The first half hour of “Letters to Obama,” a performance at the Experimental Station, consisted of everyone setting up. In a space focused on community, this really means everyone, myself included. One performer set out hummus dip for eating “between transitions.” He was Reggie Eldridge, who, I later learned was a poet, the night’s favorite performer, and an 11th grade teacher in Englewood. He also helped to rearrange chairs, while I led two attendees to the sometimes hard to find Experimental Entrance on Blackstone Avenue. Once the emcee, Dwayne Mann, dimmed the lights to an off-copper hue, a voice boomed:
“America is the greatest country of all.”
This declaration was made by Justin Knight, a fifteen year-old from Brooklyn, in Elphine Fawundu Buford and Kayinde Harris’ film Dear Mr. President. It was a bold statement of pride, a sentiment very different from many of the performances that were to follow that night. In fact, Justin Knight’s confident patriotism presented one of two emotional positions when it comes to this election: that of the hopeful and that of the weary. With just two days before the election, Letters to Obama meshed the performers’ opposing expectations (or lack thereof) through myriad media.
One flurried performance by Margaret Lebron consisted of torn Kleenex and dried tears. In 2008, Lebron–a military sister–cried daily under the overwhelming sense of reformative possibilities she saw in Obama, “a guy from [her] neighborhood who promised to end the wars.” Now, the only thing Lebron cries over is her “Sallie Mae loans.” This cynical shift in expectations–a theme among the older artists in attendance–was in great contrast to the unique lack of fatigue found in first-time voters’ performances. The last performance by beat boxer Justin Zullo made the crowd, in both chant and action, echo his calls to “stand up.” In Zullo’s creation of an interactive environment, there was an emphasis on perseverance and participation. No matter how long over time the event ran, Zullo was still going to perform and do so in a way that called others to action.
Similarly, “Letters to Obama” left the sense that change is possible. Voters may be disillusioned, but they shouldn’t be embittered, and they shouldn’tÂ stop “standing up” for a hope they’ve always believed in. As Zullo’s performance ended, he pointed at the four youngest performers–a group called White Elephant. “They’ve been yelling the loudest this whole time; they’ve made four sound like 20.” It is this power of persevering possibility, no matter how overdue change is, that “Letters to Obama” reinforced.