To the mountaintop. With this title, we pay tribute to the vision and courage of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The speech he gave in Memphis to the sanitation workers is one of his most poignant and profound. In it King said, “God has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” In a matter of hours, he would be dead – shot down at the Lorraine Motel by an assassin’s bullet.
In retrospect we wonder, did he know? Did he feel the cool shadow of death behind him? “I may not get there with you,” he’d said. There was a remarkable sense of calm in Dr. King that night, a groundedness in his vision, his purpose. He’d weighed his time on earth and saw that the people he’d led had the tools to lead themselves. There was momentum. He had faith in others to take up the torch.
My father always says “never underestimate the power of one good life.” Short as his life was, in his 39 years Dr. King became one of the most renowned world leaders. A great leader. Why? He served. He heard questions and dared to give answers. Some, quite inconvenient answers. He saw hunger and found ways to feed. He witnessed injustice and took action toward equity. He didn’t just talk about it – Dr. King put himself in harm’s way. He stood in the streets, arm in arm, with the people who needed him most, his people. He built allegiances that extended far beyond class and creed, beyond even common interest. He built a movement of people invested in fulfilling the potential of our own humanity. And that vision extended far beyond the span of his own human life.
What would a leader like Dr. King think of where we stand as a nation today? Are we nearing the mountaintop? Do we have the mettle to climb that steep and even dangerous rock face so that we can finally stand ready to look over? And once we’ve done the hard work to get there, are we brave enough to look beyond what we already know toward something we may not recognize? Do we have the moral fortitude to see ourselves forward…together?
There were a number of qualities that made Martin Luther King Jr a great leader, but today I want to draw out three that I think resonate particularly with the themes of this conference:
Leaders serve: They put the people first. Their vision extends beyond themselves, even beyond the scope of their own lives. It is not about them.
Leaders listen: They are humble in the face of collective wisdom. They take the time to hear what individuals want for their communities. They address injustice by first making space for those most impacted to have voice.
Leaders don’t work alone: As brilliant as Dr. King was he was one of thousands of people who sacrificed for the vision of an equitable future. From parents who sent their children to fill the jails in Birmingham, to the cab drivers who charged 10 cents a ride – the same as the bus fair in Montgomery; everyone had a part to play.
These are vital attributes of leaders who understand equity. We need these kinds of leaders today – who get it on a fundamental in your blood and bones level. We need an army of people who believe that diversity and inclusion are vital benchmarks for the health and success of an organization, not because it will increase audiences or generate new income, but because it is simply the right thing to do.
Where is our courage? What is our vision? Us, this wonderful, wacky, brilliant, daring community of artists and arts-lovers. How big do we dare to dream?
In this opening session I have the distinct pleasure of welcoming four leaders who are willing to share their vision with us. Each artist represents a different vantage point for a whole host of reasons. Let’s listen as they imagine with us our way forward . . . to the mountaintop.
The lesson of the mountain is long. First, there are many mountains and we must commit to one – we’ve got to know which one we’re climbing. There are many ways up; no one way will work all of the time. Every one of us will have to slow down, pause, backtrack even, as we make our way forward. We’ll need strength–if it were easy, there’d be a village already up there. We’ll need courage–some of us are afraid of heights. We’ll need endurance–there’s no sprinting here – this is an evolving dream and has always been a relay race. We’ll need provisions – what resources do we already have? What do we need to find or make? We’ll need champions and cheerleaders. We must celebrate our achievements along the way, even as we’re reminded to push on. And as we near the top, I hope our long journey will have affirmed the power of compassion and empowered our ability to share. There is less space at the top but there’s a point even to that. You can’t ignore someone who is standing right beside you. This vision, this promised land, is a collective dream. Our eyes will kaleidoscope into something more beautiful and dynamic than any one person could have dreamed.
Each time the lights come up on our stages, our work closes spaces between people, creates intimacy where there was a gulf. If we can do it for a couple of hours onstage we can certainly extend it throughout a day, maybe we can extend it a month, even a whole year, until – eventually and inevitably – it becomes a life path. Easy as breathing. Yet, we must stay mindful. In a world where we often have to remind ourselves to take a deep breath, we’ll need to consciously practice our path, and bring others along, too.
We must acknowledge where we are – the challenges and the opportunities – that’s the climb. We must build trust, and listen to those voices we’ve silenced – either through ignorance or simply by maintaining the status quo.
We’re living through history. And it’s messy. Sometimes it’s going to hurt, and we’ll make mistakes, or be embarrassed, or not know what to do. But the great thing about theatre people is that we know how to work collaboratively; we know how to rely on other human beings to do what they do best. We must reach beyond what’s familiar and where we’re safe into spaces where we’re vulnerable, and wherein we must rely on the kindness and compassion of others. We must need each other.
And that, that is where we excel. Achieving true and lasting equity will require hard work in all sectors of society, but the most profound gift we have to give is our ability to help people recognize themselves in those who seem so very different. Where else can human empathy be called forward with such force, with such audacity? Theatre can engender transformational change in artists and audiences alike. We must not be afraid to use it. But to wield the power of theatre means to accept responsibility for what you offer up to the world. Leaders serve. They listen. They don’t work alone. Leaders are accountable. And they know that they are always learning.
It’s a hard challenge – holding what is and what can be at the same time. But we’re an intrepid bunch. And I think we’re closer to the top of the mountain than we think. Let this time here at the TCG annual conference give you space to reflect and to take inventory of where you are on the journey. Look around at who is nearby. Find out what you have in common–where what they do is exactly what you need and where your strength can help another along. Yes, we need each of you to be leaders in your own communities. To be brave. Tenacious. Inconvenient. But mostly right now, for the next couple of days, we need you to dream, because we’re not there yet. And where we’re going can’t be where we are.
Sarah Bellamy is Co-Artistic Director for Penumbra Theatre Company. She has designed several programs that engage patrons in critical thinking, dialogue, and action around issues of race and social justice. Select programs include Penumbra’s Race Workshop curated to accompany the Science Museum of Minnesota’s exhibit RACE: Are We So Different?, and the Summer Institute, a leadership development program for teens to practice art for social change. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, Ms. Bellamy holds an M.A. in the Humanities from The University of Chicago and is currently theVisiting Professor of Theatre and Culture at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. She serves on the board of directors for Theatre Communications Group, the national organization for the American theatre.