“Fascism is the future refusing to be born,” British politician and social justice warrior Aneurin Bevan once said.
Kryptonite for fascism may just be the committed artist — particularly the one who performs in front of a live audience and who does so with a sense of humor. For all its fearsome dictatorial force, fascism is essentially stupid: regressive, not only unwilling but unable to laugh (unless it is to make fun of someone). Fascism by its very nature exhibits behavior that perpetuates power relations of domination; it operates from a position of privilege and places its enemies in an oppressed position. Sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, and other forms of discrimination are its favorite tools. But fascism hates to be shown up in public, and tuned-in artists can smell out its weakness.
Strange as it may be to admit, when fascists take political power, many artists suddenly have a purpose. Their art has a subject. Just as strangely, topical art becomes more popular in dark times, which makes fascists hate art and artists all the more. When 45 is a no-show at the Kennedy Center Honors, he is not only avoiding an awkward on-camera moment with artists who voted against him; he is running from foes. But we can’t expect to run away all the time.
Federico García Lorca was an artist particularly hated by fascists for his brilliant poetry and plays. He hated them back: “Politics is the ugliest, most disagreeable thing I know,” Lorca told a group of students in 1932, years before he would have to choose sides in the Spanish Civil War. Lorca was no politician: “I am an anarchist, communist, libertarian, Catholic, traditionalist, and a monarchist,” he said cheekily, trying to stay a moving target, yet able to laugh at an unsmiling foe for trying to force him in a box.
But when Generalissimo Franco’s Falangist Fascists took Lorca’s hometown of Granada, they had no problem identifying which side he was on. Lorca presaged his own death in a poem, but when it actually happened via firing squad within eyesight of Granada, even he must have wondered at the animus of the act itself. The killers included right-wing neighbors and business rivals of Lorca’s family, skewered as buffoons in his plays, scandalized by his hobnobbing with gypsy flamenco performers, and positively horrified by his fabulous and decidedly nonheteronormative lifestyle. They did not have to be told that Lorca’s plays and poems were more dangerous than any number of pistols. Not only did they shoot him dead; a note was placed on his body denouncing his sexuality, and one of the killers proudly admitted to shooting him twice up the ass “for being a queer.”
In Spain, Lorca’s words were violated as well as silenced: His works were banned until 1954 and censored until 1975 — the year of Franco’s death. But Lorca lives. Here in our own country, in the midst of our own proto-fascist nationalist moment, Lorca’s words are more inspirational than ever. Lorca lives in me and in my newest play, Yerma in the Desert. Over 80 years before nonbinary identities and subcultures asserted themselves, Lorca wrote three great plays about sex, relationships, and attraction — each of them challenging what we know now as the cisgender default. In his own play Yerma, he found rich tragedy in a young woman’s hunger for her husband’s touch and his refusal to give her the baby she is dying for. That play’s unanswered questions — for instance, why the husband won’t give her what she wants — have confounded audiences for years, in a good way. Is Juan, the husband, merely gay? Or might there be something else going on?
My Yerma takes these questions firmly into our own national moment of Dreamers under fire, walls, fights over bathroom privileges, and other hypermasculine assertions by a Christian right, Joe Arpaio-loving ruling coalition. Is Juan gray-romantic? Is he asexual? He doesn’t seem to like to be touched. And is Yerma’s insistence on cisgender monogamy the turn-off for him? In the way that Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz took elements of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for his own Cuban cigar-scented Anna in the Tropics, I use elements of Lorca’s great play in a new context. Not only is sexual identity at constant stake, but race and ethnicity are in just about every interchange between characters — and economic class discrimination is the greatest battle they must face on a daily basis. The desert of the title may just be the lack of compassion that Yerma’s government affords her, even as she tries to uphold the example of hard work and fidelity.
By writing it for now and performing it now with a diverse group of talented young actors, Yerma in the Desert affirms the Kryptonite powers of live theater: draining the strength of our so-called Mar-a-Lago Superman and giving superhuman powers back to the people. The People define who we are, or not. We will not be boxed in. We can laugh if we want to. Although out-and-out fascism has not overtaken our country (yet), the signs are there.
Bertolt Brecht, another great anti-fascist playwright, wrote in The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, “If we could learn to look instead of gawking, we'd see the horror in the heart of farce. If only we could act instead of talking, we wouldn't always end up on our arse.” It’s up to each of us to see what’s really going on. By giving birth to new art in a public place, we assert who we really are, on our own terms. And, in our little way, we keep the fascists on the run.