Les Miserables, Black Lives Matter, and the Complacency of White Liberal Theatre Communities

Les Miserables, Black Lives Matter, and the Complacency of White Liberal Theatre Communities

Do you hear the people sing?

“There are accepted revolutions, revolutions which are called revolutions; there are refused revolutions, which are called riots.”

--Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

I was in tech week rehearing to play Fantine in a production of Les Miserables when the 2015 Baltimore riots broke out. I lived in Baltimore City, but the children’s theatre I was performing with was located in the suburbs. It was mayhem backstage – everyone was on their phones, trying to stay updated, wondering if schools would be closed the next day – and then we’d return onstage to sing "the song of angry men."

Meanwhile, our city was in flames.

Well, that’s a bit hyperbolic. A CVS store was up in flames, as violence had broken out after the funeral of Freddie Gray, who was murdered by Baltimore City police officers not long before. Most of those involved in the uprising were unarmed middle and high school students, and most of the damage was to property, not people. Some officers were injured, but none were killed.

But of course, it still wasn’t an ideal situation. Local businesses were hurt, and a state of emergency was declared. I know I was disappointed, because huge peaceful protests against police brutality had been happening in Baltimore all week, and yet of course CNN didn’t bother to show up until the uprising. It’s hard to tell young people whose loved ones are being killed that they shouldn’t engage in violence if it’s the only tactic that actually garners national attention.

One Day More, the iconic Act 1 finale of Les Miserables, was different that night; we all felt it. It suddenly occurred to me that I was in a musical about a group of young students who – after years of enduring inequality, poverty, and police brutality – resort to violence. The heroes of this story stage a revolution, aiming their guns and animosity towards abusive police officers.

And this musical is revered by white people.

One of the most heart wrenching moments of the show is the death of little Gavroche. A child vagabond we grow to love for his wit and tenacity, Gavroche is murdered by armed police forces while singing his signature song, “Little People.” He is unarmed and unmistakably a child, and yet as he approaches the police line is he shot multiple times. Gavroche dies mid-sentence, the audience left wondering what more he could have sung had his life been valued.

His death is tragic – unbearable – and all of our audiences, cast members, and parents agreed. It was the tear-jerker moment of the show. And yet very few people seemed to notice the similarities between his death and Tamir Rice’s; somehow, Gavroche’s wounds carried more weight to them than Michael Brown’s or Freddie Gray’s. I looked around at those weeping, wondering if they would ever bother to mourn the losses of those in our world, too. Their silence was deafening, their hypocrisy maddening.

You watch Javert mistreat and brutalize innocent French citizens, and you despise him. You watch Jean Valjean – a criminal swept up in the effects of mass incarceration and an unjust prison system – amend his ways, and you forgive him. You watch the people of Paris struggling to survive, bearing the burden of uneven distribution of wealth, and you empathize with them. You watch students rise up – violently – against these forces of oppression, and you cheer them on. When they are killed by militarized police forces, you mourn for them. Not once do you utter, “Well, they should have formed a peaceful demonstration if they didn’t want to be killed,” or “Javert was just trying to do his job,” or, “These young men were dangerous criminals,” or even, “You can’t fight hate with hate!”

But if their bodies were black, if they were wearing hoodies, if the setting were not 19th century France, but rather 21st century America…you would find ways to justify Javert’s actions. You would call these young men thugs. You would start quoting Martin Luther King jr. in a vacuum, to invalidate their struggle. Or you’d refrain from saying anything at all.

Wouldn’t you?

If not, congratulations. But the majority of responses to the Baltimore Uprising I saw from the same parents and kids who cheered Enjolras on every night were those of invalidation and dehumanization, or at least gross superiority. When young, handsome white men rebel, it’s viewed as inspiring. When young black people rebel, it’s viewed as despicable, or at least terribly misguided.

I like to think of theatre communities as progressive and accepting, but the truth is that we have a long way to go. Though the extent of which varies from company to company (and geographically), even the most liberal theatre companies are largely inaccessible, and cater their art towards old, rich, white people. At best, theatre companies seem to consist mostly of well-meaning white people who care about affecting change, but in reality take very little action to do so. At worst, they consist of performers whose practice is to put themselves in other people’s shoes, and yet refuse to extend that same empathy to our society’s most disenfranchised.

We must do better. We cannot claim to be a progressive community, or celebrate accepting differences, if we don’t work to put our words to action. Not only do we need to make our stories accessible to a wider audience, but we need to internalize the actual messages of the stories we tell. Our country is in a defining moment right now, and we cannot opt out of making a statement, or choose to make statements selectively when they benefit us. We must harness our art as a weapon of change, and speak (or rather sing) out.

Let’s be clear: I am someone who believes in the power of peaceful protest. I hope that we can continue to respond to our nation’s injustices in such a manner. But it will only be effective if we expand our empathy, create solidarity, and join in.

So let me ask you:

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?

Cover Image Credit: gotoricks.blogspot.com

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“Love yourself first and everything else falls into line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.” – Lucille Ball

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