from readers, viewers and listeners.

Here is the panel discussion with artists on how they address social issues.

AO ScottA.O. Scott is a journalist and chief film critic for The New York Times. In addition to his film-reviewing duties, Mr. Scott often writes for the Times Magazine and the Book Review.

Poet with Autism Shares His Words with all ‘On the Spectrum’

Scott Lentine

Scott Lentine

West Coast Premiere of Fountain Theatre’s ‘On the Spectrum’ Catches the Eye of Poet with Autism 

by Scott Lentine

I am a 25 year old man with high-functioning autism (PDD-NOS/Asperger’s) from Billerica, MA, a Boston suburb. I graduated from Merrimack College magna cum laude with a Bachelor’s Degree in Religious Studies with a Biology minor. I am currently an office intern at the Arc of Massachusetts in Waltham, where I try to persuade lawmakers to pass key disability resources legislation to improve the lives of people with developmental disabilities. I am interested in data clerical entry duties, hospital settings, autism non-profit organizations, and research type work.  I have some autism song/poems that I wanted to share with people on the autism spectrum and to musicians who support autism causes.

Just a Normal Day

Never knowing what to say

Never knowing what to do

Always looking for clues

Just a normal day

Feeling unsure

Totally perplexed with everyday life

Always on edge never certain

I wish I could lift this curtain

Needing to constantly satisfy my need for information

Always online searching for new revelations

Going from site to site

Obtaining new insights every night

Trying to connect with people my age

Attempting to reveal my unique vision

But ending up alone and unengaged

Feeling like my needs a total revision

Just a normal day.

Virginia Newcomb & Dan Shaked

Virginia Newcomb & Dan Shaked in “On the Spectrum” at the Fountain Theatre.

Can’t You See

Can’t you see

I just want to have a friend

Can’t you see

I need the same connections in the end

Can’t you see

I want a good job

Can’t you see

I need to have stability and dependence and part of the general mob

Can’t you see

I want to be independent on my own

Can’t you see

I want to be able to have my own home

Can’t you see

I want the same things as everyone else

Can’t you see

I want to be appreciated for myself.

Dan Shaked in "On the Spectrum"

Dan Shaked in “On the Spectrum”

The Ode to the Autistic Man

Try to understand the challenges that I face

I would like to be accepted as a human in all places

Where I will end up in life I don’t know

But I hope to be successful wherever I go

I would like to expand my social skills in life

Making new friends would be very nice

Stand proud for the autistic man

For he will find a new fan

I hope to overcome the odds I face today

Increased acceptance will lead me to a brighter day

By the age of 20, I will have made tremendous strides

I know in the future, life will continue to be an interesting ride

I have made new friends by the year

I will be given tremendous respect by my family and peers

I hope to get noted for bringing the issue of autism to the common man

So that autistic people can be accepted in this great land

Stand proud for the autistic man

For he will find a new fan

I hope to overcome the odds I face today

Increased acceptance will lead me to a brighter day.

Maui11-BigBeach-BeautifulDay-1953_md

Marshfield Memories poem

Today is a beautiful day on the beach

There are plenty of people and dogs to see

The water is warm and the sky is bright

And seeing some people flying a kite

I am having a fun time with cousins and friends

Hoping that this day will never end

The ocean and sands are comfortable and feel so right

Taking a walk towards Brant Rock in the strong sunlight

Now it is the evening of the third of July

Watching the amazing fireworks from the seawall go by

Talking with family about the latest moments of the day

And meeting some new friends along the way

It was a great time on the beach today

Reading a book and going into the ocean on a bright clear day

These are moments that I will remember for a long time

Being on the beach on a nice warm day is truly sublime.

Visit Scott Lentine on his blog

On the Spectrum at the Fountain Theatre. The West Coast Premiere of a funny and touching love story with a difference. Mac has Asperger’s. Iris has autism. An online chat blossoms into an unforgettable friendship. Not your (neuro)typical love story. March 16 – April 28 (323) 663-1525  MORE

This production is sponsored, in part, by The Help Group.

10 Skills Children Learn from the Arts

kids-paint-hands-art

By Lisa Phillips

1. Creativity – Being able to think on your feet, approach tasks from different perspectives and think ‘outside of the box’ will distinguish your child from others. In an arts program, your child will be asked to recite a monologue in 6 different ways, create a painting that represents a memory, or compose a new rhythm to enhance a piece of music. If children have practice thinking creatively, it will come naturally to them now and in their future career.

2. Confidence – The skills developed through theater, not only train you how to convincingly deliver a message, but also build the confidence you need to take command of the stage. Theater training gives children practice stepping out of their comfort zone and allows them to make mistakes and learn from them in rehearsal. This process gives children the confidence to perform in front of large audiences.

child problem solving3. Problem Solving – Artistic creations are born through the solving of problems. How do I turn this clay into a sculpture? How do I portray a particular emotion through dance? How will my character react in this situation? Without even realizing it kids that participate in the arts are consistently being challenged to solve problems. All this practice problem solving develops children’s skills in reasoning and understanding. This will help develop important problem-solving skills necessary for success in any career.
4. Perseverance – When a child picks up a violin for the first time, she/he knows that playing Bach right away is not an option; however, when that child practices, learns the skills and techniques and doesn’t give up, that Bach concerto is that much closer. In an increasingly competitive world, where people are being asked to continually develop new skills, perseverance is essential to achieving success.

5. Focus – The ability to focus is a key skill developed through ensemble work. Keeping a balance between listening and contributing involves a great deal of concentration and focus. It requires each participant to not only think about their role, but how their role contributes to the big picture of what is being created. Recent research has shown that participation in the arts improves children’s abilities to concentrate and focus in other aspects of their lives.

child dance class6. Non-Verbal Communication – Through experiences in theater and dance education, children learn to breakdown the mechanics of body language. They experience different ways of moving and how those movements communicate different emotions. They are then coached in performance skills to ensure they are portraying their character effectively to the audience.

7. Receiving Constructive Feedback – Receiving constructive feedback about a performance or visual art piece is a regular part of any arts instruction. Children learn that feedback is part of learning and it is not something to be offended by or to be taken personally. It is something helpful. The goal is the improvement of skills and evaluation is incorporated at every step of the process. Each arts discipline has built in parameters to ensure that critique is a valuable experience and greatly contributes to the success of the final piece.

Children-Arts 1

8. Collaboration – Most arts disciplines are collaborative in nature. Through the arts, children practice working together, sharing responsibility, and compromising with others to accomplish a common goal. When a child has a part to play in a music ensemble, or a theater or dance production, they begin to understand that their contribution is necessary for the success of the group. Through these experiences children gain confidence and start to learn that their contributions have value even if they don’t have the biggest role.

9. Dedication – When kids get to practice following through with artistic endeavors that result in a finished product or performance, they learn to associate dedication with a feeling of accomplishment. They practice developing healthy work habits of being on time for rehearsals and performances, respecting the contributions of others, and putting effort into the success of the final piece. In the performing arts, the reward for dedication is the warm feeling of an audience’s applause that comes rushing over you, making all your efforts worthwhile.

10. Accountability – When children practice creating something collaboratively they get used to the idea that their actions affect other people. They learn that when they are not prepared or on-time, that other people suffer. Through the arts, children also learn that it is important to admit that you made a mistake and take responsibility for it. Because mistakes are a regular part of the process of learning in the arts, children begin to see that mistakes happen. We acknowledge them, learn from them and move on.

Lisa Phillips

Lisa Phillips

Lisa Philips is the author of The Artistic Edge: 7 Skills Children Need to Succeed in an Increasingly Right Brain World.