Cellist Yo-yo Ma performs Saturday next to the Juarez-Lincoln International Bridge in Laredo, Tex. (Daniel Becerril/Reuters)
Theater critic

For a few moments on Saturday, cellist Yo-Yo Ma brought beauty to a fight that’s hitting ugly new lows, offering a free performance on the Texas-Mexico border. The creative gesture was meant to promote fellowship as the Trump administration is considering unloading asylum seekers and would-be immigrants into American sanctuary cities.

“I believe that you have a unique culture that actually is empathetic to both sides,” Ma said on the border between the sister cities of Laredo, Tex., and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. “People in other places need to listen to you.”

“Other places” would be Washington, of course, where the gridlock over long-promised immigration reform apparently grew only more entrenched over the weekend. “Democrats won’t work with us to fix the current laws,” White House principal deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said to NPR’s Michelle Martin as part of messaging about sending “the illegals,” as President Trump emphatically labeled them, into liberal strongholds.

Politicians dramatize issues to make a point; artists do, too. Saturday’s event in a park next to the Juarez-Lincoln International Bridge was part of Ma’s international Bach Project of 36 performances over two years and six continents, with “a day of action” slated to generate conversation at each stop.

“Viva los dos Laredos!” Ma said into microphone, calling it “a sacred place.”

Wearing a Laredo ball cap, with the Rio Grande as his backdrop, Ma made a short speech.

“I’ve lived my life at the borders, between cultures, between disciplines, between musics, between generations. I feel like I need to make a statement today about three little things: The first thing is, a country is not a hotel, and it’s not full,” Ma said, drawing enthusiastic applause. “The second statement I’d like to make is that in culture, we seek truth and understanding. And the last statement I’d like to make is that in culture we build bridges, not walls.”


Crowds gather for Ma’s performance of a Bach cello suite. (Daniel Becerril/Reuters)

Though music is typically less literally political than theater (which has a centuries-old tradition of frightening churches and governments into repression and censorship), the gut-deep sonorousness of Ma’s instrument suggests reflectiveness. “Prelude” from Bach’s Suite No. 1 for Unaccompanied Cello has a surging, forward-pressing intelligence that resolves harmoniously.

It would be lovely to impose that kind of order on the maddening, intractable disorder of American border policy. In that sense, what Ma offered was a prayer.

Prayers are meant to galvanize the flock and lead to purposeful action. The most tantalizing words Ma spoke were these: “The power of what you desire makes things happen.” But does anyone currently believe that Washington, wherein the power to legislate resides, can find enough unity of desire to make meaningful improvement? With the already crowded and hyped 2020 campaign season just beginning, doesn’t immigration reform seem destined to be the hottest of debate topics but the iciest of problems this government might actually try to solve?

What followed Ma’s remarks were lonely notes of grace, which probably bucked up listeners already craving what the cellist called an “empathetic” approach to immigration. What was dramatized was the gap between that disciplined music and the yowls of Washington hardball, a chasm far less bridgeable than the narrow Rio Grande.