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DFR in the News

21 Feb

Recently, The D.R.E.A.M. Freedom Revival held a performance and dialogue in collaboration with the Ida Benderson Seniors Action Group. Learn about the event and the causes it promoted from this news coverage.


“Former Ida Benderson Senior Center Members in Syracuse and political theater group Dream Freedom Revival took the stage at Grace Episcopal Church over the weekend. They expressed the need for a new senior center in downtown Syracuse. WAER’s Valerie Crowder has more…” Click here to listen to the audio.  

The Stand

In “Don’t Close the Doors on Them Just Yet,” The Stand’s Natalie Caceres reports on the “jovial, quirky and message-heavy performance.” Here’s a snippet from the article:

For Mary Carr, 64, who’s a member of the Ida Benderson Seniors Action Group and was a regular face at the center before it closed, she hopes that through events like these the eventual goal of bringing back the center will become actualized — and quickly.

“You took our freedom away again from somewhere comfortable,” Carr says about what the closure meant to her and others. “This event helps to let people know that we are not gone and we are still looking for a place to go.” Although the center closed more than a year ago, she’s hopeful that soon they’ll have a new place to call home.

Mary Carr (left) speaks about the Ida Benderson Senior Center during DFR’s Feb. 16 event. Photo by Joe Rial.

Thanks to Valerie and Natalie for covering the event, and to everyone who attended!

What’s Your New Year’s ReVolution?

2 Jan
Freedom Party Next Wednesday Night!

Freedom Party Next Wednesday Night!

Ebenezer Abernathy and The Sound of Freedom are fired up again! And we’re planning a party on January 9th, 7:30pm at Grace Episcopal Church in Syracuse. It’s a freedom party. You need to be there. We want you there. Your voice and your face need to be there so that you can publicly make yourself accountable by answering the question: What’s your New Year’s Revolution?


And now… the blog…

The shootings in Newtown roused me from a half-slumber I didn’t even know I was in.

This project, The DFR, started with an eye toward using art as a political organizing tool, much in the same way that El Teatro Campesino in the 60s used its physical, comedic style of people’s theater to support Cesar Chavez’s nascent United Farmworkers Union. In my mind, the DFR was going to use the celebration of Syracuse and of local community to invite people into deeper conversations and actions about, among other things: 1) a new, local, 21st century economy, including a reality check about fossil-fuel dependance; 2) resistance to the privatization of public education; 3) the loss of public spaces where people can build relationships and plan collective action across borders of difference and boundaries of distrust; 4) the assault on workers and families; 5) the increasing militarization and corporatization of our democracy; 6) And More!

Both fear and anger fueled this project. But also a sincere belief in the ability (and desire) of human beings to organize on their own behalf, with the power to disrupt and overturn oppressive systems. Of course, the history of social movements tells us this is true. Drawing from Paulo Freire and his many descendants, I subscribed to a politics of hope. I subscribed to a politics of human agency. I understood that oppressive forces are counting on people being too tired, too divided, and too dispirited to come together in common cause. Further, progressive activists, working on so many discrete fronts, and on so many issues, seem always to compete for the time and attention of their natural allies. Rather than working collectively and planning strategically about when to take action on a given issue, all are working on their separate issues, diluting the potential for impact.

Couldn’t we find a way to bring everyone together — under “the big tent” — in a way that inspired, that educated, and that called people to action?

And when I heard the news from Newtown I realized how the act of creating and performing had cooled some of the fire that was this project’s early fuel. In that moment, I felt the relative impotence of what we were doing, despite our modest local presence and effect. What especially pulled me up short was not the actual killings. (That ,of course, is a tragedy that as a father of two young children is hard to wrap my head around.) What pulled me up was the discussion I heard among friends, and even within my own house, about the danger of public spaces, including schools, movie theaters, and places of worship.

Again, it was this assault on the public and on public spaces, so similar to the assault that was happening in Wisconsin that catalyzed DFR. Like Scott Walker’s campaign to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights, this assault was fueled in part by the pathology of capitalism. More outrageously, it was also fueled by the cynical campaign that ties profit derived from the  manufacture and sale of automatic assault weapons to the 2nd Amendment. The old rage stirred in me. The feeling that if DFR was to do anything at all, if it was to mean anything at all and be anything more than a fun show, then it had to bring people together It had to invite people to tell stories together, and to see one another. It had to pull people out of their bunkers! It had to be a celebratory counter assault, on fear. It had to stand up, and invite others to stand up — in public — to the very notion that public spaces and public communion were dangerous. Or rather, to affirm that indeed public spaces and public communion are dangerous — for entrenched systems of oppression!

My wish for this new year is that 2013 be the year that the city of Syracuse claims for this generation its legacy as the birthplace of democracy. That 2013 be the year that we write and sing this city’s 21st century song of freedom, with ALL our voices singing together. In different languages and different sounds, but unified in the harmony of our shared humanity.

