Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Politics of Performance: Three questions about a free theater experience at Java Cabana

Posted By on Thu, Feb 25, 2010 at 7:59 PM

  • Poster for MAKE AMERICA
Writer/actor Brandon Chase Goldsmith has been working on what he describes as "a new form of political theater." His interactive performance Make America is based on a 1792 essay by James Madison where the principle author of the Constitution refers to both his writing and Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence as "America’s “Political Scriptures.” Goldsmith has a lot to say about his performance and the bumpy road leading up to its Memphis debut. Intermission Impossible managed to get to the heart of it all in a little game we like to call Three Questions.

Intermission Impossible: Let's start with a strange question. Your show is inspired by a James Madison essay where he refers to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution as America’s “Political Scriptures.” Is there some semantic advantage in using spiritually-charged language to define man made documents?

Brandon Chase Goldsmith: Actually the idea behind “The Political Scriptures” is not simply a matter of semantics, but based on the concept of civil religion, which is different from ecclesiastical religion. Civil religion finds its foundation in the connections between a people and their country. It does not deal with spirituality or what happens when you die, but rather focuses on your American spirit. The performance brings to the surface the beliefs and ideals that make us American citizens as opposed to being British or Russian. Thomas Jefferson summed up this concept in his first inaugural address when he referred to the principles in the Constitution as “The Creed of our Political Faith.” United States civil religion is centered on an allegiance to those principles, which were outlined by our founders. “Make America” is the performance of United States civil religion where We the People are seen as the Supreme and our ritual practice is based on America’s form of democracy. America’s civil religion is not a replacement for ecclesiastical religion, but an addition to: God, Family, Country. The performance simply asks, “How much time are you spending on the country part of the deal?”

Intermission Impossible: How would you describe yourself politically and how does that affect your approach to the subject matter?

Brandon Chase Goldsmith:
I have been doing my New Form of Political Theater: The United Church of America since 2005, and can say that I have grown. At first my performances had an obvious partisan bent to them, but I soon realized that America’s form of democracy works best when all voices are allowed into the conversation. That is why I added the last and most important part of the show, the Constitutional Communion, which is a type of town hall meeting. I hand the show over to the audience so that they can discuss the topic brought up in the performance. The audience is divided into groups where each member is given the opportunity to ask a question. Each group votes on their own discussion question, which is moderated by the other performers. I now see my job as presenting the Constitution and the words of the founders, so they can be a starting point for a democratic discussion. Unlike, other shows or organizations, “Make America” does not tell people what to think, but rather I present to them the actual words of our founders, then I step away. America is about “We the People,” not me.

Intermission Impossible: You and I debated whether or not you were censored when

James Madison
  • James Madison
Republic Coffee chose not to host your show. As a journalist and performing artist I'm sensitive to issues of censorship but think you've overstated. Entertainment is a product and coffee houses, being private retail establishments, have a right to choose their products carefully. Your press materials all note, "Come see the show that was TOO HOT for Republic Coffee." Is that either true or appropriate? Serving Folgers would also polarize their customers. Are coffee crystals also too hot for Republic Coffee?

Brandon Chase Goldsmith: Good question, because I think it hits at the heart of the tension between democracy and capitalism. Democracy is about the free marketplace of ideas; capitalism is about making money. As I like to tell people, “I like capitalism, but I Love Democracy.” Now imagine, if Republic Coffee turned away a Folgers rep telling them that their crystals would be too polarizing for their customers. Now is the coffee itself polarizing or the idea it represents. Maybe their customers only like Free Trade coffee. In this case the distinction between Folgers and Free Trade would be the ideas they represent. There is a difference between not ordering a product and banning an idea. America’s form of democracy is an idea. I can, however, understand how people might perceive it as polarizing, because democracy is messy. If everyone agreed all the time, then our form of government would not be needed. As James Madison explained in Federalist #51, “If men were angels, then government would not be necessary.”

I guess the another question that this situation begs is, “If democracy can be seen as too polarizing for coffee shops -because it is not politically correct- then where might “We the People” go to engage each other?” Over time this banning of diverse ideas from the marketplace might cause a spiral of silence, where everyone ends up being afraid to speak in public. As the private owners of public spaces, like Republic Coffee, are being blackmailed by Political Correctness, democracy is being pushed away. The spaces where democracy can happen in America seem to be getting few and fewer. Thankfully we still have places like Java Cabana, where ideas are not seen as products. I would actually like to invite, the owner of Republic Coffee to my show, so that he might see that democracy is not polarizing, it is America at work.

7:07 p.m. Friday, February 26. Java Cabana. Free

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