by Bridget Kelso, member of the 2009 Emerging Writers Group
Who am I? Why am I here? Artists use their gifts to explore these questions and more, but the issue of identity can still be complex. I have struggled with my various identities, like someone dressing for different events: Today I’ll wear the mother outfit; tonight I’ll wear the writer’s hat; tomorrow I’ll be an actor... What about the teacher, friend, political activist? How can I fulfill all of these roles? Can I be more than one at a time?
I realize now that my art, spirituality and desire for social justice are not mutually exclusive. My interests/identities are interdependent, fluid, working together, lending and borrowing as necessary.
My responsibility as an artist is reflected in my social justice outreach efforts, which are in turn an extension of my spiritual practice. Let me explain the “artist’s responsibility” thing. Many years ago, I went to a workshop/lecture featuring Ossie Davis Jr. He talked about many things, but what stood out was this: Art, and in this case he meant acting, should be connected to social justice. His life was an example of this. His work as an actor was intimately tied to his efforts within the Civil Right Movement. He instilled in us the idea that if you’re going to call yourself an artist, then you have a responsibility to advance the cause of social justice.
Whether it’s the Occupy Movements going on across the country or voter registration drives – find an outlet that suits your gifts. It’s your responsibility as an artist. I believe it grounds you, and makes your art that much more creative and fulfilling.
I am no longer surprised at how easily the different parts of my life blend together. My interest in slave narratives finds its way into my discussions with my son on the train, and with my students in the classroom. My passion for social justice (i.e. access to basic services for everyone, providing arts education for young people, helping those who have the least), also dovetails with my spiritual practice. My church is very involved in social justice issues, so I often find myself engaged in conversations about political issues and events, and strategizing, on a Sunday. My poetry has been used as an opening prayer for various church services, so naturally one of my new plays, Leah’par, tells the story of Lucifer’s fall from grace from the perspective of a newly arrived slave on a plantation. The picture of who I am, and what I have to offer – in effect, what I am here for – would be incomplete if even one of these pieces was diminished, lost, or ignored.
The playwright Suzan Lori-Parks said writing is “holding the hand of God.” I hold onto that hand as well, and keep my eyes on the world around me. It is at that crossroads – that intersection of art, social justice and spirituality – that I am most fulfilled. Join me there and let’s change the world.
Bridget Kelso has been active in the Living Wage Campaign at her church, First Corinthian Baptist Church, and is a teaching artist for Judith Sloan’s EarSay Project at the International High School in Queens, which helps Immigrant Youth by transforming trauma into art. She is currently working on a solo performance piece entitled SLIDE SHOW: THE EVOLUTION OF RADICAL FEMINIST THEOLOGY.
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.