My New Year’s Revolution is to sing louder, to preach more passionately, and to think more deeply about our shared fates and futures. I promise to love and celebrate this city and all the people living in it. I vow to remember the words of Rosa Parks who told a young activist seeking commiseration about the grind of activism: “If you ain’t tired, you ain’t working hard enough!” (I also promise to take care of my mind, body, and spirit, and to nurture my family and friends, so that I have the support to do all the rest!)

So, like I said: Ebenezer Abernathy and The Sound of Freedom are fired up again! And we’re planning a party on January 9th. It’s a freedom party. You need to be there. We want you there. Your voice and your face need to be there so that you can publicly make yourself accountable by answering the question: What’s your New Year’s Revolution?



5 Jun

It’s funny to say but Ebenezer thinks things that I don’t. It’s why it’s so hard for me to break character on Revival days. When I’m working on the sermon, I have to experience the world through Ebenezer’s eyes so that he can figure out what he wants to say.

There was a line he came up with last Sunday, when we were pacing around Plymouth Church before the Revival. We were a bit awed, the two of us, by the prospect of preaching in such a beautiful space and we were thinking about how “secular folks” can sometimes dismiss churches and holy places because of their stance in relation to the teachings that go on there, or to the hypocrisy between the teachings and the actions of some of the men (usually) who are in positions of authority. I know I can be one of those people — throwing the baby out with the bathwater as it were. And as we were thinking about singing and preaching in that space later that day, and assuming that the audience would be joyful — singing, clapping, dancing together — the way they’ve been joyful during most of our Revivals this year, Ebenezer thought, “this is what a holy place should be: a space that invites you to the spirit without telling you how to get there. A space that invites you to think without telling you what to think. A holy space is one in which people are allowed to be alone inside themselves while surrounded by a community of people deep inside their own selves. Together in our solitude. Thoughtful and soulful, alone and together. And if we could invite everyone we knew into this holy space, there would be no judgement. There’d be no lyin’, no theivin’, no killin’. In fact we’d have no need of commandments. No need for commanders. No need to be commanded. It would all make sense. Seeing the beauty in ourselves and in one another would bring us into communion. One. From many we are one. And then all those commandments would take care of themselves.”


We have one more Revival this Sunday but in terms of actual time, Year One is in the books. A great party last weekend at Mary Jean’s place marked exactly a year since a handful of neighbors (mostly strangers, actually) came over to the Brill-Bott backyard to hear me outline this pretty far-out vision of a secular Revival for freedom led by an itinerant preachin’ Irishman by the name of Dr. Reverend Ebenezer Abernathy. Never that day could I have imagined that in a year’s time I’d be preaching and singing at Plymouth Church with a few hundred people, backed by the 15 person Sound of Freedom band and choir and, gosh, I don’t know, 100 smiling, beautiful singers from the Syracuse Community Choir.

And yet, what do you know, there we were on Sunday: singing, dancing, and shouting. A real Revival in a holy place. From nothing, something: the miracle and gift of creativity. From an idea and a feeling, a brand new thing in the world: the powerful aligning of mind and soul in action.

The next meaningful DFR anniversary will be in August when we audition for a new group of performers. And then another on October 6, when we’ll perform in NYC, almost a year to the day of our first public performance in Syracuse. This one’s been an eventful, exhausting, and definitely exciting orbit around the big star…


I continue struggling to understand what the relationship is between the form & content of DFR and its impact. I began last year with an idea that the Revival could be an inspring doorway into deeper, concrete conversations and actions around local political issues. And I wanted to create a whole methodology for connecting the performance to story circles where people shared with one another and then to connect those to action plans. I envisioned the DFR being a regular event (weekly? monthly?) from which  people would be mobilized, campaigns would be launched, and change would be effected.

And maybe that will happen around the DFR someday. There are so many organizers here in Syracuse. Goodness, we have a former Green Party vice-presidential candidate in our midst. We have the oldest independent, American peace council in our city. Maybe someone will work with me to bring such a vision to life. But I’m not an organizer and the DFR reflects what it is I can do, which is entertain and inspire.

And I’m starting to wonder if that’s not enough.

Maybe I wasn’t wholly honest with myself when I started this thing. I say to this day that the idea came from some online research of Syracuse that inspired me: the history of freedom movements on one hand and a religious tent revival movement on the other. The story is absolutely true. But it omits my lifelong interest in the spirit. It omits my own interest in charismatic spiritual leaders who changed contemporary politics — from Jesus to Martin Luther to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I never could get into the dogma of formal religion but I have always been intrigued by the way these men addressed politics and drove real structural change through their religious convictions.

