On the evening of October 18—the night before the third Presidential debate and a couple of weeks before the general election—over 50 people gathered at the Griffin Museum of Photography for the Winchester Multicultural Network’s program, “Signs on My Neighbor’s Lawn: Hopes and Fears During Elections.” In over two full hours not once was a single candidate’s name mentioned or a political party. Unbelievable? Impossible? Not at all. The Network provided a safe space for sharing vulnerability, dreams, worries, and confusions raised by this contentious election season. The evening became a place for courageous conversations.
The program featured True Story Theater’s troupe, whose mission includes healing society through theater. Audience members voiced their honest concerns. Some asked what about neighborhood relations, effect on their school-age children, hope that no matter who is elected that person will work for our mutual good. Others expressed confusion about which message to trust, our self-preoccupation that ignores the enormous suffering in the world, feeling silenced about expressing one’s opinion, and concern that our nation will remain deeply divided after the election.
Through playback theater, troupe members listened carefully to personal experiences and then “played” them back in movement, voice, and music. In a living sculpture of balance, “hope” tried to squeeze through the legs of one performer juggling balls, another tasting one apple and then another apple, and yet another providing a flying buttress of stable support. Behind the players was an array of colorful cloth swatches. These long pieces became a visual representation, accentuating the stories. Two actors flaunted long bands of gold-glittered cloth, silver-strung cloth shouting loudly, “My candidate! My candidate!” In another scene, chiffon scarves, close in color to the United States flag, became twisted and rent, strewn on the floor in broken shapes, covered by a dark fabric swatch of suffering. In another improvisation, the cloths became burdensome layers of identity—woman, Muslim, immigrant, mother. This scene closed with a pure-toned Islamic invitation to prayer, “Open my heart to this prayer.” Empathy and compassion filled the space.
In closing, each person wrote down an idea of how to create connection with someone of differing views and then in pairs tried on possible responses. Again, a few of these became improvisations—“I would share my fears and my vulnerabilities more, and not feel like I have to hold the weight of the world’s suffering alone.” “I’m still feeling vulnerable. When I leave here, can I speak my mind to my friends?” “When I came tonight, it was just ‘me,’ but now I am feeling the ‘we’!”
After a young woman commented that Lennon’s “Imagine” and music in general often bridged gaps, True Story’s Tonia Pinhiero led an improvised version of call and response with the refrain, “Speaking my mind.”
The Network recognized the tumult and anxiety present in this election season and chose to bring a timely program encouraging authentic dialogue. And, the work continues. In a Colby College/Boston Globe poll (October 21, 2016) 93% of likely voters said that when the race is over “they want both sides to cool temperature, shake hands, and come together to confront the challenges ahead.”