History doesn’t always tell us how to get it right. It sometimes warns us of the cost of getting it wrong. Art steeped in that history can remind us, if we’re paying attention.
March Book ThreePublisher: Top Shelf Productions
Author: John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: 2016-08
The Little Art Theater in Yellow Springs, Ohio, was packed for the late night show on the Saturday after Election Day. But we weren’t there to see a cult movie.
We gathered to see one of the village’s favorite sons, Dave Chappelle, host Saturday Night Live for its first episode after Donald Trump was elected President (Chappelle lives here; I wrote about that connection in 2006). Movie theaters don’t normally get to host screenings of live network TV shows, but somebody had a brilliant idea, somebody else made a few phone calls to get the requisite permissions, and the party was on.
And goodness knows we needed it. Yellow Springs is a tiny oasis of deep, progressive blue in southwestern Ohio’s swath of deep, conservative red. The surrounding towns all went for Trump, which surprised absolutely no one. But many in Yellow Springs spent the days after the election in a haze, trying to come to grips with the election’s results and worrying about the fate of the nation. We were only beginning to emerge from that haze by the time the show aired, and some laughter would indeed be a mighty good pain killer.
Chappelle provided it in his opening monologue, decrying America for electing an internet troll as its President, and in the following skit, in which he and Chris Rock poo-poohed white liberals for their onslaught of despair, as if black folks hadn’t ever experienced such a thing here. Overall, the evening was a hit, as it gave the town a chance to exhale and gird itself for the long slog ahead.
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An important part of that evening was the show’s musical guest, A Tribe Called Quest. They’d just released their first album in 18 years: We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, a rippling mélange of beats, rhymes, and political life made all the more powerful by the passing of Tribe member Phife Dawg in March, after much of the recording had been completed. On the show, Q-Tip called for the studio audience (and, by extension, us in the Little Art) to stand and join hands, before launching into the of-the-moment “We the People” (“all of you black folk you must go / all of you Mexicans you must go”), with Tribe unfurling a mural of their departed comrade when it came time for his verse.
But while the album’s release may serve as black pop’s first post-Trump marker due to the timing of its release, the record was made back in the winter and spring, well before any general election votes were cast. Tribe wasn’t responding to the popular vote or the plight of Rust Belt whites, but instead to the realities they see and feel as grown-ass black men, working together in joy for the first time since like forever. Such love and validation have been hard to come by lately, what with black folk of all ages and gender identifications getting shot on a seemingly regular basis. Hillary Clinton winning the election wouldn’t have changed much, if anything, of the album’s real impact or meaning.
While those of us who were around back then still cherish Tribe classics The Low End Theory (1991) and Midnight Marauders (1993) and see the new work in that light, we can only wonder what younger generations make of it. Tribe’s storied past might mean little to them, as it presumably doesn’t for the blissfully ahistoric Lil Yachty. But does the album’s full-bodiedness -- rhythmically, lyrically, vocally and production-wise, it's nothing if not urgent and immediate -- mean anything to ears weaned on this era’s lonely-at-the-top ennui or minimalism and vocal manipulations? Or, in the wake of Kendrick Lamar and Black Lives Matter, are they hungry for music that speaks to their wokeness?
If it’s the latter, then it’s entirely appropriate that such a message comes from some of the genre’s elders. We are about to plunge into uncertain and possibly terrifying times, but as Chappelle’s SNL humor noted, we have been through uncertain and terrifying times before. Art that reminds us of those times, and of how we faced them down then and can do so again, maybe especially valuable at the dawn of the Trump presidency. "Hard times", sang Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band 40 years ago in a song that referenced the styles of 40 years before that, “we can get over”.
A few days after the SNL broadcast, I ventured down a winding back road outside of Yellow Springs to Wilberforce, to see an adaptation of Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles: 1992 at Central State University.
Smith created Twilight in the wake of the 1991 beating by police of motorist Rodney King, videotaped by a random citizen years before cell phones, but spread virally all the same, and the violent disruptions of 1992 after those officers were found not guilty of any crime. She interviewed about 200 Los Angelinos about their emotions and experiences, from cops to King’s relatives to reporters to Reginald Denny, the truck driver caught at the worst possible place at the worst possible time for a white man to be caught. She distilled 25 of those characters into a one-woman show in which she performed each story as a monologue, reflecting a city about to come apart at its cultural seams, needing only the one good tug the verdict provided. As adrift as those voices were from each other, it became an ex-gangbanger known as Twilight who tried to express some hope:
And I know
That in order for me to be a full human being
I cannot forever dwell in darkness
I cannot forever dwell in idea
If identifying with those like me
And understanding only me and mine.
(I’ll note, in a nod to serendipity, that I bought a copy of the complete Twilight monologues years ago, at a used bookstore in Yellow Springs.)
A cast of 13 Central State students, none of whom were alive when Rodney King was beaten, took on the challenge of rendering the voices Smith captured all by herself. The performances were uneven, but they reflected a level of engagement with a time they’d never experienced (the only nods to now: each cast member showed the audience the King videotape from their smartphones before the second act began, making that time’s urgency clear for those who didn’t already know it all too well; and they all held candles and wore TWILIGHT-emblazoned hoodies during the final monologues). I talked to a couple of performers after the show: neither knew anything about the incident before doing the production (What are they teaching in schools these days? Sad!), but both acknowledged how what was happening in America while they were rehearsing this production helped inform their approach to it.
No one thought we’d ever need to say this, but here goes: the 1992 Los Angeles Smith portrayed isn’t all that different from the 2016 America we just lived through. We are all in our own little tribes, preoccupied with our particular issues and scorning the other tribes for not sharing our preoccupation. Los Angeles then did not make the leap of faith to get past those barriers before all hell broke loose. It's not clear if we will now, and it would be equally unclear had Clinton won. But anyone seeing a production of Twilight nowadays would not be able to claim that our current cultural polarization just started a minute ago.
History doesn’t always tell us how to get it right. It sometimes warns us of the cost of getting it wrong. Art steeped in that history can remind us, if we’re paying attention, of either extreme. But, sadly, there is that telling caveat: “if we’re paying attention”.