The Glorious Rebirth Performing Troupe, seen in photo above, rocked the Hilton ballroom last night during a showcase of Pittsburgh multicultural performing arts. The woman on the left later gave a solo rendition of "New York, New York" that enabled me to glimpse the face of God. She put every last ounce of her self into the singing of a song, and at the very edges of her own singing something bigger seemed to creep in and take over. Other artists during the evening displayed the same genius for emptying themselves and filling the audience with unexpected delight. I soon forgot the lack of air conditioning in the hotel and my own wariness at finding myself one of just a handful of people of no color at the festivities.
At the end of the Pittsburgh Dance Ensemble's piece, one of the young women badly hurt her right knee. She sat just off stage with an ice pack while Nego Gato, an explosive group of drummers and acrobatic dancers performed African Brazilian wonders. Two male dancers did soared through frightening aerial maneuvers as the injured dancer was wheeled out on a stretcher.
Earlier in the evening, Eric Hayashi, a friend of mine who serves on the WESTAF board, showed the full-length movie he co-produced, "Only the Brave." This is another example of an artist pouring himself into a work of art, beyond the very last drop. The movie tells the story of Japanese-American soldiers who had been interred in concentration camps during World War II and who volunteered to fight in Europe. Their 442nd Regiment fought a terrible battle in France, saving a surrounded band of Texan GIs. One scene, before the regiment shipped out, shows two of the Japanese-Americans encountering racial slurs from white soldiers in a pool hall. By the end of the movie, when the lieutenant of the saved Texans thanks the Japanese-American sergeant, the heroism of the 442nd has been made unforgettable.
Eric has been working on this film for several years, traveling all over the country finding backers, and the actual filming was a super-human marathon of near-sleepless days and nights at Universal Studios. His parents were hauled off to the camps during the war. This movie is personal.
If this weren't a blog, I'd be reluctant to ruminate much further. Talking about race and culture is dangerous. I've had the experience here of seeing an African American encountering me, one of the few whites here, and for a moment seeming to figure out exactly what to say to me. And I know the challenge, whether it's trying to begin a conversation in French with a Frenchman, or introducing myself to a woman on the bus to one of the events. "Hi, I'm a super-privileged white guy whose parents paid for him to attend prep school, Harvard College and Harvard Business School and who is now living on a trust fund. What's your story?" I obviously don't lead with that, but it's in my head.
Last night it struck me how clearly the passion of the singers and dancers had its roots in the oppression of slavery, of racism, of all the stomping out of cultures that has been conducted in history. Art that arises from oppression, whether it's American slavery or Communist muzzling of poets and writers, seems to have an edge, an energy which is uniquely powerful and transforming. The multicultural art on display at The Association of American Cultures conference is potent medicine, as was the jazz of an earlier era and the hip-hop of today. People who have had to fight with every ounce of their being simply to survive have something crucial to reveal: the power of art to kindle super-human hope and new life.