Editorial: Commending artists who stand up for their beliefs

Monday, January 16, 2017

Pioneer Valley artists will give voice to their concerns about the presidency of Donald Trump on stages in Northampton and Easthampton this week in the final hours before he is inaugurated on Friday.

Organizers of the local shows say they are a vehicle for artists, activists and their audiences to address the fears voiced by many in the Valley and beyond that Trump’s policies will endanger immigrants, in particular, and civil liberties, in general. The performances are rooted in a rich history of political art in the United States dating back to the Great Depression, and will come less than two weeks after actress Meryl Streep used Hollywood’s Golden Globes award show as a national stage for a piercing criticism of the president-elect.

“In it Together, a concert for community, diversity and social justice,” is planned for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Academy of Music in Northampton. It is organized by Paul Newlin, founder of the Watermelon Wednesdays summer concert series of acoustic music at the West Whately Chapel.

Newlin’s first venture at producing a show outside Whately arose from his annual post-Thanksgiving gathering of musician friends. After Trump was elected Nov. 8, “We were all feeling pretty shell-shocked,” Newlin says. “I think music can be an antidote to the kinds of anxieties a lot of people are experiencing. It can be a powerful statement, especially when we play together. I want this show to reflect our diversity. We’re a diverse country.”

To that end, “In it Together” will feature a variety of sounds from acoustic musicians Chris Brashear and Ben Demerath, the Wistaria String Quartet, Charles Neville Quartet, Americana string band Mister Sun, and Valley Jazz Divas and Friends.

Donations will be collected for the Markham-Nathan Fund for Social Justice based in Northampton, which, according to its website, aids “small groups in western Massachusetts organizing and supporting the poor and powerless for a more just and peaceful world.”

At 8 p.m. Thursday, the Serious Play! Theatre Ensemble will present “In the Dark Times There Will be Singing” in the community room at Eastworks in Easthampton. Sheryl Stoodley, director of Serious Play! says the intent of the night’s “structured improvisation” is “inviting people to join together to think about ways of protecting the things we believe are important.”

Proceeds from Thursday’s event will be donated to the American Civil Liberties Union.

More than a dozen people plan to perform or speak, including guitarist John Sheldon, jazz singer Evelyn Harris, poet Martin Espada and activists Robert and Ellen Meeropol. According to Sheldon, “The focus of the event is to connect with each other and the audience around how to use our work, music, poetry, storytelling, drama, to address this time we are living in.”

Artists in the Pioneer Valley are not alone in using their stages as a platform to address Trump and call for the defense of freedoms they fear his presidency will imperil.

Streep, in accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes on Jan. 8, described “one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good. There was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat on our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back. … Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.” While she didn’t mention Trump by name, her meaning was clear.

That followed the unusual message delivered by the cast of “Hamilton” during a curtain call Nov. 18 following the performance of their hit Broadway musical, whose themes include America as a nation of immigrants. Actor Brandon Victor Dixon read a statement directed at Vice President-elect Mike Pence who had attended that night’s show: “We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir.”

Whether in Hollywood, on Broadway or from stages in Northampton and Easthampton, we applaud the artists who use their powerful voices to point out injustices and seek healing in a nation badly divided.