Civics and Theatricality

I find myself in a hotel room in Miami, Florida writing this very first entry to my new blog, part of my 2011 goal to develop a writing habit. I’ve been struggling to get started, facing the fear of thinking that I have to say something new and innovative with every post that goes up on this bloody thing, and I’ve decided to just write and see what comes up.

I’ve been watching the coverage of President Obama’s speech in Tucson this evening, as part of the memorial service for the victims of the shooting last Saturday. I was traveling as the speech was happening, so I’ve only seen sections of it replayed on AC360 and on ABC News, but as I’ve come to expect, Barack Obama did not disappoint on the theatricality. My boyfriend texted me saying, “He is too young to be an elder, but he speaks as one,” and I think he’s got an excellent point. I would just amend the statement to say, “He is too young to be an elder, but he can certainly play one on TV.” Barack Obama is an effective speaker, one who easily moves audiences, to the point of raising suspicions in me during his 2008 campaign. Because I direct actors and write plays, I understand the mechanics of using words and their delivery to evoke an audience response. As a result I’ve often felt that Obama could be a little “smoke and mirrors.” I doubted his sincerity at times, because I could “see” the mechanics of his theatricality. I wondered at how so many people could be pulled in by his “performance,” and I worried that we were all being fooled. Why didn’t more people see what I was seeing? During his 2008 campaign, I chalked it up to people so desperate for change that they would gladly drink whatever Kool-Aid he was serving regardless of the consequences. Ironically, I think that many of these people who downed the cherry-flavored shot are now the ones who are hypercritical of Obama’s less-than-left position. I, on the other hand, have come to appreciate the President’s ability to deliver the message of the moment.

As I watched the excerpts of his speech this evening and listened to his vocal inflection and observed his physical gestures, I could see all the trappings of a very fine performer. The pundits wondered whether all of the moments of audience cheering and clapping during what was supposed to be a memorial service were appropriate, and I thought that was an interesting evaluation by three men who clearly had never attended any kind of funeral service that included a revival element with a preacher. Barack Obama used theatricality quite effectively to help people to mourn and to allow them to reconnect with feelings of pride about their community. Some cultures believe that death warrants a celebration, and I think that Obama found a way to locate that celebratory element and link it to the rejuvenation that many feel the United States needs in this moment. And not just because of one shooting massacre in Tucson. We have a lot of work to do, and Obama gave us all a little spanking without the sting that usually goes along with it.

After seeing these sections of the speech this evening and listening to the commentary, I’m not so suspicious anymore. Obama is embracing a longstanding tradition of using theatricality to illuminate civic responsibility. The Greeks did it with the stories of Oedipus and Clytemnestra and Orestes and Medea, people who committed acts that then needed to be judged based on the standards of their community. In Ancient Greece being a good citizen meant going to see these stories performed as tragedies and then thinking about the consequences. Shakespeare did the same with his history plays. He examined past rulers through a critical lens, and he used their stories to comment on the political upheaval in his own time period. Theatricality and civics have gone hand in hand for centuries because human beings need some kind of catharsis to truly understand what it means to be a citizen within a community. Tragedy forces us to see ourselves and those around us again, and that reflection of self wakes us up and creates empathy. Obama understands that, and he’s relying on the power of that empathy to instigate change. His theatricality may be calculated, but it’s warranted. It took me awhile, but the smoke and mirrors are gone, and I get it. And in this moment in particular, I’m appreciative.