by Paul Bedard
“The artist’s job is to make memories,” a teacher (Rubén Polendo) once told a class I was in during college. At the protest to Donald Trump’s inauguration and the Women’s March on Washington, I couldn’t believe this more strongly. I believe artists have a unique ability to harness the unusual, to provoke imagination, and to create experiences that haunt and linger long after the event has ended. I believe artists, in the words of Taylor Mac, must remind people of what's been forgotten or ignored and crystallize the unforgettable and unignorable as it unfolds. We must make and preserve memories.
What I will remember from Donald Trump’s inauguration is the fear I felt in the early morning and the beauty I experienced and hope I felt by noon. Waking up, I was apprehensive and unsure of what I would encounter that day. The subway ride into central D.C. compounded my anxiety as I found myself surrounded by Make America Great Again hats and all that conjures. The protests themselves, however, felt like home. Queer people, brown people, women and men with buttons and signs preaching and reaching towards a different future, far from Trump’s nightmarish “great.”
Bread and Puppet, a performance collective that has been performing in theaters and at protests for decades, brought their iconic puppets and a joyous, rag-tag brass band. Their mobile performance featured a clownish man in a Trump wig raving gibberish about “putting America first” and making a “good deal”. A half dozen skeleton horses circled him in a sort of ring of protection. Outside was a band of mismatched misfits with their instruments, celebrating difference and threatening Trump in his ring of horses. It was demonic and wacky, hilarious and ominous, and felt like an echo of the wider movement.
I will remember The Women’s March forever not just because of the size of the crowds, which I had never experienced before, but also because of Janelle Monáe’s performance of Talmbout. She could have delivered a speech. The Mothers of the Movement, the mothers of black men and women murdered by the police, could have delivered speeches. We could have heard the names of police brutality’s victims listed. The information could have been delivered plainly, but instead, Janelle Monáe fired up a drum circle and ring-led the mothers and the audience in song. The verses were a call and response. A mother would say the name of her slain child into the microphone and the half-million-plus people in the audience would answer "Say his/her name!" The drummers and Monáe took the choruses with, "Hell you talmbout?" (What the hell are you talking about?). We repeated this for the dozen or so Mothers of the Movement. First through tears and then with powerful rage, the Mothers bellowed their children’s names with a force only a half-million people could meet in response. The sound we together made was thunderous and determined. Say his name. Say her name. Do not forget them. Do not ignore them.
Many have noted the smaller acts of artistry throughout the day. Beautiful signs and clever slogans peppered the sea of pink (another collective act of art) with memorable sights and sounds.
"Eve was framed"
"I'm with her" (arrows facing all directions)
"Cunt touch this"
"I didn't come from your rib, you came from my vagina!"
"Vulva la vida"
"Tweet women with respect"
We brought Lady Liberty. We had the idea a few months ago to create "Feminist Flashmobs" in which actors recreate famous feminist speeches. We wanted to somehow bring the women whose shoulders we stand on to this historic march. We drew inspiration from Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party," in which a giant table is intricately set for titanic women from Gaia to Sojourner Truth to Susan B. Anthony. For each feminist in our performance, we began a call and response with the audience: "Make way! / Here she comes!". Once we had the crowd’s attention, we introduced the heroine, “It’s me! Hillary Rodham Clinton!” and the speech would begin. As a central image, we chose Lady Liberty to lead these women whose words we sought to honor.
Audiences delighted at the puppet, created by the talented Christopher Soprano. Adults, children, other costumed characters all wanted their picture with Lady Liberty. During our performances, crowds gathered and listened attentively to each speech. The reverence and respect paid to the women we conjured was awesome. We brought Susan B. Anthony and noted the voter suppression in the recent election. We brought Audre Lorde and noted the Republican opposition to the Violence Against Women Act. We brought Ursula Le Guin, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Michelle Obama and more. We sought to remind, reveal, and refocus our audiences on the struggles we face. We sought to make a memory during this Women’s March.
I am inspired by and grateful to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Naomi Klein, Gloria Steinem, Linda Sarsour, and all the other activists who gave direction to the weekend. Their guidance is critical and provides an important conduit to understanding. Unfortunately, however, direction and understanding is not always enough. Emotion, narrative, and human experience can activate the unengaged and that’s where artists come in.
I will remember clearly this weekend’s tears, hugs, guttural cries for peace, pink hats, painted posters, music, and the reminder that an artist’s job is to create memory itself.
Remember and march on.
Paul Bedard is a theater director and activist living in Brooklyn.
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