Sam: You’re a very rude young woman. I know Douglas from the Rotary, and I can’t believe he’d want you treating customers so badly.
Cashier: I don’t think I was treating her badly.
Sam: Then you must be from New York.
Sam Burns (played by John Lithgow) in Terms of Endearment, the 1983 Academy Award winner for Best Picture.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump supporters attempted to paint their opponents as coastal elitists out of touch with and contemptuous of the nation’s heartland. Now comes an event on Broadway — possibly the bluest thoroughfare in the bluest city in the country – that portrays liberals as … well … as coastal elitists out of touch with and contemptuous of the nation’s heartland.
Last Friday, Vice President-elect Mike Pence took his daughter to see Hamilton, the hottest show on Broadway. As they took their seats, audience members booed. Pence took it in stride, telling his daughter: “That’s what freedom sounds like.” After the show, as Pence and his daughter were leaving, they were treated to a lecture by Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who portrays Aaron Burr. Pence stopped and listened. The next morning, he told interviewers that he was not offended, and he encouraged everyone to see the show.
Although some commentators have dismissed the incident as “dumb news,” it nonetheless deserves examination. It tells us much about the current state of division in our country, and perhaps even a little about how that division propelled Trump to the presidency.
But first let’s begin by identifying what is not involved in this incident.
The incident has nothing to do with freedom of speech. No one questions Dixon’s right to express his opinions to a politician who happens to be within earshot. Even Donald Trump, while intemperately tweeting the next day that the cast should apologize, did not challenge their right to speak out.
The incident has nothing to do with courage. It required no bravery for Dixon and the cast to stand up before an overwhelmingly liberal audience and lecture a conservative leader. This was not Elie Weisel speaking truth to power at the White House in 1985, where, after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he gently but movingly reproached Ronald Reagan for accepting an invitation to visit a German military cemetery where Waffen-SS soldiers were buried.
Instead, this incident is a reminder of what the Sam Burns character illustrated in Terms of Endearment: the wide gap between what heartland America and coastal America view as appropriate behavior.
Consider the actors in this play within a play.
The audience members who booed Mike Pence when he and his daughter arrived are people who can afford tickets priced at $849 apiece for premium seats and about $200 for regular. Contrast that to the city where Mike Pence grew up. Columbus, Indiana has no playhouse, but it does have a Symphony Orchestra that currently prices adult tickets for $10 advance reservation, $15 at the door.
It is hard to imagine the patrons of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra booing Hillary Clinton or Tim Kaine if either luminary had visited. More likely, a heartland audience would have responded with the same politeness that the students at Liberty University, the evangelical school founded by Jerry Falwell, showed to Bernie Sanders during his visit.
Consider Brandon Victor Dixon himself, the superbly talented actor who delivered the lecture on behalf of the cast. To his credit, Dixon did not demonize or castigate Pence. But he certainly condescended, sermonizing: “We, sir — we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights.”
First, the cast of Hamilton are not exactly the purest exemplars of “diversity.” This is the same company that issued a casting call for “nonwhite men and women.” After receiving criticism from the theater actors union for discriminating, they withdrew it.
Second, it is not clear why Dixon considers himself more in touch with this diverse America than Pence. Dixon is a graduate of St. Albans School, an exclusive Washington DC private school whose alumni include John Kerry, Al Gore, and Neil Bush, and whose annual tuition exceeds $50,000. After graduation, Dixon graduated from Columbia University, then attended the British American Drama Academy at Balliol College at Oxford. Mike Pence is a public high school graduate, who went on to attend Hanover College, a small institution affiliated with the Presbyterian Church.
If “diversity” is solely a matter of skin color, Dixon may seem qualified to lecture Pence. But Dixon is the product of an extremely privileged educational background, one with advantages far beyond the reach of most Americans.
Third, as for Dixon’s expressed concern over the new administration’s willingness to “protect” him and his fellow cast members, it’s worth noting that Mike Pence’s son is a Marine lieutenant training to be a fighter pilot. Having a son in harm’s way does more to qualify a man to discuss “protection” than acting out Revolutionary War battles on a stage.
Although this Broadway incident has generated a great deal of publicity, it will soon be overshadowed by more momentous events: appointments to the Trump administration, international reactions, economic repercussions. But even as it fades from the news, it may not be entirely forgotten. It may linger in memory as a reflection of the surprise many felt on November 8, when they discovered the stark fissures dividing the nation.
Two Americas confronted each other on Friday night on Broadway. One behaved graciously. The other, not so much.
The lecture took place just as Pence and his daughter were leaving. Pence could have kept going, but he stopped and listened while Dixon spoke. That is the way things are done in the heartland. You don’t turn your back when someone is speaking to you. That would be impolite.
Others in that situation might have just walked out. But they must be from New York.