Tear Down the Wall

On March 18, 2016, Milwaukee Rep unveiled the world premiere production of Joanna Murray-Smith’s American Song, about gun violence in America.  I liked and favorably reviewed Murray-Smith’s play.  But it’s what came next that I’ll never forget.

More than 150 audience members stayed on to discuss the play and gun violence.  Conducted in small groups, the ensuing dialogue was led by trained facilitators from Milwaukee’s justly acclaimed Zeidler Group, which is adept at promoting hard conversations on controversial topics like this one.

Although the opening round of the NCAA’s March Madness was underway that night, many of the discussion groups continued past their allotted time, as Milwaukeeans representing different backgrounds and viewpoints tried to find common ground on an issue tearing our city and country apart.

“What a novel concept,” I wrote in my Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel review the next day.  “See a play, talk about the play.”  Milwaukee Rep called this new initiative ACT II.

ACT II discussion groups.

“ACT II is geared at providing a platform for active, civil dialogue around the provocative topics each play explores,” said Mark Clements, Milwaukee Rep Artistic Director.  “The theater can serve an important role in reminding us all that regardless of viewpoint, there is more that connects us than divides us.”

Finding Our Voice, Together

As the turnout for its initial ACT II demonstrated, Milwaukee Rep was tapping an unmet need among audience members looking for an opportunity to channel what they were feeling about the play.  Milwaukee Rep was also clearly serving a larger unmet need for forums allowing people in Milwaukee and America to constructively engage on seemingly intractable, inherently divisive issues.

Pardeep Singh Kaleka, who has dedicated his life to building bridges between people in the years following his father’s murder in the 2012 Sikh Temple shooting in Oak Creek, still marvels at the power of ACT II to channel catharsis, on topics few of us even know how to discuss with our own families – let alone our neighbors or wider community.

“We can talk about the secular religion that is the Green Bay Packers,” Kaleka noted during a recent phone conversation.  “There are other topics that it’s socially acceptable to talk about.  But politics, faith, violence, and mental illness are not among them.  We do ourselves a disservice as a society when we can’t talk about the things that matter most to us.”

ACT II discussion groups.

Kaleka was involved in the ACT II programming surrounding Milwaukee Rep’s 2019 production of Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe’s Every Brilliant Thing – a poignantly moving exploration of a man’s struggles with the mental illness that killed his mother.

“There’s a stigma attached to depression and mental illness,” Kaleka noted.  “It induces shame.  That shame fosters silence.  ACT II created a space to say that this is part of our society.  It gave voice to the issue.  It allowed for the release of some of that shame.”

Mired in a pandemic now nearly one year old – and suffering from a national pandemic involving race relations that’s now centuries old – we’ve never needed that release more.  People are lonely and scared as well as polarized and angry; hard conversations of the sort promoted by ACT II can seem as out of reach as live theater itself.       

From ACT II to REPair Divides

Undeterred, Milwaukee Rep made the decision soon after theaters closed last March to move the concept of ACT II online, through a series of monthly forums entitled REPair Divides.  As with ACT II, REPair Divides involves breakout discussions – now on Zoom – facilitated by the Zeidler Group, where Kaleka is now the Executive Director.

Topics have included talking to children about race, the right to vote, the generation gap, the reentry into mainstream society of formerly incarcerated persons, how the pandemic has changed the meaning of home, and deaf culture.

Each session begins with a short performance, ranging from hip-hop videos by young people encouraging voter registration to selections from Milwaukee Rep’s growing series of originally commissioned shorts on themes addressing connectivity, hope and our need for community.  Following brief remarks from invited guests and ensuing breakout discussions, the audience is brought back together for closure.

Participants in a recent REPair Divides discussion.

“These topics aren’t necessarily new,” noted N’Jameh Camara, Milwaukee Rep Associate Director of Engagement.  “But REPair Divides can hopefully give them nuance, enabling conversation on topics we’ve grown comfortable not talking about.  REPair Divides challenges an audience to be engaged, in a way that makes them think about how what they see can result in an evolution of thought and transformation.”

All the World’s a Stage

Camara’s vision of REPair Divides aligns with Milwaukee Rep’s mission statement, which envisions theater as much more than a few hours of escapist entertainment.  That statement instead imagines theater as a catalyst for societal change, in which “world-class theater experiences . . . entertain, provoke, and inspire meaningful dialogue among an audience representative of Milwaukee’s rich diversity.”

“Theater can’t just be about inspiration, unconnected to action,” Kaleka insists.  “Theater reaches inside of you and challenges you to do something.  It’s good to be inspired and entertained.  But we need a society where people are also committed.”  “You may be entertained,” Camara said, of a Milwaukee Rep experience.  “But the goal is to also make you engaged.”

Also true to Milwaukee Rep’s mission statement, REPair Divides has made a concerted effort to widen the scope of who might participate in such experiences.  Many of its programs have tackled topics involving BIPOC communities, young people, or both.

Such an expansive vision of theater recalls its classical Greek past, when religious and communal ceremonies evolved into theatrical performances allowing a community to constructively debate the most important issues defining who and what their society could and should be.

Camara acknowledged that such conversations can be uncomfortable.  But as she also noted, “that sort of discomfort can be exciting . . . instead of just identifying a problem, you’re engaging with the idea that this is something I want to work on.  We think about what a solution to the identified problem might look like.”

In short, conversations like those fostered by REPair Divides raise the stakes; instead of being an escape, theater becomes an opportunity to talk about our collective future.  “Theater can’t just be about escape,” Kaleka insisted.  “It should stick with you, late at night and days later.”

The next REPair Divides, taking place on Thursday, February 25 at 5:00 CST, will feature several artists discussing “Rise: An African American Word Quilt,” written by Milwaukee Rep Associate Artistic Producer Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj and inspired by August Wilson’s “The Ground on Which I Stand.” Email athome@milwaukeerep.com to RSVP and join the conversation.

The former chief drama critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Mike Fischer is a Milwaukee-based dramaturg and a member of the Advisory Company of Artists for Forward Theater in Madison.