The Long Fight, the Big Loss and the Front Lines of Resistance

Sad! The Women’s March in Washington, DC, earlier this year.

I was a freshman in high school on Nov. 15, 1969, when the Vietnam Moratorium Committee staged the largest antiwar protest in US history in Washington, DC. A smaller demonstration of resistance took place in the parking lot in front of my school. I still have the buttons I wore on my Nehru jacket for the rest of the year. I also sported a black armband and a POW bracelet as a way to remember the soldiers both killed and captured in ‘Nam. During this time, I was deeply moved by the stories of social justice captured on the front pages of the papers every day. Civil rights and feminism were young movements meant for the young. I longed to be old enough to join them.

Around the same time as my first protest, I saw my first Broadway show, Hair. Seated in the eighth row of the orchestra, I can still hear the opening bass notes beat out a rhythm as cast members entered from the back of the house by stepping on and over the armrests of the seats next to me. Everything about the production left me gobsmacked. As the tribe belted out “Let The Sunshine In” at the very end and gestured for the audience to come on stage, I followed my sister up the center aisle to participate in the finale/be-in. In our bell-bottom jeans and hippie beads, we fit right in.

Of course, Hair is about a group of young activists from different races and backgrounds who believed they can change the world. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life, I remember thinking as I sat in the back seat of my aunt’s car, still tingling from the experience. I must have looked as though one of the actors had slipped me a tab of acid I was so transported. Inspired by both the emotional pull of theater and how it conveyed the passion of protest, I came to understand that theater was a catalyst that could greatly influence society. Change was possible when inspired artists organized around a movement. Art and activism. They have been intertwined in my mind ever since.

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A catalyst to greatly influence society.

Over the years I experienced other unforgettable theatrical events: The Performance Group’s production of Mother Courage and Her Children starring Joan McIntosh; Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver at the WOW Café; Richard Foreman’s production of Threepenny Opera at Lincoln Center; the performance of A Chorus Line that marked it as the longest-running show in Broadway history; Culture Clash’s production of The Mission at Los Angeles Theatre Center.

I have been at the center of memorable actions as well. The raucous rally in NYC in the fall of 1984 for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket; Women’s Action Coalition’s demonstration on the 405 freeway in LA in 1993; a protest aimed at shedding light on sexism in theater at the Tony Awards in 2000; the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, DC, in 2004; the Women’s March just seven months ago.

Guerrilla Girls’ Tony Awards protest, 2000.

Lately, I have felt a great nostalgia for protests, rallies and demonstrations from long ago and not so long ago. And every time I sit down in a theater I find myself yearning for something fresh and fearless. Why isn’t there a constant stream of actions, especially now, addressing issues like immigrant protection, criminal justice reform, pay equity, reproductive rights, gender parity, disability rights, LGBT rights and gun control? Donald Trump is president, for crying out loud. Why is the next big protest not scheduled for tomorrow? Where is the next great musical theater production to reflect these trying times? If a pink-hatted throng is not blocking the streets every day, what are we doing instead?

Perhaps I have been holed up in my apartment, occupied with scheduling my social media posts for too long. A quick Google search revealed that, yes, many are actively engaging in various actions directed at myriad issues. But I struggle with not feeling totally helpless against the hourly feed of outrageous tweets and reports of scandals oozing from the White House. It is the summer and I can’t take another day of dreadful news. I want to sit in the sun and sustain the numbness I feel by sipping glass after glass of crisp rose. I don’t feel like making street theater that addresses Trumpcare or the defunding of Planned Parenthood. This activist needs a break.

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Women’s March NYC, 2017.

For those of us who identify as activist/artists and who have been doing this for quite a while, our memories are long and our hope is eternal. Our belief and energy are sustained only because we know there are times when we need to step away to refuel. These days, though, it is even more important as bulletins of setbacks and downright defeats bombard us from every angle. Since May I have felt the need to turn away from it all. Smashing patriarchy, sexism and all the other issues that piss me off were put on hold while I waded through a stack of novels, grew some herbs and hiked a few mountain trails.

Refreshed and rested I reached out to the Women’s March New York City last week to investigate what they were up to. Not surprisingly, they were concerned with how to keep people motivated. Katherine Siemionko, president of the Women’s March NYC Alliance, spoke to me in the middle of organizing a “Die In for Healthcare” at Foley Square in Manhattan. She told me that they’re currently working on a lot of things, namely obtaining nonprofit status and hosting weekly workshops and informal talks with the goal of educating the community on the issues. Working with other local groups like Rise and Resist and Indivisible, Katherine explained to me that the goal is to sustain the energy of the Jan. 21 Women’s March by concentrating on community building. “We’re building locally,” Siemonko explained. “Once we are strong locally, it will be easy to coordinate globally.”

I headed down to the “Die In” on July 13. As I arrived, around 7pm, it had just started to rain. A few people in orange vests had cordoned off an area where 50 or so protestors lay on the ground, each holding a poster-board gravestone with a hand-printed slogan. “Died in Ohio. Hit lifetime cap,” and “RIP mama, died in childbirth without health insurance,” were two that stuck out in my mind. As the rain turned from a drizzle to a steady stream, the protesters — women, men, a few teenagers — passed a megaphone around and made impromptu statements about what the Senate’s proposal to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act would mean for them. Less care, fewer options and death were the conclusions. I stood among straggling bystanders, most with their phones out, as if the only reason they stopped to watch the “Die In” was to capture an interesting post for Instagram.

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“Die In” at NYC’s Foley Square. Photo: Donna Kaz.

This is the hard work of being an activist, I remembered. Protesting in the rain, on the cold ground, with a small cohort and an even smaller audience, recognizing that perhaps no one may hear your message at all. As an activist, you never know when you will effect change, you just try and try and try even if it rains and no one shows up.

It hit me that perhaps my resistance fatigue is because I have gotten hooked on the glamorous side of activism and addicted to the thrill of mind-blowing art. I think I forgot, for a moment, that splashy marches and spectacular evenings of theater are the results of months and years of organizing. Being a part of a movement means digging in and doing a lot of very hard and often boring work.

I want Trump to go away. Of all the causes I have fought for, this one feels not only insurmountable but completely ridiculous. We have a narcissistic, immature, irrational playboy for a president. Only a massive movement of continued spectacle aimed at exposing his lies will bring him down.

To win fights you have to be in fights and it feels as though I have been in one very long, never-ending fight. Signing petitions, mailing post cards and showing up to a big march are all very important but all are relatively easy. The hard work of being an activist is what I need to find my way back to.

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The “Die In” protesters reminded me that now, more than ever, I have to push back against the urge to admit defeat and wait out these next four years. Just as every musical I see will not be Hair and perhaps my pink pussy hat has to stay in the drawer for awhile, the important thing is to get back to the hard work of organizing. I must fight my way back to the front line of the resistance and relieve someone else who needs a recharge. This is a battle unlike any other because it is one I never expected to take place this far from 1969. It is hard to admit that much loss, but it is the truth.

To join the front lines, here are a few ideas.

Need more inspiration? There are 917 hate groups operating in the US. Track them on this hate map.