An image of Ed Bullins standing in front of an orange painting and wearing a gray suit.

The Fourth of July is a time to reflect on patriotism. We all claim it and look askance on those who claim it differently than we do, whether they’re anarchists, libertarians, tea partiers, white supremacists, or pro-birth progressives. As I honor red, white, blue, and Black Lives Matter, I do not mourn the loss of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, or the Eskimo Pie from grocery shelves. We must shift our patriotism from lip service to action, and this year feels different. Today, I look not to my usual sagely suspects: Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass, or Alan Page. I look to my longtime friend Rip Rapson, who has inspired me daily during coronavirus:

“The manifestations of constructive outrage that accelerate our nation’s embrace of racial justice have become increasingly powerful, and unexpected.

Statue of Theodore Roosevelt on a horse. A Native American man and African American man stand on either side of him

Who would have thought that the legislature and governor of Mississippi would agree to remove the confederate icon from the State’s flag? Less than twenty years ago, a referendum to remove the icon had failed, by a 2:1 vote.  But different constituencies allied this time around – from some of the state’s largest employers . . . to sports associations (including the NCAA and the SEC) . . .  to the Southern Baptist Convention . . . to Black Lives Matter protesters . . . to all eight of Mississippi’s public universities . . . to prominent individuals from all walks of life, both inside and outside the state.

Who would have imagined that Princeton University would remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its school of public policy and other buildings? Wilson’s role as president of the United States, president of Princeton, and a champion of multiple progressive causes was seen by Princeton’s Board of Trustees as being outweighed by the ‘tensions, hypocrisies, and harms in Wilson’s legacy.’

Who would have predicted that a statute of one of our most revered Presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, would be voluntarily removed by the New York City Museum of Natural History because its depiction of a Native American man and an African American man walking alongside Roosevelt astride a horse ‘communicates a racial hierarchy that the museum and members of the public have long found disturbing?’

Who would have anticipated that protests against expressions of historical oppression would extend beyond symbols of the Confederacy and racism against African-Americans to valorizations of others who glorified violence (Mayor Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia) or stood as manifestations of false historical narrative (Christopher Columbus)?

After years of being thwarted by politics, bureaucracy, and legal process, the power of the moment rests with those who are tired of waiting. No executive order from the White House will change that.

Removal accordingly takes its place alongside acts of truth-telling and accurate historical depiction. Among the most powerful is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, initiated by Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative to depict victims of lynching in the United States:

Monument with names of lynching victims

Another is a memorial that will open next year in Charleston – the International African American Museum, which stands on the site of Gadsden’s wharf, the point of disembarkation of almost half of the imprisoned Africans brought to North America on slave ships:

Museum Exterior

In a slightly different category is the art installation organized by “Bear the Truth” in Los Angeles. The organization sought to give children an opportunity to raise awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement by donating some 1,200 stuffed teddy bears to open space in front of City Hall. As one of the organizers stated: ‘Teddy bears, they’re all different. Different sizes, different shapes, different colors, but they all have some value. They all get loved the same.’

As Harvard Law School’s director of the Institute for Race and Justice, David Harris, noted, there is a thread through these efforts: ‘Understanding the real, ongoing harm from policies and practices that have differentially distributed access and opportunity, state violence, and deprivation will open our eyes to avenues for repair and restoration.’”

Children walking among dozens of teddy bears

As a collector of aphorisms, here are a few that resonate in the week of Independence Day:

An Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist once said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Two-time presidential loser Adlai Stevenson wisely shared, “My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.”

– Jack Reuler, Artistic Director

A futurist is not someone with a crystal ball, but rather someone who recognizes trends and acts in anticipation. Last May, we at Mixed Blood produced a wild extravaganza entitled AUTONOMY. It featured a threatened DACA Dreamer, a would-be global pandemic, and corporate greed as well as the benefits of autonomous vehicles. A year later we’re experiencing a massive pandemic, the Supreme Court has ruled protectively on DACA this week, corporate taxes were cut by 12%, and climate change is a year closer to planetary catastrophe.

In March of 2019, we produced ROE, about the complicated person who was the Roe of Roe v Wade. Within 65 days of our closing, 13 states had passed laws that limited reproductive rights as that landmark Supreme Court ruling got challenged repeatedly in 2019.

In March COVID-19 closed our hit musical, INTERSTATE, in which an activist trans spoken word artist and lesbian singer-songwriter trumpet their politics across America. Last week SCOTUS ruled that employers cannot discriminate against trans and LGBTQIA employees.

Our neighborhood – Cedar Riverside – was greatly impacted by President Trump’s travel bans on predominantly Muslim countries, including Somalia. SCOTUS shot that travel ban down twice.

We will marshal our artists to mobilize people to register to vote, to vote, and to impact the outcome of the 2020 national election, an outcome that will no doubt be challenged legally and arrive at the Supreme Court.

Lots of theaters refer to their work as “ripped from the headlines,” but at Mixed Blood our work isn’t successful if there isn’t a call to action for its participants, including its viewers. Is our work the bellwether of what will be heard by the High Court? Better keep coming to find out!

