How did America become so divided and what to do? Can the power of art help? Plato famously banned artists from the republic, but Aristotle understood art’s civic power. Aristotle applauded catharsis in a shared social performance such as theater. Watching together, we submit to the roller-coaster range of conflicted human emotion in order for each to regain the clarity and rational balance needed to be good citizens. In the divided American summer of 2019, the new documentary, Gay Chorus Deep South, offers a case study of shared catharis for civic good. The film leverages the road trip genre of a cathartic journey to the “other” that is then transformed over the course of the journey into the surprise mutual recognition of shared humanity. New civic dialogue was made possible as emotional prejudice and barriers break down.
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, led by Conductor Tim Seelig, felt compelled to take action to deal with their shared grief and outrage at the direction the country was taking. The musician’s strategy was to leverage the emotional catharsis of gospel musical performances targeting those Deep South states enacting the most discriminatory new anti-LGBTQ laws. Art would make a difference. Further, Seelig argued tactically that the way to political change in the south was through the evangelical community and their churches. And so they galvanized support and went forth on this pilgrimage. The genesis of the Gay Chorus Deep South tour was driven by a range of passionate emotions but as a story the films’s timeliness rests, in my opinion, by the surprise expressed by both the liberal performers and their conservative host communities that came to see that their divisions were not as impenetrable as either side had imagined. (Even leaving aside the choir conductor’s oft-repeated skepticism about what emotions were really lurking behind the facade of southern hospitality.) The film’s takeaway is of tender connections made and the seeds of tolerant reconciliation planted.
How did this happen? Music was the universal language transcending division. The shared experience of a live musical performance was able to achieve unity because of the unique power of art to foster catharsis. It opened the door to family reconciliation, shared community meals, validating diverse minority experiences, and even to the shared outreach of collaborative quilt making between San Francisco gay men and Bible Belt evangelical conservative women. At first I was uncertain about the introduction of the quilting sub-theme in Gay Chorus Deep South, but by the end I was convinced it enriched the film immensely. Playing off the powerful meaning anchored by the Memorial AIDS Quilt, the Deep South quilt spoke to how the nation is stronger when all the pieces are celebrated and contribute to a compassionate, tolerant accepting whole, no matter individual difference.
Journalist Elizabeth Bruenig offers a companion reflection on returning home to the South in her recent Washington Post Opinion’s Essay (August 14, 2019). Bruenig’s perspectives are timely as regional divisions deepen heading into the 2020 election season already upon us. She shared her perspective after realizing “not everyone knew evangelicals personally, and that their world was in some sense exotic to a vast number of commenters who write about them.”
So, listen up New England! Gay Chorus Deep South should be required viewing this year by both liberals and conservatives as we struggle to stitch together a more beautiful nation.
Please join newportFILM on Thursday August 29, 2019 for a free public screening of Gay Chorus Deep South. This week’s location is again courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County at the Breakers Mansion Lawn (44 Ochre Point Ave, Newport, Rhode Island 02840). The venue will open at 5:30pm with the film beginning at 7:45pm. As always, this is a free public event with BYO picnic and great food truck options. Live music by members of Collegium Ancora, a Professional Chamber Choir for the Ocean State, will be performed before the film beginning at 6:30pm. Stay after the film for Q/A with Ashlé Blow and Jimmy White, moderated by Curtis Wong, Huffington Post Senior Culture Reporter. For more information or to become a newportFILM member, head to https://newportfilm.com/
By Nancy Austin, PhD – newportFILM Outdoors Summer 2019 Humanities Blogger.
Nancy Austin is an educator, coach, and strategic research consultant helping shape stakeholder stories. Her Brown University PhD was on the entrepreneurial women who founded the Rhode Island School of Design. For decades Nancy Austin taught interdisciplinary courses at RISD, Yale, and WPI leveraging her broad background in science, math, art, architecture, and design. Her native STEAM orientation now includes advocacy around digital literacy and cybersecurity.
With support from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.