I love David Byrne and it was a joy to be able to share the experience of live theater, live music– performance with my son, getting out to see American Utopia last night. Grateful for that opportunity AND a deep sadness and frustration still hanging around today. Even anger, disappointment if I’m honest. Part of it was having to navigate all the drunken stupidity that fills the city up round midnight on a weekend in Times Square: all the bridge and tunnel folks in for a good time.
Only it’s not just around Times Square, there was lots of bullshit around 34th street and 14th street and all the kids around West 4th and Washington Square. It’s everywhere. Stupidity and recklessness and unchecked rage. In our neighborhood on Friday night 16 people were injured in a house fire including a 4 year old and up the block a fight broke out in one of the building lobbies (two up from the one that used to be the gang building) and a kid got shot and died. I love people but I deeply hate the ignorance, hatred and delusion that fuels us. The whole city connected this weekend with drunkenness and violence, with pain and loss and all the ways people try to numb and distract from having to feel that pain.
Watch out, you might get what you’re after
I was so looking forward to seeing the show. L & I did catch Merry Wives in the park, which was fantastic (called “a celebration of Black joy and vitality”) but T hasn’t been in a theater in years. It’s one of the things that makes living here great, live theater, music, art. Or that’s the idea anyway that art still happens here; that the city runs on hopes and dreams, on magic. The artists create art, musicians create music, the poets craft their poems and together we create a vision of the world anew. New York City pulses with the energy of our dreams, it’s what connects us. That’s one of the fantasies believed true about this place, it’s become a marketing strategy. (Believe it and I’ve got a bridge for sale you might be interested in…)
American Utopia was aptly named. I loved the first half, singing along inside my mask, David Byrne within spitting distance. Closer to me than the air filter that helps me breathe here now is. That close! All those old favorites– songs I loved and listened to on repeat when I was my son’s age. Familiar songs, sounds, familiar gestures bringing me back to pleasant memories. My kid doesn’t really know from the Talking Heads and when I asked him if he knew any of their songs he kept offering me up Rolling Stones titles and Psycho Killer. Not sure if he really thinks that (Stones = Talking Heads) or if he was just fucking with me.
At a certain point though, like with all art, the enchantment slipped and I lost the magic. Reality broke through the fantasy and I was no longer mesmerized. There’s an I Ching hexagram that speaks directly to this, #16: art weaves a spell of enchantment, remember yourself. One Oracle offers this interpretation: “This is the power of theatre and art to create an artificial reality to which an audience will willingly surrender…We need to be able to step back from our own fantasies and those of others… As an artist you have a responsibility to be sincere in your projections and then return the audience to their lives without abusing their enthusiasm. As an audience, you have the responsibility of not replacing your reality with an illusion beyond the enjoyment of the spectacle itself.”
Up until that point I’d thoroughly enjoyed the dream. I was onboard with the conceptual framework, he was speaking my language, talking about brain development, the process of narrowing that happens and he didn’t say it, but I knew we were moving toward neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity, David Byrne, that’s what you’re getting at, that’s what you’re talking about. The vagus nerve— I know shit about this, this is part of what I do. Change is possible! Growth is possible! Healing and repair are totally possible. I teach this! Only that’s just where I was going, not the final destination for everyone in the St. James Theater last night. Byrne and the amazing cast made it clear, more than once, that we were— in fact— just on a Road to Nowhere.
Say something once, why say it again?
He talked change and sparked imagining with the minimalist set, the amazing sounds, the freedom of movement and connection between the people on stage. All the same (oneness) in their grey suits and barefoot except for the Canadian woman who wore stockinged feet with toes drawn on. Leaning into the implication that the connection extends out to everyone in the audience. You, me, everyone. All of us. Connection. Possibility. It’s a beautiful dream isn’t it? Utopian in vision, just like it said on the playbill.
Thing is, by the time we got about halfway through the show, he got on the mic and said that the theatre allowed dancing but the fire department required us to keep the aisles clear. If there was really a fire, any dancers in the aisles would have an unfair advantage and segued seamlessly into Burning Down the House. That was it for me, enchantment well and truly over. I couldn’t see anything but how surrounded by middle aged white people I was. This was their anthem. All the knee taking and fist raising and Say Their Name-ing that populated the rest of the show was lost on me: hollow words signifying nothing.
Anybody who’s been here a minute– here meaning awake, aware, lucid– knows that we need to get underneath of our issues collectively: all the wounds, the harm done, the poisons that now permeate all of life. Learning to care and nourish and nurture each other, this planet, to love must become our primary way of being. Being human means to anchor what’s divine in us (if only in our hearts, minds, imaginations) anchor it into the earth, into our relationships, into our neighborhoods, our institutions. Another interpretation of Hexagram 16 is Providing for– collect what you need to meet the future. Not just shadows and dreams, but materially, practically. Get real and get ready. Part of that includes harnessing the power of song and dance, of joy.
Utopia is utopia because it’s never a place that gets arrived at. More process or vision, aspiration than destination. (What did David Mitchell say? “‘Utopia’ means ‘no place’…That’s the paradox. It’s unattainable.”) It’s the dream that unites us, the beautiful vision we row our boats toward. But if it’s not grounded at all in some raw practicality it’s not much different from that spiritual bypass that plagues our movement and spiritual communities. Let’s make it real. I thought that’s what we were here for. Let’s have some action items, let’s embrace and embody this beautiful vision of connection and oneness, not just pretend at it with matching suits and wall shadows.
Making it real requires honest reckoning with the poisons of greed, hatred and delusion. Seeing them for what they are, getting underneath them, understanding them and then planting different seeds. Tending the soil. There is no dead earth that we are the saviors of, it’s just that sometimes we’re in need of care. All of us. Concentrated care. Attention. Kindness, compassion. Love.
