Beyond History

Is it possible?

University of Washington, Seattle CampusFaulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Usually, I agree with this line. It’s especially pertinent for anyone trying something new. Technology. Art. A life. Yet if we are living among the ruins of history, navigating the rubble as much as the current moment, how can we see beyond that?

National history. Racial history. Personal history.

This July, I stepped onto the stage for the first time in 15 years. I nudged my way past the wings and behind the closed curtain and crossed over to the otherworldly I-am-all-places-and-times-tell-me-what-to-be space of an empty stage.

The other dancers and I had spent three weeks rehearsing together, and as we took our places, we caught nervous glances, smiled. Patted each other on the shoulder. Stood there, eyes gleaming in the darkness like marbles on blacktop. Waiting. Solid. Still.

But even as I stood there at that moment, I stood on fifty other stages, too, in fifty other moments. It was not just this dance in my body, waiting to be born, but all the other dances I had once performed, too. And for some reason Macbeth’s speech upon his wife’s death kept coming to me:

“Life’s but a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.”

I wanted to whisper it to someone but thought it was a bit pessimistic for opening night. So I bit my lip and kept it to myself.

We waited in the twilight behind the curtain, rehearsing our steps. But that’s the curious thing about performance. It is one moment of time in which, if the performer is successful, a lifetime is condensed. You defy history only if you embody it. If you take up every last tatter of it, like some ceremonial robe, and step onto the stage–bearing it lightly.

And then, if you prove strong enough, you carry it some place new. Somewhere it has never been before.

I’m far from being that strong. But trying and failing, I am all the more astonished by great actors, dancers, musicians.

Like Atlas, they take up the world of human history and carry it. But gracefully. And the more history is behind them, the more difficulty in their arrival there–because of race or class or nationality or age or language or the story they are telling–the heavier the weight. And the more in awe I am of them.

We need our performers. We need the voice in the darkness, the vision that knows our history and has seen into our souls and tells us, “I know this darkness, too. This place defined by our past. But there is somewhere else, too. I cannot take you there. But I can show you what it might look like.”

A vision is, by definition, not real. But like the stage curtain, it swings open and redefines our perception of reality. Maybe Faulkner is right, and no one can escape history. But maybe, just maybe, if we can summon enough integrity and bravery, we can redirect it.

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