Want to understand how on Earth Donald Trump has made it this far in the 2016 presidential race? Malcolm Kenyatta, a North Philadelphia community activist and delegate to the 2016 Democratic primary, has some insight.
"One thing he's able to do really well is take complicated concepts and boil them down to their essence. What he says might not be true, but he breaks it down in a way people can understand."
So said Kenyatta earlier this evening at the "Pop Politics" Symposium, part of PlayPenn's 2016 Annual Conference. The symposium, which also featured local favorite Jen Childs, Co-Founder and Producing Artistic Director of 1812 Productions, and Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer and frequent Chris Christie foil Amy S. Rosenberg, and was moderated by Philadelphia playwright and PlayPenn Director of Education Jackie Goldfinger, was a free-wheeling discussion about the 24-hour news cycle, social media, journalistic responsibility and lack of objectivity, theater, comedy, and what it all means to political discourse in the 21st century.
While Kenyatta may have praised The Donald's ability to condense complex issues into extremely distilled (sometimes to the point where they lack any substance at all) soundbites, he made it clear he's no Trump supporter, and, like so many of us, expressed alarm at his runaway success in the GOP race.
"This election is a battle for the soul of our country," he said. "This is where we decide what type of country are we going to be?"
The panelists agreed that a big contributing factor in the seemingly intractable divisions in our country currently is the "echo chamber" of ideas and discourse that we all live in.
"We only have to listen to people who agree with us," said Kenyatta. "There's no more Walter Cronkite saying 'This is fact. This is not'."
This divisiveness and unwillingness to listen can be found even in the theater, as Goldfinger described conversations with audience members from this year's PlayPenn readings challenging writers because their plays don't tell the narratives they want to hear.
Still, as Childs asserted, just because an audience member disagrees with what they saw doesn't mean all is lost.
"When people go into a theater and they lights are off, they are forced to listen and take in a perspective that may be different than their own," she said, adding that the theater can use other tactics, like comedy, to break down barriers to discuss uncomfortable issues.
As a writer and theater artist, these ideas are intriguing and make a lot of sense to me. Sometimes it feels like traditional straight plays, staged on a proscenium stage with the audience several feet away from the action, can feel too passive, like the play is just happening but not directly engaging the audience. However, as Childs points out, even if the audience isn't directly participating in the play, they should still be receiving a perspective, and perhaps one that wouldn't naturally occur to them, or makes them slightly uncomfortable. You run the risk that they mentally check out, and don't receive your message, but they can only make that determination if they have the space to process the information they're receiving. Like anything else in creating theater (or any kind of art, for that matter) it's a balancing act. Alienating your audience is bad, but having them feel absolutely nothing is even worse.
If anything, hearing Childs, Rosenberg and Kenyatta share their experiences and perspectives has inspired me to continue working ever harder to engage with people from all walks of life through my chosen platform of theater, and add something meaningful of my own to the conversation.