In Review: Bill Cleveland’s Art and Upheaval


Art and Upheaval by Bill Cleveland

Art and Upheaval: Artists on the World's Frontlines by William Cleveland. New Village Press, 2008. Go to your local bookstore or buy online.

It’s 1999, and in Belgrade, bombs are falling. Sirens and explosions—the results of NATO bombers and Serbian antiaircraft—fill the night. But between the bombs, a different story is unfolding. DAH Teatar, a community theater company, is rehearsing a new play.

Resurrection Dance, painting by Chan Vitharin

Reyum artist Chan Vitharin’s painting explores the tension between confronting and denying Cambodia’s past of political and social turmoil and violence.

They had at first searched for a script that would offer meaning and hope. But the play that emerged instead reflected the confusion and uncertainty of wartime. It took the form of a conversation between two old women burdened with the memory of human history. One describes natural beauty, everyday life, and small kindnesses, while the other relates the terrors of wars and tyrants. The endless cycle of despair and hope concludes with what seems to be the only meaning the company could find at the time. “They will not say: ‘The times were dark,’” says the voice of hope. Her companion answers, “Rather, ‘Why were their poets silent?’”

Like the artists who created it, the play refuses to despair, and transforms horror into an imperative for action. As one company member put it, “It’s the most important time to create things when things are being destroyed.”

Playwright Arthur Miller, refusing Lyndon Johnson’s invitation to the White House during the Vietnam War, famously telegrammed, “When the guns boom, the arts die.” But a new book by community arts activist Bill Cleveland argues that in times of violence, upheaval, and cultural dislocation, art is a key tool for confronting darkness and eventually rebuilding communities.

Art and Upheaval: Artists on the World’s Frontlines tells the stories of six community arts organizations (including theater and writers’ groups, galleries, and arts co-ops) operating at the crossroads of risk and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, Cambodia, South Africa, the United States, Australia, and Serbia.

Each of the groups Cleveland profiles started small, but grew to provide essential safe space where communities could come together and heal. Community art offered a way forward: a chance to acknowledge and confront painful histories, to begin to resolve current conflicts, and to imagine a different kind of future.

In the case study that inspired the book, a group of artists in Belfast was alarmed by renewed bombings that threatened to derail peace talks in Northern Ireland. The members of Community Arts Forum (CAF) worried that until divided Catholic and Protestant communities deepened their understanding of each other, peace talks could not succeed, and anger and polarization would worsen. Their contribution, they decided, would be a play.

Like an Elizabethan comedy, The Wedding Play ended with a wedding celebration—a conclusion traditionally meant to portend unity. But by proposing a wedding play about the volatile issue of intermarriage between Catholics and Protestants, CAF averted both the ease and the inadequacy of a formulaic happy ending. Peace, they believed, could never last if it came as the result of glossing over the sources of deeply entrenched anger.

By involving the communities as deeply as possible in the play’s production, CAF hoped to make the process as therapeutic as the outcome. The group spent months interviewing community members about their experience with love, marriage, and family in the context of the conflict, turning up stories of threats and warnings, ostracism and violence, and children lost to their families after marrying across religious lines. Careful diplomacy was required. CAF formed committees to represent both Catholic and Protestant communities, and recruited writers from each side to weave the interviews into a script. Character biographies and dialogue had to be carefully negotiated. To avoid attracting violence, CAF also indirectly approached paramilitary organizations for approval.

The final play was staged not in theaters, but in more ordinary city locations: audience members crammed into tiny kitchens with actors, or sat next to them at church, still treated more like participants than spectators. In a final speech, the bride’s father voiced the play’s more complex version of a happy ending: “This is not the time nor the place to make up for all the wrongs … [as] I stand here and … look around me, the strange faces are becoming familiar … so by the end of this wonderful occasion we will all be friends.”

And that, writes Cleveland, is more or less what happened: the audience “had become part of a newly constituted cross-community family. By the fourth act, it was hard to tell where the ‘theatrical’ wedding reception ended and the post-performance party had begun.”

As the bride’s father cautions, few wrongs are quite so easily solved. While many felt the mere existence of The Wedding Play was a major victory, some believed that too much had been compromised in the effort to please both communities. Cleveland cautions readers that his book is not about the triumph of art over evil, but rather a chronicle of the details and difficulty behind six “messy miracle stories” that succeeded in opening up communication, understanding, and new vistas of possibility in places that had seemed beyond hope.

What, then, is the relationship between art and upheaval? Which is the stronger voice, that of hope or despair? Dijana Milocevic, a founder of DAH Teatar, could answer. Rehearsing during the air raids, she said, “was dangerous and unreal, but we kept working. We needed to be doing something more powerful than the bombing.”