-Jack Reuler

Say Their Names

I don’t pretend to know what was going through his mind. I can only imagine what it was like to feel the throbbing of the caught man’s neck beneath his sharp-boned knee—at first acute, then weakening as he pressed, and kept pressing. Did the stiff fabric of his trousers prevent him from noticing the slowing movement of blood through the man’s veins? Did the whimpers of pain, pleas for release that emanated from the shadowy flesh he’d so handily pinned to the ground fail to reach his ears through the fray? As onlookers began to gather, growing more vociferous—what in jesus were they going on about—the crescendoing clamor began to fuel that all-too-familiar rage, a flaming orb swirling in his gut, its heat rising up, swelling his head. It hurt but it made him so feel alive.

You wouldn’t know it by his eyes—glassy—his mouth a line of resolute calm, the free hand in his pocket fingering his keys. Soon, he would leave this place. The oil-grimed asphalt, the dingy neighborhood. The stink of urine and vomit, the squalor. His back started to ache; he needed to shift positions but, naw. He would hold—this was a test. He drew a breath, steadied himself. Perhaps he was thinking of the lake; he would leave early Friday, get a head start. Too bad it was only Monday. He could be on the water by mid-afternoon, out on the shimmering, cool waters where there would be no dark bodies save the sleek bass. Too bad Florida was out of the question. Salt-spray instead of salty sweat, and that warm Florida sun pinking his shoulders and the back of his neck, the pure, cloudless sky above. How he craved feeling the weight of a shiny-skinned marlin on the end of his arching line, that massive body snapping his hook.

I don’t know how many hours were left in his shift; he seemed to have all the time in the world. No place to go. At least the body beneath him had quieted. It was only when the ambulance arrived that he became aware that the man under his knee had gone completely limp as they rolled him onto the gurney. No more fight—in fact, the man had never given him battle, it was as if he’d already given up, his body seizing like a bass desperate for water after the hard landing in the bottom the boat. The moments of triumph are so fleeting.

The man felt his chest tighten, his heart ready to explode. It was like one of those dreams where you know you have to be somewhere but you are trapped, you try to speak but when you move your lips there is no sound. Everything hurt. After a long, long while, he felt the faintest breath on the surface of his skin, cool and soothing. His mother was whispering to him, holding her arms out to him and he took them into his own.

 

Copyright © 2020 by Lia Rivamonte

 

This poem is dedicated to the memory of George Floyd and all of our Black brothers and sisters who have died at the hands of the police. May they rest in peace and in power and may their lives and brutal deaths be the catalyst for transforming the unsustainable, racist policies that have prevailed from the beginning and throughout the history of the United States of America. Black Lives Matter.

Text: Never Underestimate the Activist Artist over an image of the Firehouse

My family has lived in the City of Minneapolis since the 1880s. For decades those five generations were a great source of pride. On the block on which I work (at Mixed Blood) are 5000 people, most of whom have been Minneapolitans for less than twenty years. Of that I am even more proud. I live a dozen blocks from 38th and Chicago. While not in Minnesota, my cousin Michael Reuler is a proud police officer and I am proud of him.

So I take the death of George Floyd very personally. Not in my city! Not in my
neighborhood!

We at Mixed Blood are going to prove to the powers-that-be that they were mistaken not to deem the arts, theater, or Mixed Blood essential in this time of pandemic, We are going to commission artists as truth sayers to use their art to speak their truths. We are going to prod activists to be active and give them the forum to do so. We are going to be voices in the ears of policy makers and service providers to do better. Look for us to be referees of racism, calling foul wherever we see it. Watch us seek appointments on commissions and task forces (including PACC and OPCR) and vote for us when we run for office. And better get there early because we’re going to pack the court rooms and
hold justice accountable. Above all, never underestimate the activist artist – we are not just the conscience of this community, but also the spark plugs of remedy. I considered Jerry Haaf, Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, and George Floyd to be my neighbors.

Don’t mar Minneapolis – the artivists of Mixed Blood will hold you accountable.

-Jack Reuler

Artistic Director

Mixed Blood Theatre Company

Kit and Melissa

Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration for the show? 

ML: It’s a semi-autobiographical show. Kit and I met in Boston a really long time ago when we both performed at a monthly Queer Asian cabaret where we became friends. One day he asked me to go on tour with him and I said “I’m in my early 20s, I don’t have all that much going on, sure!” and so we went on two tours (in 2008 and 2009) where we performed as “Good Asian Drivers”. It was sort of the beginning of social media “stardom” and we had a pretty big following. And then some things happened (some of which made its way into the show) and we broke up as a band and were actually like mortal enemies for two years. But during that time Kit was actually processing that by writing a lot of poems, and when we became friends again, he brought them to me and I was like “What are these? These are terrible!” 

KY: Hey! [Laughter] Okay yes so I wrote this shitty collection of poems and I brought them to Melissa and said “I think this should be a musical, what do you think?” because I knew she’d written a musical before. 

ML: Yeah, I usually never want to write a new musical, so it’s kind of funny that we ended up here. 

KY: As a job. 

