There was a moment the other night in Vancouver that made recent global horrors seem far away yet so close.
I was sitting in the dark with dozens of people, families and friends, at a “theatre under the stars” production in the park, watching the last scene in West Side Story. In an otherwise uneven production, interrupted by crying babies and occasional raindrops and bird calls, there was a brief epiphany. The production by enthusiastic amateurs, theatre kids, and local students amazingly managed to channel current global angst in a single tableau.
As the cast stood in grief and shock at the deaths of three young men lost to gang warfare, a little girl in a white dress came on stage and sang “There’s a place for us” before spray-painting “love” in red letters on a makeshift urban wall.
In that moment the global fight between the “sharks” and the “jets” that this world has become — a never ending series of bloody tragedies fought by young men with no prospects as corrupt policemen stand on the sidelines and gun sellers prosper — was crystallised. (It’s not surprising that the classic musical spawned an offspring, West Bank Story, set in Israel/Palestine)
It’s easy to be smug about less than perfect renditions of Sondheim songs and youthful aspiration. But that final moving moment made me think of an Iraqi friend’s production of Lysistrata last year — an all woman cast in hijab acting out the Aristophanes play about the futility of war in Arabic — performed by young people caught between the Shia militias and Daesh, struggling for a future as corrupt war mongering politicians watched from the sidelines.
It made me think of the young people in Baghdad who died as they shopped for Ramadan gifts and sweets earlier this month. And it made me think of this year’s nightmarish 14 juillet in Nice, where men, women, and children, those in hijab and mini-jupe alike, forgot about strikes and lowering wages and mass unemployment for a moment to gather and lose themselves briefly in national anthems and celebrations; and of Syria, where civilians trapped in a hellish war zone not of their own making fell victim to French bombs “targeting Daesh,” but killing innocents.
The expectation that humans can go to the theatre, to a parade, to the shops to buy bread, that their children can walk to school without being shot by soldiers or snipers or other assorted mercenaries – this is becoming a luxury.
Just as housing and food and jobs and material stability are being disappeared from the lives of the many, so is the illusion of safety. True terror is when normalcy becomes menacing: when a broken taillight is a death sentence, when a trip to the doctor is life threatening, when a wedding party is destroyed by a drone.
And so we all retreat to our gated communities, displaced persons camps, or inner city fronts, and those of us with Internet access huddle in our rooms in front of a glowing screen and type truisms about peace and love and violence, while somewhere the one per cent crack open the bubbly and celebrate their profit margins from the safety of their armed compounds.
But we are not at war, no, everything is "normal."
Is there “a place for us,” those who just want “normalcy” — affordable housing, adequate food, and a peaceful life? Increasingly there isn’t, to the great delight of organized criminals killing in the name of religion, and the state players who fund them for their own agendas, and the corporate con men and “statesmen” who sell out our youth and their futures for profit and political gain.
During another era, when Vietnam burned, and shortly before Chile was changed forever by a CIA-backed military coup, Victor Jara wrote a song called “El Derecho de Vivir En Paz,” the right to live in peace. That right is becoming a relic of some other time and place.
At the moment it’s much more like Leonard Cohen’s “There is a War”:
There is a war between the rich and poor / There is a war between the left and right / a war between the black and white / Why don't you come on back to the war, pick up your tiny burden / why don't you come on back to the war, let's all get even
In these strange times, it seems that the emotional truths of music and theatre are far more real than the nightly news or the Facebook memes we ingest daily.
And yet now, instead of joining hands, we retreat to petty tribalisms. Our leaders choose marching music, when really we should be singing Beethoven’s “Song of Joy” to save ourselves from dirges and dread.
Oh teenage actor singing Sondheim in the park, oh Iraqi schoolgirl still filled with hope, oh boy brutalized by gangs and cops and adult lies, oh random victims of “collateral damage,” let us join hands and sing together. Resistance may be futile but it’s all we’ve got.