Off Script: After Trump, using art as political resistance

Maggie Monahan, Op-Ed Contributer

On Wednesday night, I had to pull myself out of bed. As director of the 75th Annual Dolphin Show, “Little Shop of Horrors,” I should have felt the six months’ worth of daily preparation and giddy anticipation I had put into our very first rehearsal. The joy of my boss Rep. Tammy Duckworth’s victory in the Illinois race for U.S. Senate had vanished late Tuesday, and the panic for my family and friends whose rights may be abridged by President-elect Donald Trump had set in. On the day after that unprecedented election, how could I possibly ask 20 college students, many of whom are now targets of the Trump administration, to sing or dance, let alone to perform a goofy musical about a sentient carnivorous flytrap?

Although creative work may feel inconsequential at times, Wednesday night was the most healing I have ever spent in a rehearsal room. The cast, representing every corner of Northwestern’s campus, raised their voices in song, echoing throughout the halls of the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts. Members of the rehearsal and production teams shed silent tears as the company-wide opening number, “Downtown,” came together. For at least a few hours, we were together and unapologetic.

A heightened musical satire, “Little Shop of Horrors” follows the employees of a particularly miserable flower shop as they grapple with the arrival of an extraterrestrial plant with powers and hungers beyond their understanding. In our production, we will explore the perverted mythos of American meritocracy. I believe our country is a beautifully ambitious experiment in aspiration, one that is necessarily messy and chaotic. However, that does not mean the powerful don’t exploit the powerless.

Our youth was characterized by post-9/11 hopelessness and marked social immobility. Understandably, our impulse is then to upend, to break, to shatter, to game the system, to do just about anything in order to get what we deserve. I think 2016 now rivals the 1960s, in which “Little Shop” is set, in terms of social upheaval: rapid progress and fierce resistance to that progress, vast polarization and expanding wealth gaps. Young people search for some way out of the bleakness of our futures, and sometimes this self-serving impulse takes the form of an oversexed, xenophobic demagogue or of a sentient flytrap.

Our society has often turned to realism in the tone of our public discourse as well as of our art. We do so as a method of coping with this era of hopelessness, a method of honestly portraying our lives in all their bleakness. But if something much darker and more insidious lies beneath the surface, we must turn to other forms, such as satire, if we want to exorcise our demons through art.

Within the protections of this university, we have the opportunity to create the art we feel we need to see, to make, to experience. Not all college student theater is free to produce content without fear of censorship. I am thankful that Northwestern so protects our freedom of speech and creative freedom, onstage and off.

We must now come to terms with a bigot’s presidency. As artists, our responsibility is to speak truth to power. And sometimes we must sing truth to power, belt truth to power and dance truth to power. In doing so, we expose the foundational flaws of a system that so exploits and divides our beautiful country. That is our resistance.

Maggie Monahan is a Communication senior. She can be contacted If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.