LIFE AS PERFORMANCE ART
is this an existential debate even worth enter(tain)ing?
From April 24, 2003 SF Chronicle Letters to the Editor:
Editor -- In response to Dennis Prager's [sic] article ("Artists not above reproach," April 22), this artist is compelled to ask: If not artists, who among us will dare explain this happy, hurting life?
EDISOL W. DOTSON
Dennis Praeger, the author in question, from the article mentioned above:
``the next time you see "artists for" or "artists against" some cause, without reading any further, you can pretty much bet your mortgage that whatever it is they are for or against, they are morally wrong. While God may have granted artists little wisdom, He apparently did not
skimp on hubris."
I'm going with Edisol on this one.
Saturday, March 15th at the First Congregational Church of Oakland, a benefit for the San Carlos Foundation gives locals a chance to gather and hear Martin Sheen and Father Bill O'Donnell. A casual, unscripted evening, it's billed as THE EX-CON AND THE PRESIDENT because Father Bill, an old friend from many protests & arrests with Sheen, had just gotten out of prison after a six month term for civil disobedience. So what do they do with an old priest who, while pretty feisty, is not in the greatest of health? They put him to work cleaning toilets, which he feels was not so bad. What hurt, he says, was not the getting down and dirty; it was the calculated meanness of the powers that be. Guards and officials who pronounced him a `bother' and `too much work' because he got mail and visitors, and who forbid him to say mass, but couldn't stop him from giving a consoling ear to fellow inmates.
`President Jed Bartlet' aka Martin Sheen, responds in kind, when asked if his career is in trouble for his outspokenness. On the commercial front, VISA is apparently feeling skittish about the Martin/Charlie Sheen spot they'd been running; it's been `rotated out'. Martin pulls out his VISA card & rhetorically poses a question regarding where the company can stick it. As to his stage/movie/tv career, this self-professed wind-bag launches into a fervent
recitation which touches upon his first awareness of the `rightness' of acting as his chosen occupation, his loving relationship with his working-class Spanish father, the only person to call him by his real name `Ramon', and ends with a passionate reiteration of the inextricable link between his conscience and his art. There would seem to be an obvious correlation, until you try to list how many artists have `come out' about their convictions or how many people have, for that
matter--`artist' or no.
Last week, my eighty year old French mother gets a jury summons, but cannot serve because she is not a US citizen; in the instructions she is told to send a copy of her Alien Registration Card to prove that she is ineligible. She refuses, politely, while assuring the authorities that if needed, she will show her Card to any official who asks, but they're going to have to come see her to do it. In the meanwhile, `Je
m'enfoutisme' (`I don't give a damn-ism') is pervading her life, she says—meaning that her mail is all screwed up, the neighborhood pharmacist is a `cold fish', the tv guide doesn't correspond to her cable system, the country is in decadence, why else would you have to be on hold for twenty minutes in order to talk to somebody about a minor problem with a subscription. Anti-French sentiments have reached into this ultra liberal enclave to smack her slender frame. A local
businessman refuses to post a flyer she's handing out up and down the avenue announcing the upcoming meeting of North Oakland Neighbors For Peace (NONFP), as a customer rails on about the French having desecrated some military graves, as though this were a newly minted `politique nationale'.
Our first NONFP Candlelight Vigil takes place on Sunday, March 16, 7-8PM, centrally located under the neighborhood Bay Area Rapid Transit tracks, or what we fondly call `Rockridge BART'.
Damn, I've been tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed and chased by Blue Meanies at UC Berkeley, but somehow emerged into this century never having attended a Candlelight Vigil. I'm embarrassed I don't know the best candles to use. And I'm its designated co-ordinator, which is to say, I agree to let people know that this is a vigil, not a rally and if there's any trouble, stay cool, and be a spokesperson for the press and show up early. Well, my heart's in the right place &
somebody had to volunteer. All week I watch the list of participants grow. MoveOn.org had kept this running list of participants, however NONFP had no way of anticipating how many folks would turn out; it's akin to running an open audition for an indeterminate number of roles in an undetermined play.
6:45 The list is at 96 when I leave home and I'm walking along having a fantasy that somebody will read something or perhaps we'll make a big
circle. It seems manageable.
6:55 I make my way toward the street, figures are moving out of the shadows and forming clusters, lighting their candles, greeting familiar faces. As their `co-ordinator', I feel I should check in with members of the group.
7:10 I can no longer see through the lines of people; it's all I can do to keep them out of the road (``we're probably going to need to stay on the sidewalk,
folks."). Cars are honking at us in support.
7:20 One side of the street no longer can hold the crowd: across four lanes, a solid wall of my neighbors--holding candles that are becoming more and more visible in the pre-daylight-savings-time darkness. There's my mother, looking a little giddy, and the neighbors from either side of my home whom I've only seen together maybe twice in 22 years.
7:30 I can no longer hope to
touch base with even half the vigilers; I'm already getting hoarse, so I cross the street to try to do a head count.
7:35 There are 240 or so vigilers on the east side; at least as many on the west. People are still arriving. I've developed stock answers to the questions (``so, what's the plan?", ``what are we doing?", ``I thought we were supposed to march to the library", ``when are we supposed to leave?","are you leading us?") but feel
curiously light-headed at the complete impossibility of getting a consensus on a group activity.
7:45 The candles on the east side suddenly begin to surge down the street. My ``auditionees" are beginning the play and it's clear that they've already cast themselves, they don't really want scripts. So, the production is to be a movable pageant and the library seems to be the arbitrary goal. From the immediacy of warm bodies to a quickly dissipating flow
of energy, I watch my improvising world-changers take their power and expend it in a fraction of the time that it took to generate it.
7:55 Distant flickers up and down the avenue in disarray; consumers and stores and parked cars and trees part of the landscape of apathy and self-interest, conversations have degenerated into planning the next audition. Standing against a returning trickle of participants, I'm handing out copies of Martin Sheen's SF protest
speech and getting a lot of weary smiles and thank yous.
8:00 Saying goodbye to my mom, we huddle quietly and chat with a new acquaintance, a young woman from a few blocks away who tells us that even though her parents are both French, she has spent so much of her life here that she has no accent to `betray' her nationality. It works both ways, she says. The French can't bug her about being American either.
All week, I get emails, thanking me for the vigil, saying they thought it `went well'.
Now, a full month later, I've done more smaller vigils as part of an ongoing presence, even though it's now from 8-9pm to accommodate the later darkness and that probably loses us some people; it'll never reach the numbers of that first night, although we did make it onto the local Channel 2 10 O'Clock News when there were only a couple of dozen of us. I'm working sound at a theater on Sunday
nights for a few weeks, so I won't be there, but I'm resolute that the fact that I think about it and miss it means something. I'm adopting `vigil' as a mantra—like keeping a pilot light going, but without the utility bill.
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© 2003 Claudine Jones