Local Arts

This year, activism – in varying intensities – takes the stage

Among work that urges us to think: Shows coming up at Actor’s Theatre and Children’s Theatre.
Among work that urges us to think: Shows coming up at Actor’s Theatre and Children’s Theatre.

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What does “activism” mean to an American artist? “Hamilton” obviously qualifies: Beyond its entertainment value, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical offers a wake-up call to America to embrace the diversity for which this nation was created.

(Yet “In the Heights” tackles a similar theme, with an ethnically diverse cast and hip-hop music, and few put that Miranda show in the “activist” category. Maybe having a political protagonist makes the difference.)

Local artists don’t have Miranda’s budget, national platform or penchant for grabbing audiences by the lapels. But they have ways of getting activist messages across.

Consider Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s Kindness Project. CTC commissioned three playwrights to do pieces over the next two seasons that teach the value of humane behavior – something that has dwindled in the world of cyberbullying, trolling and abusively divisive public “discourse.”

Elementary schoolers who see “Last Stop on Market Street” and “A Sick Day for Amos McGee” this season will realize that concern for fellow citizens, especially those less fortunate, doesn’t make you weird, stupid or weak. With luck, they’ll take that awareness into voting booths 10 years from now.

A quicker result in those voting booths is the goal of “For Freedoms,” a 50-state initiative that the Gantt Center’s joined in on, from artist Hank Willis Thomas (who’ll have a solo show at the Gantt this year) and others. It aims to get people more politically active, through art, by the time midterm elections roll around. (The Gantt also hopes, in a new initiative, to use art to engage more people on social issues.)

And a handful of visual and cross-categorical artists are at work across several Charlotte neighborhoods, notably on the west side – some aiming at relationships first, art second; some creating art designed to lift up local history and heritage, or help students raise their own voices; some nurturing community folks who may not realize they can be artists – yet. (Take a closer look at some of this work, from The Roll Up CLT and the McColl Center to the League of Creative Interventionists and Goodyear Arts, on Pages 11-12.)

Wordless classical music has told stories since 1830, when Hector Berlioz wrote “Symphonie Fantastique” to depict the lurid nightmares of an opium-addled musician. In the last half-century, composers have thought more about using the technique to assess who we are as a country and who we ought to be.

Charlotte will get a taste of raised consciousness from Nkeiru Okoye’s world premiere at the Charlotte Symphony gala Sept. 21. Okoye came to Charlotte after the Keith Lamont Scott shooting to interview historians and ordinary citizens, and her composition for Charlotte’s 250th birthday celebration reflects what she learned. She’s no stranger to topicality: Her 2017 “Invitation to a Die-In” pays tribute to unarmed African-Americans killed by police officers.

Some artists use history to show how far we’ve come – or, often, haven’t. Three Bone Theatre will give the local premiere of the Tony-winning “Oslo,” about peace accords reached between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. A quarter-century later, Israelis and Palestinians are at each other’s throats, so that play is also about our own time.

Sometimes activism can be straightforward: The Charlotte Civic Orchestra concludes its season with “Songs for Our Earth,” a concert offering the world premiere of Dean Kluesner’s “A Story of Carbon and Some Other Things.” (Yes, music about climate change.) Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte will do “Nina Simone: Four Women.” This drama about Tryon’s most famous native daughter features her civil rights songs “Mississippi Goddam” and “Four Women,” depicting female African-American stereotypes.

Sometimes activism can be subtle: Opera Carolina’s annual “Art*Poetry*Music” performance, this year done in collaboration with the choir Vox, celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. with a concert around his birthday: Whether or not the music will be political, the show itself will remind us of King’s message. When Blumenthal Performing Arts imports “The Band’s Visit,” we’ll get a 2018 Tony-winning musical about an Egyptian police band that lands in a small Israeli town – and, of course, a chance to think about tolerance.

And sometimes activism affects players, rather than audiences. Charlotte Concerts’ annual “A Musical Showcase” lets Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students at every grade level show off their chops. Along the way, some kids who may not have much happiness in their lives discover the transformative power of music and feel more hopeful about their time on the planet. That’s social activism at work.