As the house lights dim at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood, a lone voice in the darkness shouts, “Impeach!” There are cheers. Then another person shouts, “Lock him up!”
This is the beginning of a sold-out benefit on Tuesday titled “E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One,” presented by the activist theater group Artists Rise Up Los Angeles, which executive producer and director Sue Hamilton formed after the 2016 presidential election.
Where others take to the streets, Hamilton decided she would challenge her fellow creative artists to take to the stage.
Hamilton put out a call to action on Facebook the day after Hillary Clinton’s stunning defeat in the presidential election. Four days later, more than 60 people showed up for the first meeting at the Lyric Hyperion Theatre in L.A. Membership has since topped 100, and a sister organization is called Artists Rise Up New York.
“We’re starting a discussion through song, dance, spoken word and poetry. We’re saying, ‘We’re not OK with this.’ We’re saying, ‘We matter, all lives matter, we need to be equal, we are human beings,” Hamilton says of this night’s program: nearly 30 short scenes, monologues, films, dances and songs, including a number staged by two Broadway cast members of “Hamilton” who flew to L.A. for the event.
She sits in the lobby before the show while a line of guests coils out the front door. Some of those already inside the 320-seat theater make a last-minute dash to the bar. This is a night for drinking. Electricity is in the air, a sense of unpredictability too. Anything could happen. There is also a touch of sorrow. You can hear it in voices as people chat loudly with one another. This is the beginning of a long slog.
Once the program begins, it becomes apparent that this is not an ordinary theater audience. There are cheers and jeers and the occasional shouted exclamation. Applause comes in long, loud, rowdy rushes. Add a veil of cigarette smoke, hard liquor and two more years of the current administration, and one can imagine these shows, which Hamilton says the group plans to do quarterly, beginning to resemble the famously lewd, satirical and politically subversive cabarets of Weimar Berlin.
In terms of content, this is the ultimate echo chamber. People aren’t here to have their minds changed, but rather to experience the catharsis of seeing their fears and hopes embodied by the performers onstage in pieces that bounce from comical to tragic and points in between.
“I can’t watch any more news, and instead of just going out to get ice cream, this will hopefully make me feel the way I did when I went to the Women’s March, a sense of camaraderie,” says Stephanie Lehrer, a retired first-grade teacher, before the show. “I’m all by myself tonight. But not really. We’re all one.”
Lehrer’s last point speaks to the broader theme of the evening, one touched on by nearly every vignette: Silence is no longer acceptable. Much like the Women’s Marches, the evening’s proceedings include a veritable stew of progressive issues: women’s rights, gay rights, Black Lives Matter, the plight of the disabled, the plight of the deaf, fascism, immigration, nuclear proliferation, refugees, prejudice against Muslims and more.
This all-inclusive approach to protest has been called a weakness in the resistance movement. However, the artists involved with Rise Up Los Angeles agree that an assault on civil liberties and human rights — any civil liberties and any human rights — is, in fact, a single thing the movement can coalesce around. Thus, the title of the show: “Out of Many, One.”
Some of the program’s most effective moments come from comedy, particularly a bitingly satirical song about the absurdity of political action via social media titled “Making a Difference,” by Bill Larkin; and one by Matthew Patrick Davis titled “Come Together (We Elected a Bigot).”
Davis sits at the piano and makes the straight-faced proclamation that we live in a divided time, so his is a song of unity. This is met with sighs. The audience is not here for a kumbaya moment. But Davis soon allays concerns as he sings, “Everything will be alt-right, I mean all white, I mean alright.”
He continues as the audience howls, “Not much will change for me, but if you’re LGBT, or an immigrant, we’ll see.”
Later, Davis, who performs with the Upright Citizens Brigade and posts his comedic songs (at least one of which includes offensive language) to a YouTube channel, says that until now he hasn’t written any songs about President Trump.
“I don’t like to say his name, really — the orange thing — just because I felt like making fun of him was like underestimating him, and the whole time I felt this sense of danger,” he explains, adding he was inspired by a Charles M. Blow column in the New York Times headlined “America Elects a Bigot.”
Also not pulling punches on this night are two female monologists, Tamika Katon-Donegal, performing a piece by Wendy Graf about a Muslim lesbian from Guyana living in New York City after the election; and Mackenzie Kyle, who received perhaps the evening’s most effusive applause for the piece she performed, “Empty Handed,” by Elizabeth Regen.
“You remind us of terror, you remind us of pain, you make us feel as if our whole world has gone insane,” Kyle says as if in an incantation before summoning the hopeful image of something a demagogue cannot destroy, “the blueprints to our daughters’ castles.”
Katon-Donegal’s piece ends with a defiant note of hope as well, “My Islam is beautiful. It’s peaceful. It cherishes life, and that strengthens me.”
Katon-Donegal is not Muslim, but she says she closely related to her character’s disappointment after Clinton lost the election. She was at the Ace hotel in downtown Los Angeles when the results came in, and she retreated to a stairwell, numb.
Not knowing what else to do, she tweeted to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama asking, “What are we supposed to do now?”
She never heard back, she says with a laugh, so when Artists Rise Up Los Angeles presented itself, she knew what she had to do.
Proceeds from the evening were to go to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Human Rights Campaign, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and Natural Resources Defense Council, organizers say.
At the close of the show, during an effusive standing ovation, audience member Lehrer, who had been brought to tears on multiple occasions, whispers, “Who would want to live in a country without all this tapestry? Beautiful.”