ML: Whenever I do it, it’s always like birthing a child and then I think “I never want to do this again”. But even when we weren’t friends, Kit, I wanted to write something about our experience too. I think it just came together that we both wanted to process this through art. 

KY: Like when we were more mature. [Laughs] 

ML: That was in 2013, so this show is 7 years in the making. 

How much of an effort did you make to differentiate yourselves from the main characters? 

ML: Originally, it was much closer to us, but we found that can actually be really constricting and when we remove ourselves from the characters they can become more interesting and have more flaws and we can dig deeper into things that ring true for us but are also theatrical. For example, I think Dash has a lot of flaws (many of which have to do with toxic masculinity) but it would be unfair to say Kit had all of those flaws. [Laughter] But I think because we have that distance we can say more about the world. 

KY: You know what’s so funny to hear about that? Melissa has described the first five years of this show’s journey as essentially one long journal entry about that time via a musical. And then we spent all this time removing ourselves a little bit and incorporating people that we met on the road. But as we spend more time developing INTERSTATE on the stage, I feel like we’ve been coming back closer and closer to real life. We definitely fictionalize a lot of the plot points, but as we made the first couple of drafts we were trying to put in a lot of emotional distance, and now that I’ve processed that experience I feel like I’m able to get closer to that story and what it was like to be on the road and have tension with a friend, what it was like to have pressure of how we’re gonna make a living. 

ML: Yeah, once we were able to move some of the plot elements to be further away from real life, we’ve been able to get closer to the heart of the emotion of the show, which is what makes this show powerful for other people as well. 

The relationships between Dash and Adrian about their parents seem really rooted in the challenges of the young Asian American experience. Can you speak to the importance of including the band’s parents in the show? 

ML: It was important for us to see a glimpse of how they were raised, the people that influenced them at home, and how that caused a ripple effect to how they behave on tour. Like for Adrian, [you might ask] why is she so ambitious, what does she have to prove? And then you see it is her mom who is the person always saying she’s going to fail and that’s the thing that drives her to really prove her wrong. With the dad character, it was important for us to show an accepting Asian parent. And obviously with the dad teaching what he’s learned from society to his son about being a man and just perpetuating that sort of idea of masculinity. 

KY: We come from really communal communities, our families are really important to us. And I think a lot of time for Queer Asian Americans coming out doesn’t always mean breaking out on your own and being individualistic and rejecting your family. A lot of times folks in Asian American communities may never come out because it’s more important to maintain their home life and their identity in that particular arena. There are issues around wanting your family to be a part of your journey, even if it’s going to be a slow process. I definitely felt that no matter how hard it was going to be I wanted to have my family be a part of my queer and trans journey. In my view, it’s part of my responsibility to be in conversation with my family regardless of what it’s about. Being queer and trans is one thing, but being an artist was a whole other thing…even leaving home for college. It’s important for me to always talk to my family and my parents. Melissa and I started out in Queer Asian organizing and time and time again a lot of folks in our community do not want to reject our families and our parents just because we’re sharing a new part of ourselves. I think that’s a very Western narrative. It’s not bad, it’s just different. 

ML: And to add to that, the role that the parents play is really important in the exploration. One of the themes of the show is transphobia and homophobia and what that looks like depending on context and “who has it harder”. And that’s part of what we want to explore, like, Adrian gets a record deal because the music industry is transphobic but then at home her queerness is rejected by her mother whereas Dash’s dad is totally accepting. And then in terms of them going out on the road, Dash gets all these solo opportunities to perform for trans groups. And that’s something that just adds an interesting dynamic; the parent’s reaction to their kids. 

KY: Yeah, and this is part of the story we’re interested in addressing. Oppression doesn’t really work like that; you can’t have a cis lesbian woman and a trans man go at each other about who has it harder. Oppression is such a web and it’s so individual and it has to do with familial, cultural, even world history. And that’s something that’s so important for us to explore with this show. The characters are all individuals, but they’re in this pressure cooker to be representatives of their communities. 

Has the changing political landscape changed the show? 

ML: Through the years I’ve noticed more trans representation. I think we would still be fighting for this piece no matter what, but we wanted it to be set in 2008 because so many things that happened were so specific to that time period. We really were one of the only queer Asians that were out there talking about transness and queerness and being Asian. Now there’s a lot more of it, but it’s important to set it in that time period so people can understand the context now. 

KY: People keep saying that this show is so timely, but 2008 was over a decade ago and we’ve been doing this work all that time. The world is always changing, but we’ll always be making this art regardless of how the tide turns. I have found that people are more open to hearing our story now, and particularly exploring a trans world, but I have found that there is still a really sensational and tokenized lens of what it means to be trans. We really struggled with the fact that we’re still in a moment where people need trans people to be heroes (or sheroes) and to be really exceptional. Our characters are so far from exceptional, especially Dash who has so many issues. When we were first making this musical we would think “shit, if we have a trans character who’s not a perfect person or even a terrible human sometimes what does that say about our community?” But now I think the best thing we can do is to write fully realized characters. Our characters just need to be full people in a full world, and I want to assume that the audience can meet us where we’re at. We’re writing for now, we’re writing for the future, we’re writing to rewrite history.