Performance and protest: The roles Jews and theatre play in racial justice

Guest Columnist
David Y. Chack

As an Ashkenazi Jew, cis-male and white, I have privilege in American society. So seeing the protests expressing outrage and the need for change after the horrific deaths of Black people, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I must oppose my privilege to name what is systemic racism in this country.
To do that, I truly believe that we need to see this moment.
As a mentee of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel’s, I worked closely with him doing my doctoral work on Jewish culture and performance, joining him in learning and producing conferences, to fight against hate and to honor memory and identity.
One thing Wiesel would tell us in investigating culture was, what do you see? What does the storyteller/playwright/author want you to see? And what is not seen, but is there under the surface?
The seeing I used with Wiesel then, and still use, is one from theatre and performance and it may be useful for us to understand the Black Lives Matter movement, which is being revealed in our immediate moment as performative. I say this not to minimize the protests and uprisings, but to place them in the context of what performance and theatre does to give voice and represent vision. As one young Black actor said during rehearsal for a play I am directing about civil rights activist and philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “This play is about the fighting of the ideas of racism and segregation. Theatre is another way to protest, to disrupt.”
We can see the protests as theatre, performance of immediacy and the power to make change through sight, sound and words. This is what theatre does best. In a visceral way, it illuminates, inspires and works through the dark places. It utilizes creative passion, moving towards catharsis and enlightenment for an audience. In this case, let’s replace the word catharsis for protest and enlightenment for justice.
In the past, some of the most poignant moments at protests were performative. Remember the image of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with Heschel, walking arm in arm with a Torah, held by Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, in Montgomery, Alabama. That image of power and forthrightness gave all of us in America pause at the representation we saw. In the same way the ritual of taking the Torah out from the ark in synagogue and a processional ensues, it is as if the Torah was on its way to be read to the people and Heschel’s famously poetic phrase rang through, “It is as if my legs were praying.”
Moments of protest could also be actual stage performances. When a Mississippi white supremacist murdered civil rights activist and NAACP State Field Representative Medgar Evers in 1963, a protest rally was organized in his memory by actor and folk musician Theodore Bikel. The Austrian-born theatre artist brought Bob Dylan and others to Greenwood, Mississippi, to not only sing “Blowin’ In the Wind” and “We Shall Overcome,” but to perform Dylan’s newly-written song, “Only a Pawn in Their Game” – a cry of pain over Evers’ murder.
These two Jews, Bikel and Dylan, with a host of others in the folk music movement (many of whom were Jews) joined the civil rights struggle and put themselves on the line to perform and protest.
Today’s protests can also be seen as performance, telling a story with words, images and sound. We see the protestors as they move from place to place chanting “hands up, don’t shoot,” “no justice, no peace” or the names of those who have been murdered. We see them lie on the ground, staging the last minutes of Floyd or Taylor.
Unfortunately, we also see actions by the police that, in the name of the law, use force to push back and overpower the crowd. In the 1960s, it was fire hoses and dogs. In the 21st century, it is gas, rubber bullets and military equipment.
In contrast to King’s and Heschel’s performance in the ’60s, we saw President Trump go to the church near the White House. But first, the military and police used chemical agents, shields, rubber bullets and batons to clear a path. When the president arrived at the church, he dramatically held up a Bible, afterwards posing with his contingent. That performance conveyed to its audience not only that the president can get from the White House seat of power to a church, but that his arrival would be somehow consecrated with scripture.
In the June 16 issue of The New York Times, Jenna Wortham writes, “The world is listening. And for all that can feel like superficial performance, there is also an opening. I do feel that receptivity is really precious.”
Yes, the world is listening, but it is also seeing the scenes. Through smart phones, TV, social media and streaming, these scenes are performed again and again, searing and entering our souls.
When I went to Auschwitz last year with my theatre students, I brought a young Black woman, an acting student, forward at the gravesite memorial. After we lit candles for the six million Jews, I had her read a quote from Wiesel. She said this was one of the most meaningful moments in her life:
“I am the eye that looks at the eye that is looking,” Wiesel said. “I shall look so hard that I shall be blinded. So what? I shall sing. I shall sing with such force that I shall go mad. So what? …And this vision which hounds me, it is my offering…I am speaking to you.”
Many voices are performing for us in protest. Do we see?

(David Y. Chack is the artistic director of the ShPIeL Performing Identity with Bunbury Theatre, which has produced several Jewish-themed plays for Louisville audiences about the intersection of anti-Semitism and racism. He is currently working on another play about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.)

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