Truth Like a Blazing Fire

Last week, The New Yorker published a really terrific, lengthy interview with President Obama by David Remnick. It's the kind of very personal, almost confessional interview that we rarely get from sitting Presidents. In the interview, Remnick asks Obama if he thinks his race has something to do with the rabid opposition to him and his ideas.

Obama says in his usual (overly?) thoughtful way:
There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President. Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President. There is a historic connection between some of the arguments that we have politically and the history of race in our country, and sometimes it’s hard to disentangle those issues. You can be somebody who, for very legitimate reasons, worries about the power of the federal government—that it’s distant, that it’s bureaucratic, that it’s not accountable—and as a consequence you think that more power should reside in the hands of state governments. But what’s also true, obviously, is that philosophy is wrapped up in the history of states’ rights in the context of the civil-rights movement and the Civil War and Calhoun. There’s a pretty long history there. And so I think it’s important for progressives not to dismiss out of hand arguments against my Presidency or the Democratic Party or Bill Clinton or anybody just because there’s some overlap between those criticisms and the criticisms that traditionally were directed against those who were trying to bring about greater equality for African-Americans. The flip side is I think it’s important for conservatives to recognize and answer some of the problems that are posed by that history, so that they understand if I am concerned about leaving it up to states to expand Medicaid that it may not simply be because I am this power-hungry guy in Washington who wants to crush states’ rights but, rather, because we are one country and I think it is going to be important for the entire country to make sure that poor folks in Mississippi and not just Massachusetts are healthy.

Nuance. Gray area. Complexity.

But nuance is Kryptonite to many conservatives. (If you wanna know why, read The Republican Brain.) So this week, the conservative media-industrial complex erupted with sputtering outrage that Obama was "playing the race card" again. No matter that Remnick brought it up. No matter that Obama presented both sides of the issue. No matter that Obama warned liberals not to see racism in all opposition. No matter that Fox Noise's own Glenn Beck warned us back in 2009 that President Obama is hard-core racist and has "a deep-seated hatred for white people and the white culture"...

It was really interesting working on the all-black musical Passing Strange in 2011 in the midst of the Obama Presidency and the 2012 campaign, because it made me think about race a lot. We work very hard at New Line to have racially diverse casts (it's rare that we have an all-white cast), but even though many of us thought the Obama Presidency would move us forward in terms of race, what it's actually done is pick off the scab from a wound that was never really healed.

For all the same reasons, it was fascinating working on Hair in 2008 (closing just a few days before we elected Obama the first time), but it was sobering to realize that all the issues in Hair, race, war, sexism, drugs, etc., are all still unsolved today. Forty years after Hair debuted, it seemed we've barely moved forward at all.

And it's just as interesting working on Rent right now. Though Rent is not about race explicitly, its requirement of a multi-racial cast does make a statement. And the current Republican war on voting rights for people of color, on healthcare rights for women, on organized labor, all make the issues in Rent as fresh and raw and immediate as ever.

Of course, Rent will give Republicans heartburn for other reasons too. Like Hair, Rent is about a lot beyond its central theme of community and interconnectedness. It is inherently political. After all, Rent is all about the 47%, people of color, poor folks, the homeless, sexual minorities, political activists – all the people who scare the shit out of Republicans. Capitalists are definitely the bad guys in Larson's world. From Larson's perspective, Benny has crossed over to the Dark Side. If Rent were set now instead of the mid-1990s, you know many of these characters would have joined the Occupy Wall Street movement, all of them would have voted for Obama, and Angel and Collins would be married.

Kinda makes me wanna strap Rick Santorum into a theatre seat and make him watch our show. I'll even supply the valium.

Monday was Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, and that made me think about what he would think of Rent. I can only assume he would find great joy and optimism in it, and a kindred social activist of sorts in Jonathan Larson. Among the residents of Rentworld, we are judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character. Those who would judge us by our appearance (like most of the parents) are the outsiders here, the ones who just don't get it. (Then again, can we blame them? They don't have Angel to guide them.)

Today, as Republicans try to shatter our social safety net, massively cutting food stamps, refusing to extend unemployment benefits, refusing to expand Medicaid in many states, I realize that the characters in our show are exactly the ones who suffer most from the GOP's Every-Man-for-Himself philosophy. It really does take a village for these people. They survive only through community, through collective responsibility. They are the United States of America in microcosm, individuals each on his own path, but like our young nation, mutually pledging to each other "our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

Part of me wishes we were doing Rent in October. I mean, how could anyone spend time with Angel, Collins, and the gang, and then go out and vote Republican...? How could you vote for the people who don't want to fund HIV/AIDS research after watching Angel, Collins, Roger, and Mimi all live with this disease?

We say that New Line produces only "politically and socially relevant" musical theatre. Though Rent is not ostentatiously political, politics is woven into the thread of every plot line in the show. These are issues America has never really been able to get past. Making art like Rent is one way we grapple with these issues, think about them, humanize them; it's the way we find the divine in ourselves and the humanity in each other. And that's where change comes from.

Listening to our read-through-sing-through of the whole show last night really drove home for me the weight and power of this story. There's a reason this show won the Pulitzer Prize.

Angel isn't an Obi Wan Kenobi just for Mark, Roger, and the gang – she's also here for us. And we need her. God bless Jonathan Larson for giving us a wise wizard with a killer beat and fabulous drag. It's about time.

We start blocking the show now. I can't wait to see how my ideas work when they're out of my head and onstage. I'm pretty psyched to get to work. Stay tuned...

Long Live the Musical!