Left, writer Junot Diaz, who won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." (Nina Subin); Above center, artist and activist Yoko Ono. (Photo by Juergen Frank/Corbis via Getty Images); Below center, singer and former "America's Got Talent" contestant Jackie Evancho, who performed at Donald Trump's inauguration. (Herald Julian); Right, Grammy-winning rock artist Lucinda Williams. (David McClister)

If art is a societal mirror, what does it look like in these politically tumultuous times? We recently asked a number of artists to reflect on this topic. For some, this moment is a call to action; for others, a time of anxiety; and for others still, circumstances don’t matter because, to them, art is art. Their responses have been edited and condensed.

Robert Schenkkan (Brinson + Banks/For The Washington Post)
Robert Schenkkan, 64

Playwright of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “The Kentucky Cycle”; Tony Award winner for “All the Way,” a play about Lyndon B. Johnson. Regional theaters are staging his latest work, “Building the Wall.”

I wrote the first draft of this play in late October, in essentially a week, in a surge of anger and frustration. Theater can’t operate as though it was business as usual. If we’re going to be a part of this national conversation, which we must be having, theater has to be much more flexible. I see and have experienced a hesitancy or fear on the part of some institutions who are worried about backlash, either from their boards, or their audience members, or from the administration. I understand the reluctance of institutions. It’s a complicated, confusing time. But we’re artists. This is theater. This notion that we should shy away from controversy is foolish.

Justin Simien (Ian Maddox/For The Washington Post)
Justin Simien, 34

Writer and producer of a film and Netflix series, both titled “Dear White People.”

I have anxiety about being a black artist, and people working in various ways to suppress my voice. Even if it’s something as stupid as someone trolling movie sites and trying to encumber my work with one-star reviews. These people — trolls, or the alt-right — their tactics do work. I have pictures of Stanley Kubrick, Michael Jackson, Bob Fosse and Spike Lee by my computer. All of these people put out work that the public wasn’t ready to deal with. I have to be brave enough to tell the stories, even if people aren’t willing to listen yet.

Junot Díaz (Bebeto Matthews/AP)
Junot Díaz, 48

Winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” A 2012 MacArthur Fellow, Díaz also teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Sadly, there always seems to be a 20-year lag time in my fiction. On the other hand, I’ve been writing about the forces that gave rise to Trump for as long as I’ve been a writer. I grew up a poor immigrant of African descent from a parent who came over illegally — who was undocumented — and I have experienced precarity. I’ve always written about what it means to be in a country which depends on immigrant exploitation but demonizes and victimizes them all the same. I have been vaulted into middle-class comforts, but this time, this election, for many people has underscored their sense of how vulnerable they are. I do feel an urgency to write a little more, a little faster. All our voices, all our interventions are sorely needed.

Jackie Evancho (Herald Julian)
Jackie Evancho, 17

Classical singer and former contestant on “America’s Got Talent”; she performed twice during Donald Trump’s inauguration festivities.

A lot of artists had passed because of their politics. I’m not a very political person. I saw it as a huge honor. I sang “Nessun Dorma” because I knew that was one of President Trump’s favorite songs, because I performed it for him when I was really young, too. After saying yes, I had a lot of backlash, but I also had a lot of fans cheering me on. To be an artist at the moment is a scary thing, because you could possibly lose your whole career. It’s tricky waters to be in.



Hank Willis Thomas (Andrea Blanch)
Hank Willis Thomas, 41

Conceptual artist with work in the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim; co-founder of an artist super PAC.

I remember saying that if Donald Trump were elected, my job wouldn’t change. I am the co-founder of a super PAC called For Freedoms. It’s really trying to figure out how to create a space for political discourse that’s also embedded in fine-arts practices. I take inspiration from Germany, 1989. People decided that the Berlin Wall needed to come down. The government didn’t decide that. People decided it. I think about a super PAC as a creative process. We’re trying to galvanize the creative community to actually make our imprint on society greater.

Yoko Ono (Juergen Frank/Corbis via Getty Images)
Yoko Ono, 84

Musician and conceptual and performance artist. After the 2016 vote, Ono responded with a tweet that included audio of her screaming. It went viral. Here’s how she responded to us.

Live in the light of hope

You may be bathed in the

Light of hope one day

It would be good … right?

