In his avant-garde theatrical “The Last Supper At Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” New York choreographer/dancer Bill T. Jones includes a backwards broadcast of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech: Last At Free Are We. Almighty God Thank! The jumbled juxtaposition of the great orator’s words is jarring, but as a black, gay artist, Jones means no disrespect. The entire work is intended to take the audience out of their normal comfort zone, to help them confront the realities of racism and homophobia that still haunt our land 60 years after Dr. King’s famous speech.
I had an unusual chance to appear on stage with Jones back in 1991, when the show first debuted. In each city where “The Last Supper” performed, a local minister was invited to be part of the act, to join in an impromptu, unscripted dialogue about the persistence of evil and the power of faith. “Are you a person of faith?” Bill asked me. It was a simple question, but unexpected. The two of us were seated in straight-backed chairs on the proscenium, with spotlights shining down and three thousand people filling the theater, listening for my answer. It was a tense moment.
I finally responded that all of us are people of faith. Everyone believes in something. Everyone trusts in a power greater than themselves. The question is where you put your faith. Dr. King, for example, put his faith in the power of non-violent action and redemptive love. Others put their trust in the big stick, armaments and retaliation. But the philosophy of an eye-for-an-eye, King said, left everyone blind.
That particular night happened to be the civil rights leader’s birthday, and January 15 also marked the start of the first Gulf War. American warplanes were bombing Baghdad even as we spoke.
Many wars later (Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan), Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday might be a good time for all of to ask where we put our faith. In F-35 bombers and drone technology? Or do we need a change of heart? “Hatred cannot vanquish hatred,” King proclaimed, “only love can do that.” But do any of us really believe that, even a little?
Dream A Have You? In Believe You Do What? Are “realpolitick” and bigger budgets for defense actually the path to peace? The best way to celebrate King’s legacy is to risk getting out of your comfort zone. Let yourself be confronted by the tough questions that he asked.