November 10, 2009
Editor’s Note: This post is by Antonia Lassar, a student at Boston University who attended The People Speak College tour event on her campus last week.
To my right is a boy in the most vivid red denim shirt I have ever seen. (Confession: I have never actually seen a red denim shirt before, regardless of the color saturation.) In front of me is a man with spectacularly gray hair wearing a t-shirt with a tiny green stoplight on the upper right shoulder. Next to me is a woman wearing a headscarf singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic. The whole situation seems bizarrely symbolic.
The night hasn’t even started yet, but there is a haphazard air – a frenetic buzz- to the Tsai Performance Center and looks are exchanged between strangers all acknowledging our common purpose. I grew up in Newton, Mass- a city so homogenously white and Jewish we have nicknamed it Jewton. This room is one of the most culturally diverse rooms I’ve ever been in. While there are many academics, there are also low-income high school students, wealthy entrepreneurs, impoverished veterans, and giggly Matt Damon fans; those were just the people I spoke with after the show. That being said, we’re kind of a choir. As in, one to preach to. We all love Howard Zinn, and we all agree with him. Prediction: we will all leave here feeling just as socially conscious as we did when we entered.
We start with a video clip, and the woman next to me is still humming. I learn to measure her response to things by the amount of time she is silent. By the time Howard Zinn climbs on stage, the battle march is dwindling. By the end of his raucous applause, either the war is over or her side has lost. While simultaneously listening to her and cheering far too loudly for Howard Zinn, I notice an interesting coincidence. Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is widely touted as one of those few books that increases in popularity as times progresses. Like the book, the audience’s applause grows, building in intensity like some ritual only familiar to cave men and college students. Zinn has an elusive quality that makes people fall more and more in love with him as time goes on.
Following Zinn and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, David Strathairn performs John Brown’s “Last Speech” to a captive audience. Here is where my actor self started to get very excited. A brief biography: I am a Theatre Arts major and am soon to be an International Relations minor; this event is one of those rare occasions where I can be equally excited about both. So I have to give an enormous shoutout to Strathairn. The pensive and sustained actor became sharp and birdlike. He didn’t pace the stage or gesture wildly; every outrage and injustice was contained in his left hand. The fingers clenched and twisted: years of hatred had found no other release. It was impressive.
I didn’t stop being impressed for another two hours. John Legend’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” prompted so many murmurs from the audience it was hard to tell when the song ended. Producer Chris Moore’s explanation of how the film is meant to take these events from the intellectual to the emotional struck me as brilliant. Like most of the audience I felt very inspired. As an actor I was buzzing with the need to create new art, inspired by stories of dissent from today. I was not the only one. It was evident from the audience’s question and answer session that the whole room had been affected. Person after person asked potent questions, but more striking was the personalization of the questions. No question was asked just to be asked; they related directly back to the questioner’s life. The veteran talked about veterans, the LGBTQ activist talked about LGBTQ issues, the high school student asked about the future for children his age. Though some of these questions baffled the panel, I was excited. The movie didn’t just make people think; it made them think about their own lives.
I struggle as an artist to create art that has a purpose. My personal aesthetic includes social change as a premier tenet. As I walked down Commonwealth Avenue that night, my hand never stopped moving. Filled with the urge to scream history from the top of the CITGO sign, my hands darted back and forth, painting the air. Much like David Strathairn. But I was confused: how do I even start to choose what I want to say? I was glowing: if only Susan B. Anthony’s contemporaries could have heard her speech like it was read tonight! I was determined to wear the movie’s t-shirt every day. But something much larger than myself changed. Zinn may have been preaching to a choir that night, but even a choir can do much more than sing. An entire auditorium was inspired to start making their own history. We came in berating the state of the world. We left with the notion that we had to stop talking and start doing. There was only one Martin Luther King Jr., only one Gandhi, only one John Brown. But we were hundreds. One step towards change is exciting, imagine what we can do if we take three hundred steps at a time.