All the World’s a Stage and Identity is Just Another Costume

All the World’s a Stage and Identity is Just Another Costume

By Don Hall

In a crowd of 17,000, all crammed into the front of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, I see a stew of humanity, the avatar of the Melting Pot idea in play.

There’s Mitchell, a 56-year old black veteran (Marines) who most would classify as homeless as he carries two large bags with him, sleeps on the sidewalk on most nights and comes to almost every concert all summer long. He isn’t homeless. If you take the time to hang with him and engage, he will explain that he has a nice apartment on the far South Side of Chicago that the VA set up for him but that he loves people so much that he spends most of his time downtown, dancing on the streets, talking to strangers, dealing with the intolerance of others and otherwise swimming in this particular sociological soup.

There’s Bob, a retired music teacher in his 70s, who with his wife, comes to at least five park events per week. His leg is really bothering him and he comes across as pretty angry most of the time. My first encounter with Bob began with him looking to complain that my ushers were “reading newspapers and books and chatting” rather than doing their job. It turned out that they made him walk around the ramp to get to a seat and he felt put upon so he manufactured a complaint. (Trust me, my ushers are not reading newspapers in 2018.) One of my customer service techniques is to first assess if I can solve the problem. If the problem is just that the patron wants to complain, I immediately switch gears and become stupid, asking obvious but unimportant questions until I wear them out. Waste my time all you want, I’m paid by the hour sort of thing. For Bob, it worked, and the next time I saw him, he was thrilled to see me and we talk every time he comes. He’s led a fascinating life and I like him immensely.

Sara is a 23-year old Hindu woman with an office job in the Loop. She heads over to the park at least once a week after work to hang out and see whatever is going on. Weeks ago, she came up to me to thank me for how I conduct myself — according to her, I’m always talking to patrons with a grin, good natured and highly energetic. Since then, whenever she sees me, she comes over and we chat about her day, her concerns about Trump and identity politics and her parents who would prefer she come back home to Kanchipuram.

The intersection of every type of human in the park is incredible. Name an identity — from the most common to the smallest segment of current society, white cisgender heterosexual male to transgender bisexual black woman — and they will be somewhere in this giant wok on the east side of Chicago on any given night.

As I’ve grown older and suffered the standard set of betrayals by friends and the sudden absences of importance from colleagues once I’ve moved on (known as the Out of Sight, Out of Mind Syndrome), I’ve become far less social than I used to be. I don’t hang out much, I rarely go to parties, perhaps being in a position to be of service to thousands of people each night limits my desire for humanity. My summer job, however, requires a certain amount of social grace. I have to talk and listen to these people.

As with any substantive interaction with the water within which we swim, there are notable lessons to learn. A bit removed from the personal narrative storytelling form where people get up onstage and narrate bits of their life, the simple conversations with strangers gathered together in a huge performance space, a place where Chicago natives and tourists gather, where every language under the sun is being spoken simultaneously, all age groups represented from walkers and canes to skateboards, are somehow more powerful.

With Identity in the fore, the question shifts from “What can we do about racism and sexism?” to “Who can we blame for racism and sexism?”

I recently binge-watched the Wachowskis' Sense8 on Netflix. Initially turned off by the first episode (and who the fuck knows why, certainly not me), I revisited that first episode not long ago and beat myself in the face for not getting sucked in. The series is brilliant, beautiful and should be required viewing for anyone not living in an urban setting all across the world. The title of the tenth episode of the second season, written by Lana Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski, is “All the World’s a Stage and Identity is Just Another Costume.”

In the Age of Identity Politics, this is strangely a radioactive perspective. To even suggest that the identities of race, gender, religion, sexual preference, etc. ad nauseum are anything short of the most essential part of us is heresy to both the Extreme Left and Alt-Right. Both the Black Separatists and the White Nationalists cannot abide such thoughts and will do almost anything to disavow the concept.

Yet, as I walk through Millennium Park and both observe and engage this multicultural tapas bar of sapiens, the idea keeps gently nudging me like Jiminy Cricket or a radio signal being picked up by a tooth filling.

