The Obamas give their regards to Broadway


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Apparently, there has been some grousing about President Obama’s excursion to New York on Saturday to take in a Broadway show with First Lady Michelle Obama. The question being posed by the pundits of petty politics is, in these recessionary times should American taxpayers, who are already tapped out by billion-dollar bailouts, be footing the bill for the Obamas’ date night?

After all, a presidential commuter trip from the Capital to the Big Apple entails multiple aircraft and a traffic-ensnarling motorcade that must have had Midtown Manhattan drivers (whose patience were already tested by the recent pedestrian takeover of Times Square) wishing they had voted for John McCain. Then there’s the no-expense-spared security detail burdened by the scary historical precedent of what can happen to the commander in chief at the theater. In short, it was headaches all around for this daunting act of logistical legerdemain.


But there’s an obvious justification for this fiendishly complicated and admittedly pricey outing that should knock these bloated bloviators off their shared hobby horse: August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.’ This argument has little to do with the quality of the first couple’s entertainment, though their choice to attend the Lincoln Center Theater revival of Wilson’s masterpiece at the Belasco Theatre, which has been lucidly directed by Bartlett Sher, was an inspired one.

Diversion, always a plus, is beside the point. The issue instead comes down to the value placed on a word that has been taking quite a beating in the press ever since Obama nominated the distinguished Sonia Sotomayor for the U.S. Supreme Court. That word is “empathy,” a concept that has been bandied about of late as though it were a luxury of culture-vulture liberals rather than the foundation of human society itself.

Aristotle was the first to recognize the theater’s unique potential to harness our deepest feelings of pity and fear in the service of an enlightenment that is ultimately in the public interest. A stable society is an emotionally balanced one, in which repression is relieved, common humanity recognized and honest communication restored.

Wilson’s drama, about a community of African Americans making the post-slavery transition to the imperfect freedom of the early 20th century, helps us better understand our present by wrestling with the past that brought us here. Ethical struggles aren’t rendered abstract, as they might be in a history book, but are delivered in the sharp emotional color of individuals struggling to realize their promise against towering odds, to say nothing of willfully closed minds.

Empathy isn’t something we’re born with — it’s something we achieve through a process the Greeks called “paideia,” an active engagement with the living cultural heritage. Minds require education; souls need cultivation. The capacity for inner growth might be innate, but the tank demands fueling. Wilson’s theater, as far removed from amnesiac amusement as you can get in the contemporary theater, nourishes the best in our natures.

With the notable exception of Abraham Lincoln, I wish more presidents during their time in office would have opened themselves up to the salutary and formative effects of serious drama. W.H. Auden’s famous line about the relative ineffectuality of art (“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/ In the valley of its saying where executives/ Would never want to tamper ...”) is no doubt correct when it comes to legislative action. But artists have another power, no less far-reaching for being unseen and immeasurable — the ability to broaden our sensibility by inviting us to experience life through another’s eyes.

Aeschylus, the father of Western drama, teaches us that without an awareness of one another’s suffering there can be no justice, for what is justice but the arbitrating of different claims of righteous redress? (Right versus wrong, the simple-minded stuff of melodrama, cries out for police cars, but justice is hard and demands the acceptance of unequal loss.) “The Oresteia,” Aeschylus trilogy about the foundation of a democratic court that can supplant the unending cycle of retributive violence, implicates us in the painful progress toward true civilization, and dramatic poets such as Wilson have ably followed in this noble ancient pursuit.

True, the planet isn’t going to find a quick-fix in the spectacle of characters grappling with the ethical and emotional conundrums that the theater raises to cathartic proportions. But politicians would undoubtedly discover within themselves a richer imaginative space for decision-making consideration.

Of course, there are practical reasons (beyond the very reasonable pursuit of happiness enshrined in out Declaration of Independence) that should have us applauding the Obamas’ Broadway jaunt. The automotive industry isn’t the only employer out there, and if the president’s ceremonial visit to a car manufacturing plant doesn’t raise any eyebrows, why should his patronage of the arts, another made-in-the-USA source of jobs and tax revenue, be looked upon so jadedly?


Wilson’s dramas are always a tough sell on Broadway, so it’s nice to hear reports that box office sales are already enjoying a significant boost from the publicity. But heck, even a presidential visit to “Rock of Ages,” the ’80s jukebox musical that caught fire this season, would do a bit of economic good -- even if it would have made it a lot harder to defend against all the opportunistic carping.

Before partisan rabble-rousers utter another contentious sound-bite, however, they should probably buy a ticket to “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and find out exactly what they’re missing. If Wilson’s exultantly probing drama doesn’t get them to rethink their career choice, well, it will at least spare them a few hours of mindless cable yakking and juvenile finger-pointing.

-- Charles McNulty