When Art Speaks, Is Everyone Listening?

A Pakistani, a Mexican and a Palestinian compete in "American Dreams" to win US citizenship (Steve Wagner / Cleveland Public Theater)
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Controversial topics like immigration or race relations are regularly debated in soundbites and tweets from politicians and pundits.  With liberal and conservative voices sticking to partisan positions, opportunities for dialogue and compromise can seem rare.  The arts and cultural community makes attempts to expand the conversation, but it isn't easy.

Cleveland Public Theatre has a 30-year reputation for tackling hot-button social issues in provocative ways.  And executive artistic director Raymond Bobgan said they make no pretense about being neutral.

"Myself and a lot of artists on the staff tend towards the left, but the thing about theater is that we live on dialog," he said.  "We are not afraid of conflict, that’s what actually makes everything interesting."

His company’s latest production is no exception.

"American Dreams imagines a game show in which three contestants compete for the ultimate prize, which is US citizenship," Bobgan said. 

The complexities of the immigration process are explored in satire through the game show format.  The play portrays immigrants as likeable people who are inspired by the American dream.  But, is that message getting out to diverse audiences?  Bobgan said he would love to attract more conservatives to his shows.

"We’ve tried different strategies," he said.  "But, I also think the funding required for that kind of marketing... that’s a big leap to get [people] to go to a smaller theater on the near west side.  I don’t think that’s a reasonable expectation."

Programmers at the University of Akron face similar challenges in fostering a dialogue about race relations. The annual Rethinking Race forum is two weeks of panel discussions, lectures and films, like this year’s Oscar-nominated horror movie with a social message Get Out.

Amy Shriver Dreussi is co-chair of Rethinking Race.  She said these various campus conversations generally get high marks in post-session surveys, but it can be tricky attracting attendees.  One solution: having faculty send their students to these events.

"These kids now, they’ve got a lot going on," she said.  "Even if they thought it was something tremendously meaningful, it’s hard for them to find the time in their schedule.  But, when it becomes a class requirement, they will go.  So, sometimes we get to preach outside the choir." 

For sophomores Jessica Winkel and Meghan Smith, coming to a Friday afternoon discussion about race wasn’t easy.  Winkel said she’d preferred to have read an article.

"I think for our generation things like this are considered inconvenient to go to," she said.  "I think we like fast and easy."

Smith said she likes the variety of options that the Rethinking Race series offers.

"I’d definitely choose a movie over a face-to-face conversation," said Smith.  "I’m not the type to talk about stuff like this."

Several of the American Dreams performances will be followed by a discussion with panelists of various political stripes.  Cleveland Public Theatre’s Raymond Bobgan said his goal is to create safe spaces for people to meet and talk. 

"Places where people can have the freedom to move a little bit outside of whatever their viewpoints are," he said.  "Even if it’s just listening and saying, ‘You know what?  I still deeply disagree with you, but I understand your position better.’" 

Stephan Fitzpatrick said he understood the plight of immigrants better after seeing American Dreams.

"I’ve been here in America my whole life, and I sometimes feel like I’m not American, no matter what I do," he said. 

But, he said he doesn’t think his Dad would ever come to such a show. 

"A lot of people are just so set in their ways that they refuse.  At the end of the day, if you strip everything down, we’re still human beings who pretty much run on the same stuff."

The challenge is getting people in the same room to realize that.  

 

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