Identity is just another costume.

At our base, we really all are exactly the same creature. We all basically want the same thing and suffer in similar ways. We find joy in similar things and are all angered by injustice, dishonesty, theft, unnecessary violence (as we interpret them.) We all gotta eat, we all need water to survive, we all need to sleep. The simple biology of humanity is the same with no regard for the costumes we dress it up in.

Why, then, such a push from the extremes on either side of the sociopolitical spectrum to force exclusion on the body politic?

To win an unwinnable war.

Much like the War on Drugs and The War on Terror — both reductionist slogans designed to polarize, separate and stigmatize, both equally fruitless — the insistence on Identity as the Defining Paradigm is the basis for the twin conflicts: the War on Racism and the War on Sexism. If race and gender are the dominant frames from which we operate, then the reduction of thoughtful conversation about these issues can be discarded for a far more polemic and unquestionably anti-pragmatic approach.

With Identity in the fore, the question shifts from “What can we do about racism and sexism?” to “Who can we blame for racism and sexism?”

If we ignore the obvious similarities in who and what we are and instead focus on the differences — in culture, in lifestyle, in tone — the enemy becomes apparent and the mythological resistance to the mythological white supremist patriarchy can gain traction. Instead of focusing on how to end Racism, White Supremacy, Sexism and the Patriarchy, the goal is shifted to simply acknowledging their existence and finding blame, both historically and by proxy presently. No longer interested in ending these vague systems (because ending them would require complex and thoughtful solutions in the most pragmatic sense), the Extreme Left has given up on solutions and seems to be content simply finding as many ways to tie inequity and injustice to these demons of our worst fears.

The wars on racism and sexism have become more theatrical than concrete, more signaling than solving, more reactive than active.

Modern day black intellectuals bark, “We were brought here against our will” despite having never seen a slave ship in their lives, let alone been on one. Modern day feminists cry “We have been marginalized by men for centuries” despite many eighteenth wave feminists only being alive for, at most, two decades.

In the park, there is only one we, the collective patronage of the thousands of multicultural Homo sapiens gathered to hear an orchestra or a jazz ensemble or the blues or a rock band. It is a larger and more lovely we and, therefore, a stronger foundation from which to find solutions to the seemingly insurmountable obstacles to society.

Michael is a 25-year old violinist and skater. He comes to the orchestra concerts (he's been to every Wednesday and Friday night all summer long) and sits at the front of the lawn. He's usually high and when we talk, he wants to talk about Trump and books. He recommended The Inner Civil War by George Fredrickson. I recommended Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now.

Alice is a 30-something Chinese woman recently emigrated from her birth country to Chicago. Her English is spotty but when she awkwardly asked where the bathrooms were and I told her, she decided I was the Answer Man in the park. Whenever she finds me, she has questions — about Chicago, about neighborhoods, about the concert that night, about the best singles apps.

Mayra, 78-year-old black woman, born and raised on the South Side, is usually a bit drunk and flirts with me. She is more conservative than the Generation Z black kids and doesn't quite understand why they're so angry. "My time...," she intones through sips of 312, "My time was a lot harder than theirs and I'm not so loud about it."

In same way that I reject the simplistic morality behind the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, I likewise turn away from the War on Racism and the War on Sexism. These wars are designed to be perpetual and never-ending. They are created to merely replicate the mirror image of current power imbalances rather than reset the default. They are about vengeance rather than exculpation.

None of this is to say that racism and sexism do not exist. It is to say that they are not monsters to be defeated but problems to be solved. They are not mythologies or sins that require fire and prayer to eradicate (and eradicate them we must if we truly want a multicultural, globally fair society) but societal obstacles to be overcome. The solutions, I believe, lie in our ability to co-exist in a giant park and release our grip on the insistence of culture, skin tone, accents — all the outward showing indicators.

All the world is a stage and identity is just another costume. Recognize the costumes, celebrate them, see the humanity underneath and proceed with kindness and pragmatism. Anything less is false piety and dogmatism.

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