As this pandemic has worn on, I’ve taken to lighting a candle labeled “Balance and Harmony” during my Zoom calls for work.
The candle should smell better—less like a mall, and more like a force that will persuade my senses to achieve some semblance of balance, some modicum of harmony as I sit at my desk staring into people’s private spaces day after day.
As a playwright, I’m more accustomed to the immediacy of the “in person,” the excitement of having everyone, to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, in “the room where it happens”. However, I must admit, I do not so much mind Zoom. I’m a bit nosy. I notice when, say, Sandra from the office suddenly attends meetings from her kitchen and not the room that seemed to be a back porch, and I lean in. I notice when Warren has started to turn his camera off to eat his bagel all of a sudden (perfectly polite, but for months, Warren never cared. So why now, Warren?). Warren’s new habit makes me lean in, too. I must admit that the digital arena is not absent of life to me. On the contrary, it’s abundant with it: so much humanity pouring at me—the Sandras, the Warrens—that I am overwhelmed.
But that overwhelming is not something I expected from a political convention, a public event conducted virtually for all the world to see, so I did not set up my candle next to the TV.
A lot has changed in our house since the last set of presidential nominating conventions. Four years ago, our youngest had developed a fascination with Donald Trump that left our interracial, progressive family more than a little confused. This summer, in the midst of the global pandemic, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the national reckoning our country is having regarding race and that same youngest child’s own awakening regarding her identity as transgender, the world looks and feels different. Maybe that candle will never have the power to bring things into harmony-filled balance. Maybe, in this moment, with so many sick, so many gone, so many unseen and unheard and the promise by our current administration that they will remain so, that candle will always waft of greed, and corruption, and lies, and pain. Maybe.
Four years ago, the conventions would have been followed by the Olympics. Our family would have been agitated by each other from two weeks of nightly gatherings to watch sports, instigated by me and my mother, cheer-led by my sister, and meekly tolerated by any other members of the family. Now we define “codependent.” I am learning to respect closed doors.
I coaxed no one out to the living room to watch last week’s Democratic National Convention with me, unless they wanted to. I will goad no one into watching the RNC with me this week, either. We are together enough.
But I wish I had.
Because the overwhelming felt good. The power of last week’s DNC was the power of storytelling, the power of well-crafted narrative to convey a message of inclusivity and strength. Collectively, we were able to lean in to listen to what Sandra and Warren have to say and actions they want taken, not just feel sympathy and empathy for who they are.
This particular form of digital storytelling has grown into its potential steadily as the global pandemic has brought traditional live theater and TV and film production to an abrupt standstill. Back in March, those Zoom squares felt as though they were destinated solely for what their designers intended. Over the past few months, they’ve experienced a few costume changes, and while those squares are obviously still recognizable as the office tool they are meant to be, their potential has been revealed to be much more.
Where digital storytelling seemed particularly effective was with the state roll call. Previously a slightly disorienting jumble of delegates shouting their state’s presidential nominations amid the din of a crowded convention hall, this year’s roll call turned the dry, pro-forma voting section of the convention into a travelogue, with each state providing its own segment highlighting its delegates. To be sure, each state was able to curate how it represented itself, but more important, the DNC was also able to represent the diversity of its party. When Maine’s delegate appeared—a black man who mentioned his husband—I think I yelped. One of my oldest friends, who was the first to introduce this Boston girl to then-Texas Governor Ann Richards when we were first-years in college, texted me: “They found the one black person in the whole state?!” By then, I didn’t care if they did. Because by then, I was more than willing to listen to this particular aspect of the DNC’s story of America in this moment: representation, voice, intersectionality matter. And we are going to share this with you, Rhode Island calamari and all.
Throughout the week’s evening broadcasts, I continued to ask myself why I was enjoying this so much—why I felt this immediacy, this sense of connection, to a format that is actually the most packaged, the least “live” convention of my life? Is it that I feel seen, when, as a black woman who has often been without means, I have often been unseen? And that this particular convention did a better job than past conventions of amplifying voices that have historically been rendered marginalized? I do not think so.
Then, I asked myself, is it that I feel that my children have been seen and heard by this party? Perhaps. Seeing Steph Curry and his family discuss the election felt palpable to me because his conversation with his young daughters could have taken place around my own kitchen table, complete with one child asking to be excused to use the bathroom, but also because Steph and his family’s skin tones resemble those of my daughter and niece, who I know will be asked to give considerable thought in their lives to how their blackness and their biological gender affect their movement through this country and this world. That is a specific point of view that I have rarely seen on a mainstream broadcast, and it took up barely five minutes of tape.
I also saw both my children reflected in Brayden Harrington, whose struggles with his stutter were highlighted before Joe Biden’s acceptance speech. While neither of my kids have a stutter, as a parent, and as an educator, I more than welled up watching Brayden’s speech, which brings me to the overwhelming power of the convention’s narrative.
It was not just that I was moved by listening to elevator operator Jacquelyn Brittany explain why she was compelled to nominate Biden for president of the United States, or that I see my own self reflected in Kamala Harris, the first woman of color nominated as a vice presidential candidate; it is not even that I was easily swayed by knowing more about Biden’s triumph over tragedy, although that certainly makes for good storytelling, too. It was that by seeing so many different aspects of what America can be, I felt like America is mine, too. What the DNC did was what expert theater does, what Shakespeare implores us to do, which is to hold a mirror up to nature, up to us as human beings and show us who we are. The DNC showed those of us who were willing to watch, that there is room for all.