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C. Fraser Smith: A different politics at Chautauqua

CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. — Ava DuVernay, acclaimed director of the film “Selma,” collided once again with the ongoing history of racial violence in America as she edited her movie.

Dealing with a scene in which a civil rights worker is murdered by an Alabama state trooper, she came home that day to learn of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri.

“We live in a continuum,” DuVernay said Tuesday while speaking at the historic Chautauqua Institution in southwestern New York State. “We’ll be talking about this issue for another 50 years.”

At the same time, she said, the civil rights movement has new life.

In the days of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there was only one microphone. Social media has democratized the movement under the banner of Black Lives Matter.

“The architecture hasn’t changed while the faces surrounding it have.”

DuVernay spoke during week five of Chautauqua’s nine-week summer season. The subject was “Art and Politics” — for her, the politics of movie making in particular.

With the backing of Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo, the British actor who played King in the movie, DuVernay had “final cut” authority — uncommon for young directors.

DuVernay said art is inherently political. The artist decides what the final product will be — not some outside authority or force.

“Art just has to be art,” she said.

As it often does, Chautauqua offered a spectacular introduction to the week. “Carmina Burana,” the epic Carl Orff creation, was presented in the institution’s amphitheater on Saturday night.

With more than 500 actors, singers, dancers and musicians, the audience was treated to an awesome — even daring  — piece of stagecraft.

At the main church service Sunday, the Trinity Movement Choir of New York City performed “Reconciliation,” a three act treatment written for the 10th anniversary of 911.

The dancers, robed in gowns designed to resemble  stained-glass windows, move from shock and grief to heroism and sacrifice to life and love on a new level — the choice to feel again and to connect. The silent dancers were accompanied by Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”

As always, these services and productions were held in The Amphitheater, affectionately referred to as the Amp, the iconic centerpiece of Chautauqua. The board members of Chautauqua Institution want to demolish, rebuild and expand it. They want to replace the building with a structure that will last another 100 years.

Opponents of the plan, including Richard H. Miller, the great, great grandson of Lewis Miller, who founded Chautauqua in 1874, says the essence of Chautauqua — its “beating heart” — is at stake.

The Amp, Richard Miller says, is “a sacred hall where generation after generation of Chautauquans have sought  and found meaning … a place that fosters the essence of our unique community.”

Considerable irony attends this controversy. Among the many values Chautauquans cherish is calm, open debate and of all issues. That commitment is certain to survive despite the divisiveness concerning what to do about the Amp.

But there may be casualties. Miller fears the Amp — a symbol of unity here — has divided friends and family.

Not everyone, of course, is pre-occupied with this issue. The talk along the brick walk, on the porches and outside the stately Hall of Philosophy goes to appreciation of Carmina Burana or to DuVernay’s passionate independent spirit or to the Trinity Movement Choir’s moving evocation of 911.

The 2016 campaign for president gets hardly any love.

Hillary gets mentioned by speakers occasionally in passing. Martin not at all.

I saw only one candidate’s T-shirt. It said “Bernie.”

Oh, and there was one with Donald Trump.

His name was a guaranteed laugh line.

C. Fraser Smith is senior analyst for WYPR. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His emails address is fsmith@wypr.org.