How We Bear Witness

The Public Theater, which has opened its lobby this week to protestors. (Photo: Diep Tran)

“Do you all know the definition of that word witness? I’m not talking about being a passive observer…I’m talking about being a witness in the Black American tradition. Which means you take responsibility for what you see, you’re willing to shoulder that load and put your back into it.”

Daniel Alexander Jones, Black Light

America has ended its second week of protests, which was sparked by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin but has since grown into a worldwide cry for transformation. In just a week, defunding the police has gone from a farfetched talking point to a rallying cry for millions of people across America, who are calling for an end to police brutality, repercussions for law enforcement who break the law, and defunding the police—taking the billions of dollars allocated to the police and redirecting it towards social services and education. It’s been, to put it mildly, a week

But last night, I came home from a protest in Washington Square Park in Manhattan. While I was resting my feet after a week of marching, I noticed that the Joe’s Pub YouTube channel had posted a show by the artist Daniel Alexander Jones called Black Light. I had seen Black Light in 2018 and I was so moved by it that I saw it twice. It was one of the best shows I saw that year. The play is a series of stories and ruminations by Jones—with original songs performed by Jones and an on stage band interspersed throughout. In the work, Jones references segregation and racial violence, but also family, Prince and change (or as he calls it, “the crossroads”). It’s a work both sobering and beautiful, melancholy and joyful. And it creates hope by telling the audience that a better world is possible if we can imagine it and we can act.

One of the main themes is witnessing, but not in the sense of being a passive observer. It’s what Jones calls in Black Light, “a living witness.” It’s “taking responsibility for what you see.” Millions of people around the world witnessed, through a video, George Floyd being murdered in broad daylight. And instead of brushing it off, like so many have done so many times before, it drove people to act, to shout enough is enough.

And I don’t just mean taking to the streets, though those actions have been the most visible and wildly effective in leading to the arrest of Chauvin. I was talking with a friend, a theater producer who lives in Chicago, and they were telling me that they were on police scanner duty, so they could tell those on the ground protesting if there were SWAT teams nearby. That is being a living witness. So many people have donated to the Minneapolis Freedom Fund and the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund that they were redirecting donations to other organizations. That is being a living witness. The citizens of Los Angeles called in so much that Mayor Eric Garcetti has committed to cutting $150 million from the Los Angeles Police Department budget. That is being a living witness. KPOP fans flooded racist hashtags on Twitter, such as #WhiteLivesMatter, with fancams, drowning out the voices of white supremacists. That is being a living witness, with dance moves.

Here’s my favorite example of living witnesses this week. On June 1, Off-Broadway theater New York Theatre Workshop opened their building for the first time since March (when NYC went dark because of COVID-19). They gave out free water and snacks, gave protestors a place to charge their phones, and allowed people to use their bathroom. Within a day, a Twitter campaign was born: #OpenYourLobby, which was used to persuade other theaters around the country (whose buildings were closed and empty) to follow NYTW’s example. In just four days, 64 theaters around the country are committed to opening their lobbies daily for protestors. And those who couldn’t, like Roundabout Theatre Company, donated water and supplies to the Public Theater, whose lobby in the East Village has been opened since June 3. When I visited the Public, a woman came up and thanked one of the staff members who were there, saying, “You’re doing the right thing.”

The lobby of New York Theatre Workshop. In the background there is a sign: “Stonewall Riots were started by Black & Brown trans folx! Black Lives Matter. Trans Lives Matter.” (Photo: Diep Tran)

I contacted the organizers at the Open Your Lobby Twitter account. They requested anonymity but explained that the campaign was inspired by their own experience as protestors. “This initiative started because we were on the ground during the initial weekend of protests, and we saw people struggling to find refuge in a largely boarded up city,” they said. “Theater spaces came to mind because they are centrally located with bathrooms and resources which haven’t been used for weeks.” Not to mention that New York Theatre Workshop is in a high-traffic area for protestors, being within 10 minutes walking of Washington Square Park and Union Square.

With help from Open Your Lobby, playwright and actor Carolina Do has petitioned Second Stage Theatre (located next to Times Square) to open. She, and two other artists, gathered over 300 signatures for a petition within a day, which they then sent to the theater’s management. Second Stage then gave Do permission to use their space starting June 6 and contributed to buying supplies. For the last two days, Do and a group of volunteers have been greeting protestors whenever they come by. Do sees this as an opportunity for theaters, who have recently been vocal about their support for Black Lives Matter, to take concrete action—not just wait until next year when the industry starts up again and we have all become distracted by other headlines. “It definitely was a lot of work of us going, ‘You put out a BLM statement but what are you really doing?’” she told me.

Though Do noted that she tried petition Broadway theaters to open their doors, especially because there have been multiple large protests around Times Square, but so far none have committed. “My contacts at [Ambassador Theatre Group] and commercial theaters are using the excuse of unions staying in the way/having cut off utilities,” she says. “I personally call BS but haven’t seen any Broadway people take action/initiatives on petitioning them, aside from Jeremy O. Harris calling some theaters out on Twitter.”

As someone who worked at a non-profit theater organization for eight years, I will tell you that those institutions are notoriously slow to respond to any time-sensitive proposal—due to the need to get approval from, usually, at least, three levels of management. And yet, in just a week, what started as one theater opening their doors to 64 theaters around the country opening their doors goes to show how easy you can change an industry. Not by waiting for them to do the right thing, but by artists pressuring them to do so (and in some cases, writing Black Lives Matter messages on their boarded up buildings). As we head into another week of protesting, here is a list from Open Your Lobby, which is updated frequently, of current theaters that are available to protestors.

Opening a lobby, it doesn’t seem like a big action. But like how an avalanche starts with one rolling pebble, if all of us decided to not just be a passive observer, but a living witness, to take an action—to quote one of the speakers I heard yesterday in Washington Square Park, “we will win.” Meanwhile, we can take note of those who are just talk and those who say nothing at all

In the words of Jones in Black Light:

“I come from a long line of people with radical imagination. Stretching back form my grandmother, my aunt Cleotha, across generations, through slavery time—when people imagined a freedom that they themselves have not experienced. But they held it in their mind’s eye, and they prayed and they shouted and they acted and they chose….”

Daniel Alexander Jones, Black Light

What will you choose to do today? How will you be a witness to this time?

The June 6 protest in Washington Square Park. (Photo: Diep Tran)

*This post has been updated throughout.

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