Lucinda Williams (David McClister)
Lucinda Williams, 64

Americana and rock artist with three Grammy Awards, for songwriting (for the country hit “Passionate Kisses”), rock performance and contemporary folk album of the year. Her father, Miller Williams, was the poet for Bill Clinton’s second inauguration.

I feel like I do have a responsibility as an artist to get certain messages across. The most obvious one I’m doing right now is my song “Foolishness.” Which I put an addendum on. It’s meant to be a simple song. “I don’t need this foolishness in my life.” I started adding on during the elections: “I don’t need hate in my life. I don’t need walls in my life. I don’t need fear in my life.” I even added on, “I don’t need Donald Trump in my life.” The audience would just go nuts. I took out the Trump thing. But I added on, “I need hope in my life. I need justice. I need peace. I need love in my life.”

Priest band members, from left, Taylor Mulitz, Katie Alice Greer, Daniele Daniele and G.L. Jaguar. (April Greer/For The Washington Post)
Priests

A Washington-based rock-and-roll quartet — from left, Taylor Mulitz, Katie Alice Greer, Daniele Daniele and G.L. Jaguar — whose debut, “Nothing Feels Natural,” was issued this year via Sister Polygon Records.

Greer (singer, lyricist): So many artists have said to me, “Because Donald Trump is president now, I feel like I need to go do something else with my time.” Which is so sad to me, and I think points to how broken our value system is that people think that art is frivolous or superfluous, not important in times like these.

Daniele (drummer): The thing that has been nice for me to see at least is, no matter where you go, but especially in the towns where our fans are in the minority, they’re going to be all the more passionate about seeing you.

(Christophe Testi/Sabaa Tahir)
Sabaa Tahir, 35

Author of the best-selling young adult fantasy novels “An Ember in the Ashes” and “A Torch Against the Night.” Paramount Pictures has bought rights to her work.

I like to write when things are calm — and when I’m not worried about my well-being, the well-being of those I love. And there is definitely a lot of worry. We writers joke about how we haven’t gotten anything done since November. But it’s sort of a dark joke because it’s a little true. And there’s this sort of sense of: Does my art matter, or should I be doing something that seems more directly effective, like getting involved in politics? But I think that ultimately it comes back to: I have to do more — reminding myself that it’s more important than ever to portray truth. Young readers can sense when you’re not addressing what’s actually going on.

(Matthew Pandolfe/Sarah Elizabeth Charles )
Sarah Elizabeth Charles, 28

Jazz vocalist, composer and educator who, among other projects, works as a Carnegie Hall teaching artist with young people and at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. She told us about her song and video “March to Revolution.”

Right before the election I recorded a video and the song to release as a single. It was going to change the world and change people’s opinions and the election. And the video came. Went. The election happened. Came. Went. I really thought it was going to change the world or at least change our country and change the results. But it very much didn’t. I still watch it and still sing it with a tinge of laughter, and also a very serious message. It’s amazing what we think we can do in a short period of time. And the reality of art is that it takes time, and you’ve got to give it that time to develop, and 30 years from now, who knows. It might be one of those songs, but now I just got to keep singing it.



E. Ethelbert Miller (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
E. Ethelbert Miller, 66

Poet, author and former commissioner for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. He has received several fellowships and awards, including the D.C. Mayor’s Arts Award.

If you’re an engaged citizen, you stay engaged, regardless of who wins an election. My poem (“This Is What I Want to Tell You”) was an outgrowth of me just happening to see an old friend who happened to be an immigration lawyer. And as we were talking about what was going on, he made reference to a case he was handling in Virginia. They are arresting people right here.

Mark Morris (Helayne Seidman/for The Washington Post)
Mark Morris, 60

Artistic director and choreographer of the Mark Morris Dance Group, founded in 1980. He was a 1991 MacArthur Fellow.

As a friend of mine, who is a big shot running several theaters in New York, said, “We’re always living in a current political situation.” She is worried about this period because it’s going to produce so much bad political art. And I can’t think of anything truer than that. The more it works as politics, the less it works as art, and vice versa.

Gregory Porter (Shawn Peters)
Gregory Porter, 45

Two-time Grammy winner for best jazz album for “Liquid Spirit” in 2014 and “Take Me to the Alley” in 2017. He spends much of his time touring internationally. He spoke to us from Warsaw.

