What We Learned
Stanford Live curators Ryan Davis, Laura Evans, and Chris Lorway reflect on the season.
After the 2016 election, in the wake of a political crucible that drew sharp lines between the ways we identify, we set out to explore ideas about identity itself—personal identity, artistic identity, national identity—and how it takes shape. With the hopeful rhetoric of one period in American public life giving way to a new tone of nostalgia, we wanted to question what such temperaments have to do with our character as a country.
Starting with Taylor Mac’s monumental theatrical excavation of American identity through popular music, we consciously selected performances that contended with the allure and the follies of looking backward to try to figure out who we are. We heard Ravi Jain’s charming story of clumsily trying to connect with his heritage as a first-generation Canadian son of Indian immigrants. Penny Arcade delivered a crackling tirade against gentrification’s impulse to restore the simple comforts of suburban memory in the midst of metropolitan bustle and difference. Samantha Bee’s witty gut punches reminded us who didn’t get a voice in a certain idea of the “good old days.” Retrospective tributes to path breakers—living and gone—like Thelonious Monk, Buffy Sainte-Marie, James Baldwin, Charles Ives, Darlene Love, John Waters, and Cornel West showed us just how diverse and very much alive their contributions to our culture are
Musical thinkers like Rob Kapilow and Alex Ross gleaned insights from Leonard Bernstein about the challenges of finding a singularly American musical signature from our continent’s many different folk traditions. Before the season is out, Dom Flemons and Pasatono Orquesta will take us on a comparative journey through some of those vital traditions in danger of being forgotten. In all this, what we came to see is that nostalgia—in its yearning for simplicity—has trouble dealing with the multiplicity of experiences, bound together by a common striving, that defines life in North America.
The Great Buffy Sainte-Marie opened the season on September 22. (Image credit: Joel Simon)
To be American is to be many things at once. E pluribus unum. We saw that Canadian, Ukrainian, British, Pakistani, Mexican, and other national identities are, likewise, irreducible to fixed notions of tradition and the past. But in their diversity, they cohere. An unexpectedly instructive performance this season was 600 Highwaymen’s The Fever, which invited audiences—through simple participatory choreographies—to forge collective identities across their differences, question the ways that grouping can create bias and division, and discover ways to act more inclusively and support each other so the show could go on.
Rob Kapilow was joined by Sally Wilfert for an evening Bernstein. (Image credit: Joel Simon)
Having spent a season parsing the ways we distinguish our identities, we were inspired to push this exploration into a new season with attention to common grounds of human experience that underlie the lines we draw to define ourselves. Each of us is not just a static past but an ongoing project of possibilities. We change, we grow, we connect. We are future oriented. Knowing that our time is brief, and moved by our own vulnerability, we care for others. We hope and work for something better, something more just for all, something to transcend ourselves. Next season we invite you to join us in celebrating these universal experiences of life, love, loss, and transcendence.