Saturday, December 30, 2017

Activism and Art: Looking Back on the Free Southern Theater with Seret Scott

Seret Scott

Political activism and art have always had a complicated relationship: art can enhance the power of an activist message, while the sense of purpose imparted by a political message can elevate a work of art. However, the imperatives of creating great art and serving an activist agenda often conflict, diluting the political themes of a given work or rendering it painfully didactic.

In normal times, the task of reconciling these contradictory impulses might not feel as urgent. However, as virtually anyone who’s vaguely familiar with contemporary politics in the United States is aware, these aren’t normal times. The election of Donald Trump and the emergence of a distinctly fascist strain of politics in the world’s most powerful democracy has led to the politicization of nearly everything, from late-night talk shows to professional sports leagues.

In such times, how can art adequately serve both aesthetic and political purposes? The history of the civil rights movement in the United States offers one possible example. The Free Southern Theater engaged African-American audiences in the South with socially  and politically engaged performances throughout the 1960s and 70s. Earlier this year, I spoke with Seret Scott, a veteran of the Free Southern Theater who later went on to Broadway in My Sister, My Sister and Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. 

Our interview became the thirty-second episode of the Theatre History Podcast on the theatre website (Critics at Large previously featured an episode of the podcast that delved into the complicated history of the holiday song “Jingle Bells”). Seret’s insights into the practical and artistic considerations that activist artists must take into account in developing and performing their work shed light on the ongoing dilemmas that face both artists and critics in this fraught, contentious political era.

You can listen to the segment here, or listen below. You can visit the shownotes for the episode at HowlRound here.

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscentipage and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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