Art and social justice on Broadway

Toshi Reagon opened the touching, intimate conversation with an acoustic performance of her song “There and Back Again,” with the crowd joining in for the last chorus.
Photo by Tequila Minsky

On a recent Monday when Broadway theaters are “dark,” the Ambassador Theatre at Times Square was packed with lovers of the written and spoken word and social justice activists to hear a conversation between Sonia Sanchez and two other renown writers.

Bestselling author Ta-Nehisi Coates and novelist and Nobel prize-winner Toni Morrison sat on the stage, which during the rest of the week features the musical Chicago, and spoke with Sanchez about the trajectory of their careers, their motivations and even their writing habits.

Singer Toshi Reagon opened the touching, intimate conversation with an acoustic performance of her song “There and Back Again,” with the crowd joining in for the last chorus.

Sonia Sanchez led a moment of silence for the victims of the Orlando shooting, before opening and moderating the 90-minute discussion, which covered topics including the act of writing, the idea of editors as curators of culture, boxing legend and activist Muhammad Ali, the death of Freddie Gray, structural inequity and more.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction and he is also a 2015 MacArthur Foundation “genius.” Numerous times during his conversation, he referenced Howard University, where he had been a student.

On the purpose and impact of writing he said, “You sit down to write and you have no idea what’s going to come of it when it goes out into the world. If anything, you’re preparing for it to have no effect at all. But when [my writing] wasn’t being published, [now that it is] being published, and one day [if] it’s not being published, I’ll still be doing it.”

Novelist Toni Morrison, a Howard University graduate, (award winning “Beloved”) spent a good deal of her literary career as an editor. At Random House she played a vital role in bringing black literature into the mainstream. “The Bluest Eye,” her first book, was published while working as an editor.

Sonia Sanchez is the poet-in-residence for the Stella Adler Studio of Acting that proceeded with her idea to have this intimate contact with these stellar writers. The event was titled “Art and Social Justice.”

During the evening Sanchez also opined on writing, art and its power, “The artist is always suspect. You can be just as polite, you can dress just as nicely as everyone else, but the moment you walk in, they will say, ‘Identify yourself,’ and you are suspect. If you want go into this thing called writing, you will be suspect. It is dangerous turf, this thing called writing.”

The organizers thought that “Art and Social Justice” was bringing poet Sonia Sanchez to Broadway, but artistic director Tom Oppenheim noted that the reverse was true. The evening conversation actually brought this audience to Broadway. Great to observe, the seats were filled with young people, mainly in their 20s and 30s.

The presentation was part of the Harold Clurman Lecture Series of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. Barry and Fran Weissler, producers of Chicago, donated the theater.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction with “Between the World and Me”, also a 2015 MacArthur Foundation “genius,” shares his thoughts on writing with Sonia Sanchez and a packed Ambassador Theatre.
Photo by Tequila Minsky

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