I select songs based on what I feel like the audience might need. Whether it be Beirut or Bahrain, or even Detroit, you can write a musical prescription for whatever the condition is of the environment that you find yourself in. The artist is supposed to provoke and push things forward. I think civil rights. I think Nina Simone, as well as the depth and strength of gospel music and spiritual music; I think Sam Cooke. I think James Brown. How can you not be inspired after hearing Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free”?

Robert Battle (Andrew Eccles)
Robert Battle, 44

Third artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, founded in 1958.

As an artist, you want to say, “What am I doing? How do I respond? What do we as an organization to respond to this?” And you really can’t. The art has to respond. I go home, I close the door and I say all the things I need to say. When you think about the audience, there are people who could be activists themselves. And some say, “I just came here to escape.” We never root for one candidate over the other, but I think it’s clear from our work where we fall. Whatever our audience’s political affiliation is, that’s not our job. I think we have enough of that, quite frankly.

Natsu Onoda Power (Shannon Finney Photography)
Natsu Onoda Power, 43

Georgetown University professor and D.C.-based theater director; her inventive play “Astro Boy and the God of Comics” has been widely staged.

One of the things that’s really threatened in this political climate is resources for the arts. Is our practice going to be sustainable? But exciting work has emerged out of dark times.





(Stan Baldwin/ Jiri Voborsky)
Jiri Voborsky, 42

Artistic director of Ballet Magnificat, a touring Mississippi ballet troupe founded in 1986 on Christian values.

We know there are pockets of America that are more evangelical Christian, that are more Republican, thinking the way we think. The people who feel the way we do are peppered through the country, not just in the Bible Belt. We feel pressured to change with the current flow in the political arena. We feel a sense of isolation. We do. Though the political times are changing, the word of God does not. If someone is going to tell us, “You cannot not hire a homosexual dancer, no matter what you believe,” as an example, then I fear we’ll get to a point where we will be dictated to by a government that says we cannot discriminate in such a way. Then the question will be: Do we shut it down because we cannot compromise our values? Or do we change?

Lynn Nottage (Jesse Dittmar/For The Washington Post)
Lynn Nottage, 52

The first woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for drama, for “Ruined” (2009) and “Sweat” (2017). “Sweat” marked her Broadway debut.

I’m taking the role of being a resister very, very seriously. Rather than being complacent and rather than sort of signing petitions and stewing in my own frustration and my anger, I thought, “Now is the moment in which I really have to do something.” And so with a team of collaborators we are going to Reading, Pennsylvania, and we’re building a performance installation in a building that has been long abandoned: the Franklin Street railroad station. Our ultimate goal is really to try and get this city that’s fractured along economic and racial lines into the same space so that we can build empathy and we can also force people to really engage in meaningful conversations. There’s some art that really is about reflecting and responding to what’s happening immediately. And there’s some art that’s absolutely necessary to fill people’s spirits up with something that’s beautiful.

Tarell Alvin McCraney (Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images/Getty Images)
Tarell Alvin McCraney, 36

Playwright of the “The Brother/Sister Plays” and “Wig Out!,” being staged through Aug. 6 at Studio Theatre in Washington. McCraney is a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and 2017 Oscar winner for co-writing the screenplay for “Moonlight.”

I want audiences to see themselves fully. The political turmoil has changed the way I want to engage with the audience. What stories are from my community, and how can I tell them? A piece that will be about them will only be enhanced by their presence. I am certainly keeping an eye open to the question of how to keep space, and make space, for them at the table.

Barbara Kruger, 72

A conceptual artist, Kruger was the subject of a recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Art; her work is installed at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

I have always had a short attention span. Now, I feel much less isolated in that. Everything is more episodic. It’s faster. Who would have ever thought that the haiku would be the language of the future? Those of us who’ve lived in New York for 30 years know who and what Donald Trump is. If it wasn’t so tragic, it would just be so grotesquely beyond satire. Beyond anything SNL would do. All work, even if it doesn’t look like it, is symptomatic of what it means to be alive today.

Articles editor Marcia Davis interviewed Sarah Elizabeth Charles, Gregory Porter and Hank Willis Thomas. Email us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine.

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