In the Heart of America
This is a repost of my original posting on
Tuesday, November 8th, 2016
Place: South Bend, Indiana.
Home of Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish.
We were 3.5 weeks into the LA Theatre Works national tour of “Judgment at Nuremberg”. It is a radio play about the Nuremberg Trials after World War II.
You know the one-where Nazi war criminals were tried for the crimes against humanity that resulted in the Holocaust.
Our play is specifically about the trials of the judges.
The trials that followed the first Nuremberg Trials. These trials were of the judges, doctors, business men, IG Farben whose chemicals were used in the gas chambers and so on.
It’s Judges judging Judges.
It’s a morality play about who is responsible and how far does that responsibility go.
Fun fact: War crimes and crimes against humanity came out of the Nuremberg Trials. It was the first time that people were convicted of carrying out the law. The first time that people were prosecuted for doing something that wasn’t illegal at the time that they did it. That’s how bad the crimes were. We needed to set a precedent so that it couldn’t happen again.
It isn’t a comedy.
3.5 weeks at universities all over the country, doing workshops and having talkbacks. Amidst an impending Presidential election. We find ourselves in the middle of America facilitating a conversation about fascism, nationalism and hate. The kind that makes us insulate ourselves from our neighbors.
No one was going to come and see a play about the Holocaust tonight-so we had the day off.
The first thing I noticed when we arrived at Notre Dame was it’s swanky-ness. It is gorgeous, surrounded by trees of every color changing before our very eyes. We checked into the Morris Inn-clearly the place they put up donors to impress them.
This is a place where dreams are made. This is a place where anything is possible.
The next thing that I noticed was the lack of color-everywhere except the trees and the staff at the college. The only students that I saw of any color at all were clearly athletes.
Did I mention I was in Indiana.
Mike Pence is the Governor of Indiana.
Rohr’s-the fancy bar at the Morris Inn.
In the middle are me and my castmates. 8 liberal actor tour-mates/friends. 8 of the best that there are to work with. The crème de la crème. 8 people going onto the front lines of truth and 8 people who have been bonded together through intention.
Across from us is a group of 40-50’s something women celebrating a birthday.
At the end of the bar is a group of very large college athletes dominating the TV where the sound is on.
Sprinkled amongst us are several tables of couples that probably never look like they are having a good time.
We ordered food and drinks and waited for signs of how the night was going to progress. What the next four years would hold.
Our very smiley waitress, relatively young, particularly Mid-Western-but surprisingly, under further investigation, is a mother of 4. She looks around to see if anyone is watching her and secretly shows me a photo of her kids on her iPhone.
Smiley Waitress: This is a great job. If I stay-my kids will be able to go to college here and get financial aid.
She points to Murph, the grey-haired gentleman bartender.
Smiley Waitress: Murph has worked here for more than 40 years. They named a burger after him. It’s really good.
Hillary has taken her first states. Our group cheers. We receive glowers from numerous guests. I feel obliged to remind our group that we are not in Kansas anymore. Kansas, actually would’ve been a problem as well-but to be conscious of the fact that we might not be in the majority.
Trump takes Tennessee and a middle aged white guy stands up at his table and obnoxiously cheers and claps and directs all of his energy at our table. He jeers at us.
Obnoxious White Guy: Yeah! That’s what I’m talking about!
I am actually not sure why he would care that we didn’t all vote for the same person-but he was successful at making a point. A point that felt like a threat.
I went to the bathroom and the front desk staff was peering into the bar TVs. They all jumped to attention as I walked past to look like they were working. I stopped and chatted with them-my way of letting them know I’m not the person who needs them to busy themselves.
Darlene the Front Desk Clerk: How is your night going?
Me: Good with the exception of the guy who just clapped for Trump in my face.
Darlene: Oh, yes. They get very aggressive if you don’t do what they want you to.
Me: How is this for you tonight?
Darlene: Just a day in the life. This is a good job so I am getting through.
After I returned from the bathroom, the bar had emptied out quite a bit. It was that time in the night when it was looking pretty good for Hillary.
Gone was the obnoxious white guy. Gone was the group of women who I wished that I had asked how they felt about the election and being in Indiana-just to hear what they had to say.
And then about a half hour later-Trump takes another state. Hmmm.
The large athletes-couldn’t tell if they were football players or basketball players or maybe both-were all white except one who was ethnically ambiguous. They cheered loudly and ordered more beer. I believe “Whoops” were involved. The ethnically ambiguous one looked like he was in conflict with himself as he tried to “Whoop” along.
One of my cast mates stands abruptly to leave.
Cast mate #1: This is how much they hate us. They had to make sure we knew just exactly how much they hate us. They are really that afraid of women that they would rather have him than her.
She refuses to watch anything further publicly and retires to her room for some kind of sanctuary.
I was feeling a little touchy. I went out for some air.
Earlier that week we were in Iowa. And Wisconsin. And Minnesota. And Arizona. But in Iowa, I was met with these stares. Not by the Quakers. Not by the Amish. Not by the students or the staff at the University. By the people who were just regular people that we’d bump into at the Culver’s fast food joint (Frozen custard-check it out) or the lobby at our hotel. These people who stare-it is a look I’ve seen before-it is a look of disgust. Perhaps I don’t look the way they think I should? Perhaps it’s indigestion. It’s the same kind of look that someone gets when they want to destroy something.
