As we approach the U.S. holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and reflect on our own city and neighborhood, Near West Theatre’s six values come to mind, and three of them especially: love, activism, and, within it, social justice. Dr. King believed these were bound together. You couldn’t have one without the others. Even in a 1957 “Advice for Living” magazine column, he spoke of love’s active role in the world and universe:
“Love is the most durable power in the world. It is not an expression of impractical idealism; but of practical realism. … To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. … Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. … Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that.”
Love, justice and activism were inseparable – and powerful – in his 1967 speech to a civil rights group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference:
“Love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. … What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. … Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. … Love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. … And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate … on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love.”
Activism — resistance to injustice — works best when it is nonviolent, planned and “positive in action,” he wrote in a 1959 article about India and activist Mahatma Gandhi:
“The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But, the way of nonviolence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community. … Nonviolent resistance does call for love, but it is not a sentimental love. It is a very stern love that would organize itself into collective action to right a wrong by taking on itself suffering.”
He goes on and on like this, connecting love, justice and activism.
Cudell Recreation Center, where Tamir Rice was shot to death on Nov. 22, 2014, is just a mile out Detroit Avenue, a 5-minute drive from the site of our new theater. Our proximity to that tragic incident should make the call to love, justice and activism clear to everyone in this neighborhood, if not simple for a theater to discern. Our participants, on stage and off, are just as likely to be family members, friends and neighbors of police officers as family members, friends and neighbors of Tamir Rice; just as likely to be from the suburbs as from the city. Dr. King famously dreamed that “one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” That much we often get right at Near West Theatre. But if he were alive and turning 86 this month, would Dr. King be so bold as to dream that friends and families of an African American 12-year-old who died with a pellet gun in hand and the friends and families of the white police officer who shot him would someday join hands? Could diverse people coming together to produce musicals “speed up that day” when we would all sing, “We are free at last”?
A theater could do that, Dr. King might say, but only if Shrek the Musical’s story about justice for the outcast is as strong as its romantic love story. Only if Hair’s antiwar theme is as strong as its exploration of personal struggles and rebellion. Only if another value – inclusion – remains big and authentic. And only if the economic struggles of our community and participants, along with the racial struggles, are not ignored. It’s often overlooked this time of year, but Dr. King’s work was as much about jobs for all and ending poverty in a wealthy society as it was about anti-racism, because – again – he knew they were inseparable. Don’t forget that his famous “I Have A Dream” speech was given at a march for jobs and freedom. At the time of his assassination, he was organizing a Poor People’s Campaign.
In his autobiography, in a chapter on the 1965 riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, Dr. King offered this caution about the reality of modern life:
“When all is finally entered into the annals of sociology; when philosophers, politicians, and preachers have all had their say, we must return to the fact that a person participates in this society primarily as an economic entity. At rock bottom we are neither poets, athletes, nor artists; our existence is centered in the fact that we are consumers, because we first must eat and have shelter to live. This is a difficult confession for a preacher to make, and it is a phenomenon against which I will continue to rebel, but it remains a fact that ‘consumption’ of goods and services is the raison d’etre of the vast majority of Americans. When persons are for some reason or other excluded from the consumer circle, there is discontent and unrest.”
Artists, too, must resist that state of affairs even as we acknowledge it. At Near West Theatre, we begin with the act of bringing unlike people together and asking them to bring their whole, unedited selves to the tasks of engaging a piece of theater, creating art and creating community. With our mission and values in mind, and remembering the example of Dr. King, who knows where that might lead. – Hans Holznagel
Near West Theatre is grateful for ongoing operating support from the Ohio Arts Council, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, and Greater Cleveland Community Shares, and for special support from Ronald McDonald House Charities of Northeastern Ohio for equipment used by young people in technical workshops and other backstage experiences.