The Value of Political Theater
Diversity of tactics marks all resistance movements, and in the last few years America has seen several. We can appreciate the yin and yang of the Occupy movement and the Tea Parties, yet both had similar original grievances. These days non-violent civil disobedience has become a world-wide phenomenon, as these are universal reactions to autocracy and injustice. The globalization of corporate power is being opposed everywhere, and just in time, too.
One of the most underrated forms of resistance, at least here in America, is political theater. I suppose it could be loosely defined as using theatricality to make a political point. By that definition, “Saturday Night Live,” “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” and “The Colbert Report” would qualify, and rightly so, too. But I’m thinking more of spontaneous outbreaks of seriocomic activities in the public arena. A good example will demonstrate what I mean.
Around ten years ago there was a scheduled Ku Klux Klan rally — I think it was in Memphis, TN. As the Klansmen were assembling with their “White Power” signs and in their white robes, people dressed as clowns began appearing from all directions, circulating through the crowd. “Oh,” they said, “We thought this was a Clown rally!” Others began to appear, throwing flour into the air. “Oh,” they said, “We thought you were talking about white FLOUR!” Then men began walking into the crowd, carrying women on their shoulders. “Oh,” they cried, “We thought this was about WIFE power!” It so discouraged the Klansmen, they began to drift away, and the rally sort of fizzled out. I was so amazed by this story. I love wordplay anyway, and thought this was really clever, and more importantly, effective.
In 2009, during the fierce debate over President Obama’s plan for health care, there were many tea party demonstrations. By then, the tea parties had already been co-opted by right-wing organizations like FreedomWorks and Americans For Prosperity. At several of these rallies, a group of people dressed in tuxedos and ballroom gowns, smoking cigars and drinking champagne, made their way through the crowds. They called themselves Billionaires For Wealthcare, and they were thanking the Tea Party people for supporting the big corporations. Of course, their antics went far over the heads of many, but for the rest of us, it was a hoot.
Another group has been around for years, the Yes Men. While they may be more thought of as pranksters or hoaxsters, they are nonetheless theatrical. There is a documentary called “Yes Men” and also a movie, “The Yes Men Save the World.” As far as I’m concerned, they are the gold standard in political theater. They typically impersonate business or marketing executives with power-point presentations, as in one from “Yes Men,” where they are selling the preposterous idea of recycling human waste to make fast food for third world consumers. Their satire can be devastating, which is the goal of good satire (read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” sometime).
Stephen Colbert’s Super Pac and his appearance with Herman Cain during the week of the South Carolina Primary was a brilliant send-up of the absurdity that candidates and their Super Pacs don’t coordinate. Stephen is a native son of South Carolina, and his speech drew huge crowds away from the more legitimate contenders. In it, he said something to the effect that if people were saying that his Super Pac (then turned over to Jon Stewart) and candidacy were a joke, then they had to say all Super Pacs and their non-coordination with candidates were also a joke, which was precisely the point.
Can flash mobs be considered political theater? Not if there isn’t some kind of statement they are making. Last fall there was a story about Michele Bachmann’s husband Marcus, who runs a clinic whose specialty is so-called “pray-away-the-gay” therapy. He’d made a public statement that gay people were barbarians who needed to be disciplined and educated (have you seen this guy? If he isn’t gay, then dogs have no fleas). A couple weeks later, a flash mob of fifty or sixty people appeared in the parking lot outside his clinic, dressed as barbarians. As the recording played, they performed a perfectly synchronized version of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” What made it so effective was the coordination of all the dancers. You could see that they must have spent hours rehearsing it.
As I stated earlier, I think political theater is vastly underestimated and under-utilized. When well done, it can deliver the same message as a huge crowd of protesters with signs and noise. It resonates with people. There’s a different psychological component, less threatening, more fun. And most important of all, it tends to get media coverage, because it’s different. People may not agree with the message, but they like it anyway. It just has a more whimsical energy, while still being subversive. I like that dichotomy, and I hope to see more people think about this form of political speech. It’s a field that needs to be explored more deeply.