How New York Is Defying Convention

The city's artistic community is offering a rich array of cultural events to coincide -- or collide -- with the GOP's big bash

By Thane Peterson

The decision to hold the Republican National Convention in New York City was undoubtedly influenced by the events of 9/11. Proximity to Ground Zero offers the chance to generate patriotic vibes while sending a strong message of defiance to terrorists and resilience to the rest of the country. The GOP probably never thought about the platform it would give the city's stridently anti-Bush artistic community.

Although many Manhattanites plan to leave town or telecommute the last week of August, the artists will be sticking around -- and working. They've organized an astonishing array of provocative entertainment -- a sort of citywide urban Woodstock -- to coincide with the arrival of some 15,000 journalists, 4,583 delegates and alternates, and an estimated 500,000 tourists, protesters, and GOP backers and functionaries.


  Those looking for an alternative to GOP-sponsored or encouraged entertainment can choose among a "multicultural country fair" in the East Village, political commentary at the Apollo Theater by raunchy comic Margaret Cho, or showings of such movies as Unprecedented (which contends Bush stole the 2000 election) and This Ain't No Heartland (which portrays rural Americans as semiliterate war mongers) -- to name just a few.

Many of the "unconventional" events are being done under the auspices of the Imagine Festival of Arts, Issues, and Ideas, which is presenting six days of counterprogramming to the feel-good entertainment and rhetoric that's being promoted by the GOP. "We're doing this in large part to give New York a voice during the convention," says Chris Wangro, co-executive producer of the Imagine Festival, which is debuting this year. In addition to the 125 festival events, other programs and projects are being organized by various galleries, theaters, and arts organizations.

Isaiah Scheffer, host of the National Public Radio program Selected Shorts, will be holding readings of satirical works by well-known writers such as E.L. Doctorow, Calvin Trillin, and Mary Gordon during convention week -- Aug. 30-Sept. 2. Says Scheffer: "It is the obligation of an artist to redeem the soul of a nation by telling the truth when there's an atmosphere of lies."

Adds composer Philip Glass, who's hosting a showing of the Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War, for which he wrote the score: "I don't belong to any party. But with issues of privacy and liberty and free speech it doesn't matter what party you belong to: These things must be protected."


  Of course, the GOP has ideas of its own about what sort of entertainment the delegates should enjoy during their free time. Scheffer and Cho (who was disinvited from the Democratic Convention for fear she would commit a Whoopi Goldberg-style gaffe) aren't on the recommended list. Many of the delegates profiled on the official convention Web site admit they haven't spent much time in New York, so the GOP and city tourism officials suggest the sorts of things any typical tourist would do: Take in a baseball game, visit Ellis Island, and see a Broadway show.

Aunt Gertie from Dubuque would probably come up with many of the same ideas. For instance, on Sunday, Aug. 29, the GOP has arranged matinee showings of eight Broadway shows just for the conventioneers: 42nd Street, Aida, The Lion King, Fiddler on the Roof, Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast, Wonderful Town, and Bombay Dreams. The GOP has also bought up blocks of seats during the week for shows to make sure conventioneers can get in.

(Nope, the Imagine Festival's staging of Sophocles' Elektra, followed by a discussion on "violence, retribution, and compassion," didn't make the cut.)


  Of course, many of the delegates don't fit the stereotypes and will go their own way. Rick Aguilar, a delegate from St. Paul who runs his own production company, is a passionate jazz fan who talks like a Latino version of a 1950s hipster. He frequently refers to other men as "cats" and kept calling me "man."

On Sunday, he plans to blow off the Broadway plays and go to a gospel brunch in Harlem and spend the evening at a jazz club. Later in the week he's going to check out some Afro-Cuban bands he hopes to schedule for concerts in Minnesota. "There are a lot of hip Republicans," Aguilar contends.

"I don't know how hip I am," counters the Reverend John Crittenden, a Baptist minister and delegate from Louisville who recently switched parties over what he see as the complacency of Louisville Democrats in fighting crime and pornography. He plans on spending his spare time in New York doing a combination of typical things -- seeing The Lion King and a Yankees game -- and something a little different: hooking up with a local group and taking a walking tour of a poor neighborhood in the Bronx.


  The question is, how many of the thousands of people invading New York during the dog days will take advantage of the alternative entertainment? Michael Pomarico, a North Carolina college student who's an alternate GOP delegate, says: "I wouldn't be opposed to [attending alternative events], but there's just so much else going on."

Glass, when asked if he expected many Republicans to come see The Fog of War, responded with an emphatic "No!" And Imagine's Wangro says the festival has tried to get the word out to conventioneers, but he admits that few Republicans are likely to come. He did point out that a group called Republicans for Choice is helping organize Stand Up For Choice, a musical and comedy show that will feature Kathleen Turner, Lewis Black, and Joan Osborne, among others.

The breadth and depth of entertainment options should make it possible for anyone in New York to have a good time during convention week. But they also underscore just how great is the chasm that divides the country when it comes to politics.

Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his State of the Arts column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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