In the space of 3 hours going between Wisconsin and Iowa to return rental cars-it’s a long story that involves a cancelled flight at Chicago O’Hare airport during the last game of the World Series when the Chicago Cubs won for the first time-
I was asked by 4 separate people in 4 different places:
“Where you from? You ain’t from round here.”
One of whom was a toothless truck driver who thought I might like to see his bumper sticker that was an outline of a pin up girl holding a garden tool.
It read: Every farmer needs a good ho!
When he finished laughing and slapping his knee (really, he actually knee slapped himself) he invited me into the cab of his truck.
Toothless truck driver: Maybe you’d like me to show you other things you won’t see out there in California. Maybe you’d like me to teach you a thing or two.
It was at that moment I assumed the person pumping the gas into our rentals was pumping diesel so that the car would stop in a half a mile and they could come “rescue me”.
People keep pointing out that he was just a trucker…and I keep pointing out that I am just a woman and it spooked me. I felt fear. The kind I haven’t for a while. The kind that is intentional. The kind you can see in their eyes. That they want to teach you a lesson. The kind that should be unacceptable in a modern society.
When I returned to the bar this time-
Trump had just been given Florida.
One of our cast mates hangs up his phone.
Cast Mate #2: My kids are in tears. They don’t understand what is happening. I told them it was going to be fine and not to worry.
The bar was now mostly empty. Except for our group, Murph the bartender, a 21 year old blonde bartender who never smiled and a man who it turns out was speaking on the panel about the Nuremberg Trials before our show the next night. We talked about the precedent that Hitler set with his rhetoric of hate. We talked about his focus on how “others” were the problem and his meteoric rise to power. We talked about how quickly the tide can shift. We acknowledged how terrifying it is that his language is mirrored to a tee by Trump as we waited to see how Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Wisconsin were going to turn out.
Dessert was definitely required.
The 21 year old blonde bartender who never smiled came over.
Me: I’ll have the crème brulee with 6 spoons please. How is this night for you? How do you feel about this election?
Blonde Bartender: I’m just getting through it. Is that it? The kitchen is closing.
Me: Yes, that’s it.
The crème brulee didn’t help.
States that had seemed to be locked up were changing from blue to red.
Another cast mate hangs up his phone.
Cast Mate #3: I don’t know what to tell my son. He has a Muslim girlfriend. What am I supposed to tell my son?
It was 1 AM. I’d never been on the east coast for an election. I’m used to Los Angeles where you have a new President by 10.
The bar was closing. It was me and 2 cast mates, the 2 bartenders and the staff of the hotel. All but the blonde bartender looked like they’d seen a disaster.
I felt like I had just watched the World Trade Center towers fall again. It felt as personal as that day did. An attack on our freedom. Our way of life.
We retreated to our rooms, in shock.
The next day-I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. And the morning news didn’t bring a sudden miracle.
I walked to the bagel place on campus. It was cold, sunny and windy.
A very tall athlete brushed past me. I felt invisible. I felt like I had a target on my back.
On the sidewalk someone had scrawled in pastel colored chalk:
Love Trumps Hate
Standing in line, I overheard 2 undergrads mumbling to each other.
Female Undergrad: I don’t really get what the big deal is?
Male Undergrad: I don’t know. Everybody always overreacts. I mean what can happen in 4 years?
I felt like a crazy person. I felt scared.
The show that night was the kind of show you dream about. And never want to perform at the same time. Our mutual shock over what had transpired in the last 24 hours had turned to anger. Purpose.
If we were gonna be in the good state of Indiana where Mike Pence is the Governor we are going to leave it all on the stage. We are not going to leave a stone unturned. We are going to tell the fuck out of this story and hold our heads up high.
We had developed a camaraderie that you can only find on the front lines. With the people you go to war with.
Fighting the good fight.
Fighting for right by showing the humanity of being wrong.
The show was tragic and terrifying as these words that we had been saying for the last 3.5 weeks were ringing true. These words took on a new meaning.
There is a monologue in the climax of the play.
The character Ernst Janning, the pre-eminent Judge on trial for war crimes, is confessing to his part in upholding the law. He paints the scene as to how these crimes could have happened.
“There are devils among us. Communists, Liberals, Jews, Gypsies! Once the devils will be destroyed, your miseries will be destroyed…What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase. It is only a stage we are going through…It will be discarded sooner or later.”
I and my cast mates were in tears in the wings.
It wasn’t until I returned home on Thanksgiving Day that I actually felt the weight of reality. Everything has started to normalize. Everyone is getting on with their day. And after standing on stages across this country for the last 5 weeks, I feel impotent. On stage everything makes sense. I am doing something. I am contributing to the world. I am an ambassador for peace. What do I do now?
Politics are a mirror the same way art is.
It is easy to sit in Los Angeles and say “How could anyone vote for him?” I know I did.
If you want to know how someone voted for him, ask them.
And then listen to what they say in return.
If you listen to someone’s fear instead of their hate-they will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about why they are the way they are.
We seem to live in a time where everyone has to agree to be respectful. It’s actually the opposite. Respect for humanity is out of the sameness of us all being people. Not because we are all the same.
Fighting for the good of all includes all, even those we don’t agree with. Especially those who don’t agree with us, because those victories are the hardest won and lost.
Wiser people than me have said that dialogue is the only true path to peace.
There is work to do.