Where’s the connection?
That’s what I need anyway, I’ll speak for myself. In that theatre last night surrounded by white folks getting turnt I felt that familiar Otherness keenly, deeply. This connection we’re supposed to have, where is it? I don’t agree with the American Utopia swag that connection happens in the brain. (Plus, why would I pay $40 for a t-shirt??) If anything, I think the brain may be the heart of the problem! The thinking and conceptualizing is what fuels the feelings of otherness in me. My connection with the people in the theater wasn’t from our thoughts because I’m pretty sure we were thinking very differently.
The fact that we have brains, that our physical experiences on this earth connects us, that’s true. I can get behind that. We were all born and we’ll all die, we’ve got that in common. We are all breathing the same poisoned air, that’s true too. But what truly connects us in ways that can move us forward to the Utopia in the songs and poems, the place of manifesting oneness, that happens through the heart. Through an understanding and experiencing of suffering that’s characteristic of being human, the suffering along with the compassion that can grow from it.
Like I said, I heart David Byrne and appreciate him using his platform to try to help spread awareness, political consciousness, engagement. They had headcount out in the lobby, but the ushers filtered everyone out the side doors when the show was over. Byrne tried to make people understand the importance of voting, of active participation in the electoral process, k cool. But I don’t think telling people works. Telling folks we are connected, telling us what to do. Lecturing never really works. I had this realization and you should have it too. Nah. Fuck outta here with that, son. Can’t tell me nothing. People need to feel it. Need to experience connection, experience oneness. Who feels it knows it. Music and art and performance is one way that can happen. Our hearts beat as one with the drum, the original pulse, the heartbeat of creation.
Everything is divided / nothing is complete
Maybe that feeling of connection happened for people last night, but I suspect if it happened it was white people feeling connected with the people who looked and dressed and acted like themselves. It’s easy to resonate with folks you feel similar to. Moving people’s hearts to open to more, embrace more: the neutral people, the strangers, the difficult people, the “others”– that takes more effort. It may take conscious practice and discipline. They can’t work to dismantle racialized systemic oppression if they still can’t even recognize themselves as white. Can’t and won’t.
And like I said, there were whole numbers in the show with knee-taking and fist raising and dude monologued a little bit about all the violence and how it’s not new, but he thinks all the protest means possibility for change. Go on, David Byrne, all old and shit. It’s cute that you think that. I’d tapped out by then and it struck me as just shallow, hollow, nothing. (Like Góngora’s line “… en tierra, en humo, en polvo, en sombra, en nada.“) Just shadows on a wall.
However well intentioned, it was signifying. David Byrne realizing he’s white and maybe complicit in some ways in all of the violence and oppression, maybe he’s benefited from it. Was he realizing that? I’m not sure. Were any of the 50-something white people drunk in their Homer Simpson masks and tight little black dresses holding it all in with Spanx, in the city for a good time, bouncing up and down awkwardly to the party anthem of their youth getting it? (“If I could dance better, well, you know that I would”) I don’t think so.
The black and immigrant cast banged their drums and cried out “say their names, George Floyd, Eric Garner, Emmet Till…” but what was anyone hearing? How did it land in their thinking minds? In their hearts? What did it even mean, really? Hell you talmbout up here on a Broadway stage? The black women crying out “say her name Breonna Taylor, say her name Sandra Bland” to a room full of almost entirely white people who’d paid— what? How much did they pay for those tickets? For their big night out?
After the money’s gone
Our tickets were free, we got those give-the-awkward-seats-up-front-to-broke-students-so-the-house-looks-full tickets. It’s not Hamilton, but tickets must start at $60 or $70 a pop, let me check… No, I’m wrong: orchestra front center, where the people my eyes kept landing on being rowdy AF and cringey, their tickets started at $350 a seat. So there you go. Cash does rule everything around me. They were there to party. Nothing in their demeanor, their movements, their responses indicated that they gave any fucks about the murder and violence unleashed on Black and Brown bodies in this country.
They could give no fucks because they’re burning down the house. Right? Not in a revolutionary way, not in a raze this poisoned structure to the ground so we can build anew with equity and justice way. Not really about Land Back, or Black Lives Matter. Of course I don’t know what they were thinking, what their lives are like, what’s in their hearts, I can’t know any of that. I just know how they were acting, what they said and did. And I shouldn’t be surprised. I shouldn’t even be angry, sad or disappointed. How revolutionary you gonna get on Broadway? Not revolutionary at all.
I salute David Byrne for sharing his gifts and for trying to use his platform to offer what awakening he’s experienced with others, but some people are not trying to hear it. Maybe you did just realize you’re white and you’re just seeing the genocide and oppression and violence at the roots of this American Utopia, just now seeing the racist ideas and policies, the structural oppressions that prop this system up.
Maybe we can dream another way, dream our connections into being meaningful and nourishing, but the artists who dream and the activists, parents and workers who make dreams manifest can’t afford to live well here anymore and haven’t for some time. Who was in that theater last night and who wasn’t? Follow the money, look at what it takes to live here, to breathe. Who’s entitled to entertainment and relaxation, rest, connection and joy and who isn’t? Who has the leisure, the time and space, is nourished enough to dream our new worlds into being? This Broadway show is just a celebration of the idea of dreaming, of its possibility– a lot like the set: light and shadows playing across the wall. Intimations of connection, of movement, of possibility but actually just darkness and light. A room full of people sat in the dark, hearts beating together with the drums, breathing the same air through masks for a couple hours with no intermission.