After the 2016 election I kept asking myself how artists should respond in time of political crisis. I sat down with singer-songwriter-satirist Roy Zimmerman the next summer to kick it around—he sure had known what to do, but then he had been doing it all along. Popping a demagogue’s balloon was nothing new for Roy.
I admire New York’s Public Theatre and others for having mounted productions of, say, Julius Caesar with thinly-veiled contemporary references, a brave act that cost them financial support. [Later: James Shapiro writes about this production from an insider’s view and at length in his 2020 book Shakespeare in a Divided America.]
But it took me until 2019 to find my own way, when I wrote my third children’s Christmas pageant for my hometown UU congregation, setting it in two venues: a Bethlehem stable and King Herod’s court. It’s been controversial. First a person of color took offense to some of the language (e.g., “boss-man”), intimating that even in a liberal and justice-seeking denomination there should be no room for politics. Then religious educators got hold of it. After I was forced to delete references to the Slaughter of the Innocents (Matthew 2:16 ff), which children raised on the Brothers Grimm and Fortnight somehow can’t handle, we still had to smooth over any notion that harm might come to Jesus. Wait till Good Friday, I say. Meanwhile, my Herod threatens to put the Wise Men in cages since they’re not from around here.
So no, it’s not easy being real.