No one knows exactly how the country will change once Donald Trump takes office as president, but nothing about his campaign or transition has left any indication that his administration will be friendly to performing arts organizations or the values those organizations tend to champion: curiosity, open-mindedness, critical thinking, good faith, good humor, and common decency. In particular, many artists are concerned that civil rights and freedom of expression will be trampled.
On January 19, inauguration eve, theaters across the country — including many in Minnesota — will be hosting gatherings that amount to a renewal of their vows with the communities they serve. “It’s not just a one-off event,” says Randy Reyes, artistic director of Mu Performing Arts, “but actually a statement about a value system.”
The gatherings are being organized under the auspices of “the Ghostlight Project,” a name that refers to a longstanding theatrical practice of leaving a “ghost light” on stage so that a performance space is never entirely dark.
Gathering outside theaters at 5:30 p.m., artists and communities will, in the words of a national action statement, “make or renew a pledge to stand for and protect the values of inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone — regardless of race, class, religion, country of origin, immigration status, (dis)ability, age, gender identity, or sexual orientation.”
Reyes is on the national steering committee for the project, which originally sprung up among New York theater artists late last year, in the wake of Trump’s public castigation of the Hamilton cast who had the temerity to ask VP-elect Mike Pence “to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
The Ghostlight Project, which will live on as a resource and convener, is nonpartisan (theaters risk their nonprofit status if they become involved in political campaigning), but the timing is no coincidence.
“There have been so many things that have happened since the election,” says Reyes, referring to “actions of violence and anger and hate. With our community reeling from all those actions, we feel like this is a moment to start the healing, to form some solidarity for the people who are being affected by those acts. This is a nonpartisan event about inclusivity, about a safe and compassionate and better world for everyone.”
Organizers have been circulating a template for a sign that includes the words “I am” and “I fight for.” Some participants have posted photos of the signs to a Facebook group. “I am an artist and an educator, I fight for my students,” reads one sign. “I am a black woman, I fight for the beauty of diversity,” reads another. A third: “I am a crazy costumer and a mad hatter, I fight for a community that includes everyone.”
Among the dozen-plus Minnesota theater organizations participating in Thursday’s action is Pillsbury House. “We are in four neighborhoods,” says the company’s co-director Faye Price. “We’re very much a part of the community, and this is a community action. The values this event is upholding are part of what we value.”
At their gathering, Pillsbury House will also be presenting a related artwork created by Masanari Kawahara and Mike Hoyt. Over in St. Paul, Park Square Theatre will be joining with Mu — which is collaborating with Park Square on a new production of Flower Drum Song — to host a gathering that will include the breaking of bread (in the form of cookies). Participants at all locations are also encouraged to bring literal lights to shine as a gesture of solidarity.
Reyes emphasizes that the conversation, and the need for inclusivity, has been happening in the theater community for decades. “There seems to be more urgency now,” he says, “but it’s work that’s been going on, and I’m hoping that this will actually help engage more people in the community to talk about it.”