“What does it mean to be a citizen – of a community, of a country of a world?
If all those who called themselves Americans were in one room, what would we have in common?
What is our vision of the future?
These are just some of the questions being explored by the America Project & the 51st (dream) state, a major new music theater work produced and directed by Sekou Sundiata. The author of a May/June 1994 issue of American theatre once said of this New York-based artist and activist, an African-American poet, performer, and musician, “If Homer were a black man born in the projects, he would be this tall, fearsome-looking poet.” But, like many Americans, 9/11 spurred Sundiata to new thinking about what it means to be an American. He was troubled by the estrangement between American Civic ideals and American civic practice. Through the America Project, he takes on his civic responsibility to think out loud about America’s national identity and his own “blind spot” when it comes to his vision of himself as an American. He lives out this civic responsibility in the ritualized form of theater and public dialogue.
I met Sundiata last Monday when I participated in a Citizenship Potluck he led. Well, it wasn’t really a potluck since the meal was catered by Rosemary’s at the UT Alumni Center. Sponsored by the UT Humanities Institute and the UT College of Fine Arts, the purpose of the event was to encourage potential partners from the arts, the university, community organizations and faith-based institutions to engage Austinites in “honest and critical conversations about post-9/11 citizenship and civic consciousness.”
So he led us gently in just such a conversation.
Sundiata set the stage for our storytelling by sharing the impact that 9/11 had on him. Laid up in a hospital bed in Brooklyn, the television was his only source of information about his beloved city. It wasn’t until several days later that he was able to make his way to his university office that once lay in the shadow the twin towers. Compelled to exit the train a stop early in order to walk past the site that would eventually be called “Ground Zero”, Sundiata numbly walked past hundreds of 8*10 hurriedly photocopied candid shots of people plastered on every available surface. Amidst the sadness, Sundiata also felt an overwhelming sense of love. The kind of love that led him on a journey, “an adventure, a quest to find a vision of what it means to be both a citizen and an individual in a deeply complex, hyper-kinetic society.” According to Sundiata, artists are called to witness, citizens are called to witness.
Sundiata engaged us — about thirty people seated at three round tables — in part of that journey by asking us to tell a story of when we became aware of ourselves as citizens or civic beings. The stories people told evoked powerful images:
- A nine-year old girl writes a postcard to President Johnson asking why we are at war in Vietnam
- A seven year old girl travels to the National Women’s Political Caucus meeting with her mother, meets the likes of Steinem and Friedan, and breaks her piggy bank to pay dues to join her local chapter.
- A 62 year old black woman who grew up with the protection of a Black College is baffled when, as a young child on a family vacation in the south, her mother forbids her to use a certain water fountain or restroom. Years later, she weeps through a performance of the Lion King at a historic theatre in San Antonio, not because of the performance, but because she finally entered through the front door after years of climbing the back stairs entrance for the “coloreds”.
- A young man called home from a fellowship abroad to fulfill his draft obligations for a war he does not support, meets the woman he eventually marries, finds purpose in Soul on Ice, hope in the production of Hair and overwhelming love for his country.
- A young man accompanies his elderly Jewish great-grandparents on a tour back to their home country in the Soviet Union and convinces the young female tour guide to take him out on the town after curfew not realizing that she was subject to greater risk than he for his lark.
Out of these stories, we began to identify themes. Some people found their “civic soul” when they were subjected to or witnessed social injustice. For some, it was a tragic event while for others, it was the subtle influence of a respected mentor.
Sundiata then directed us to think about our vision for America and what it would take to move us in that direction. One woman spoke for the first time and echoed what we often hear at the end of our deliberative forums. “We need more opportunities and places to connect authentically with others, to see others as humans.” That is our charge over the next few months…creating those opportunities leading up to Sundiata’s return in mid-February to perform his production, America Project & the 51st (dream) state.
I believe these are the questions we need to be asking leading up to the 2008 elections and will keep you posted on opportunities to engage others in this exploration.