Our guest columnist this week, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, is co-founder and artistic director of Mixed Magic Theatre in Pawtucket.
When people say to me, “I’ll be glad when things get back to normal,” it gives me cause to pause. COVID-19 has forced America and the world to examine the idea of normal. What are the things in our daily lives that we accept as normal? The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. We need food and water to survive. Family, for many if not most people, is important. Spiritual and intellectual fulfillment matters. Hugs and laughter and dancing, wine and good food, they all have great value. Comfort in the place one calls home seems a simple and uncomplicated desire. The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness may be the grandest and most normal of ideas.
But the past 18 months has pulled back the veil and revealed that what we accept as normal is not nearly as ideal as many people would like to think it is. It is now impossible for any reasonable thinking person to say, “I didn’t know.” Everyone in this country, maybe the entire world, has been made aware of the plague, the virus of inequality, injustice and complacency that can cripple a nation far more effectively than military actions from an outside force.
Even before COVID was a factor, the American Democracy was under siege, not by forces that believed we could be defeated from the outside, but forces that saw that America could be more easily defeated by pitting us against each other. And the saddest part of the story is the fact that it was working. Income disparity, systemic racism, gender inequality, xenophobia, police brutality, a broken justice system, gun violence, poverty, health care inequity and the failure on even the most basic level to address long-simmering social and cultural issues. It was normal for Americans to try to ignore this reality away. Or worse, think that we could move forward by escaping back into the past.
Now we are exploring a new normal, but it looks to me a lot like the old normal on steroids. There is a longing to return to the blissful “good old days” where one could say, “I didn’t know, so I didn’t have to care,” but the new normal has made that impossible. A blind eye doesn’t save you from a lie. This is especially true when a disenfranchised and large group of people care little about the comfortable being comfortable.
Protests by their very nature are unpopular because they give voice to something being wrong. The new normal is going to deal with the reality that something is wrong and it will not be voter-suppressed behind closed doors, gun-threatened, court-ruled or bill-passed away. People are sick and tired of being sick and tired. They don’t want a new normal that looks like a warmed-over version of the old one. They want better.
At Mixed Magic Theatre, we’re working on a project called “Trains and Dreams,” by myself and my longtime collaborator, Robert Schleeter, that asks the question, “Is America a failed idea whose time has passed or a yet unfulfilled promise? It is a musical to celebrate the greatness of the rich variety of music styles born out of the lives of the people of this country.
There are powerful arguments to be made on both sides of the question, but the constant thing we have discovered throughout the process, from a historical, cultural and musical point of view, is that people don’t want normal, they want better. Better life, better liberty, and a better chance to pursue happiness.
Look for “Trains and Dreams” in September. Join us as we search for the New Better.
For more information about Mixed Magic Theatre, find the theater on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and www.MMTRI.org.