As a parent and teacher, its hard at times to be optimistic about the world in which your children and students live. Perhaps, never in my own lifetime, has there been such an sense of dismay; a culture that seems to be indifferent about difference. From issues plaguing indigenous Canadians to the realities of supporting the working poor in communities all across the country, its important to recognize that difference, like a movie or an appealing advertisement, is a construct. It’s a construct that places blame and creates divides. From shallow proclamations in casual conversation that indigenous people are suffering due to their own incompetence or that the working poor are “lazy,” we can not afford to be indifferent about the creation of difference. Dignity, respect and community are real words with real meaning and as such we must take the intentional opportunity to dialogue with young people about the need to be critical thinkers who can recognize and decode potentially dangerous, isolating and divisive rhetoric. This is why, I love to engage my own children in the arts. As a portal to communication and sharing, the arts have the ability to seemingly engross in spectacle and engage in the intimacy of conversation. Whether it be a blockbuster film with a conscious, a photography exhibit or a musical, the arts liberates and challenges thinking. This doesn’t mean a particular message must be agreed upon but rather the provocation of conversation is what matters if you’re really watching and listening.
Recently, my wife and I had the pleasure to experience Wicked with our 7 and 5 year olds. Although they’ve watched The Wizard of Oz repeatedly, they were yearning to find out more about the Wicked Witch of the West; the fierce and unapologetic villain who in the 1939 film is a shallow vessel for evil personified. Her motivation is unknown and in such the perspective of the film is limited. As with any narrative, the question rests: What is Real?
Whereas the film is Dorothy centric, the theatrical Wicked provides a contemporary and urgent point of view; a colonial an imperialistic Oz plagued by the spirit of difference and one that’s built on lies, layered representations of truth and the placement of blame. Published in 1995 and premiering on stage in 2003, I cant help but think of the story’s telling of the how the “Wicked Witch” came to be, is so connected to the cultural discourse of 1995, 2003 and even seeing it for the first time in 2018. As the Wizard himself says in the play, truth is all based on perception. Regardless, the perspective of the play and one that is ever pressing, is that the Wicked Witch was very much created; naturally good hearted but systemically and purposely vilified and used as a scapegoat to protect and justify power. Think about that for a moment; “purposely vilified.” Whether it be refuges painted as terrorists in hiding or a black male youth as a potential walking threats, those in power create the difference and a responsible society must be composed of people who can see that difference is being created.
This is important conversation to be had, both with children and adults. During the intermission I asked my children how Elphaba (The Wicked Witch of the East) is treated and if we should treat people who are “different,” in such a way. I asked them to make a connection to their world and provoke conversation. We can’t underestimate kids; they pick up on the home conversation, table talk and what news is playing on the television. We have to be brave enough, whether at home or in the classroom, to have real conversations and find a way to navigate the real world talk. This is the power of the arts; a vessel for dialogue. This doesn’t mean we have to agree but we should very much listen and share.