The DFR was to be a secular version of a Revival. But I’m finding that the language of the spirit and the language of freedom are one and the same. Was MLK, Jr. a spiritual leader or a political revolutionary? Jesus? Malcolm X? I’m finding that the place Ebenezer wants to take people is the same place true spiritual leaders want to take people, which is into contact with their best, true selves. Into a place where they can see the best of themselves and the best in others. From many we are one. I can’t figure out how to be “political” without being spiritual. And I can’t figure out how spirituality can be disconnected from oppression in the world. Politics is about human beings — not just their machinations and their agendas. It’s about their dreams and aspirations and dignity. Our dignity. When I leave those pieces out of the sermons and focus exclusively on power and policy, the Revival falls flat as it did at the Occupy rally on May Day.

The Great Peacemaker of the Haudenosaunee taught his people, “from many we are one.” an idea with a profound spiritual foundation, but one that served an earthly, even political, function: the end of warring between separate tribes of people. The Haudenosaunee seem to be (and I am only beginning to meet members of the Haudenosaunee and learn about their philosophies) amongst the most spiritually infused people ever to walk the earth. And I am learning that they modeled perhaps the most democratic of cultures — much more democratic that anything anyone else has got going on today.

So I ask, can we talk politics without bringing people into the spirit? Can we have democracy if we continue to see ourselves as separate? I’m becoming convinced that my purpose in this role is to refine a message that lifts hearts and minds to the highest of human aspirations and then to find a way to connect that message to the work we need to do here on Earth to create the world we want to live in. Ebenezer said in his sermon that he believes we meet the people and places we need to meet in order to learn the things we need to learn. I truly believe that anyone living here in Syracuse and Central New York, at this moment in history, who cares about the question, “How then shall we live?” should embrace the living wisdom that surrounds us. We live in a powerful part of the world. Both holy and democratic.

I’m excited about where we are at the end of the first orbit. It’s exciting. Sunday was powerful for me and I think for everyone in the group. I think I’m starting to see more clearly from whence Ebenezer’s philosophy and teachings come. I’ve learned a lot this year and I’m excited to take this summer to see the world through Ebenezer’s eyes and to craft a more coherent message of the spirit and of the people. Holy and democratic.


Hyper Masculinity

4 May

Oh well.

DFR performed as part of the May Day rally on Tuesday and, well, Ebenezer missed the mark, plain and simple. Actually, it’s not plain and simple but it is true. True for me, although I know others disagree.

As a performer, it’s hard not to know how things are going in the moments of performance. I for one have a kind of energetic consciousness about what’s happening– not something I’m able to make sense of in the realm of the rational. It’s only after the fact that I can put thoughts and words to the feelings. (And even then, I’m not proud to say that I tend to do so reluctantly — in this case looking closely only because my wife made me.)

I had put so much energy into thinking about that sermon Tuesday; I wanted it to be special. In retrospect I can say I placed some bigger importance on it out of feeling that the DFR had emerged from the same frustrated spirit that sparked the Occupy movement. But what I felt in the moment of “preaching” was that it was missing the mark. It was off. The best way I can think to explain it is to say that the calibration was off. Part of performing live is taking into account all the variables of the event, internal and external, and adjusting to them. Adjusting to audience response. Adjusting to conditions. Well, I’d never performed outdoors and I’d never performed at a political rally. And there was all this drama about our sound set-up and the police and fire department withholding permission to use it until the last minute. And it was cold and drizzly. And I was amped up.  And of course part of the DFR show process has always included feeling rushed and under-rehearsed and just kind of winging it, which provokes all kinds of anxiety in me — anxiety that I am beginning to recognize I’ve begun to deal with by sort of grimly  steamrolling through our performances. (We need to address all of that as a group, but that’s a different post.)

All of which is to say that I calibrated for all of these variables and I overcompensated. I produced something that was just… very… male. (In lighter moods I call it “testoster-ific!”) Male energy in a way that wasn’t terribly… interesting. It was strident. Aggressive. Not charming in the way that EA had been in some previous performances — a charm that is vital to the role and to drawing people in rather than pushing them away. So much subtlety was lost in the shouting, one-and-a-half note performance I gave. It frankly just wasn’t a fine moment of performance.

Now I know that there will be — and are — people who disagree. A number of men — in and out of the group — have told me they thought it was the “best sermon” I’d done. To them, I was “on fire.” It was “powerful.” But I’ve also heard that there were some women in the crowd who appeared to check out… or who never really tuned in. And then again, other women there told me they were really into it, too, and a couple strangers came up and danced with us during our last number.  On one hand, we got more “likes” on Facebook after this show than we had after any other. On the other hand, all who took the microphone to “testify” were men; perhaps I hadn’t created an environment in which women felt welcomed into the space. I don’t know. Obviously, 50 people will have 50 different reactions.

Talking to Aimee tonight, I found myself roiling in the uncomfortable space between defense and apology. My immediate reaction to our conversation was defense and anger — a kind of emotional stew I recognize well, the kind that surfaces when I know I’m being confronted with something true and painful. I felt embarrassed, my least favorite feeling. But my defensiveness comes also from a sincere struggle with what can feel like criticism about maleness, or “male energy.” It’s the same kind of hackle-raising feeling I get (and Aimee gets) when we hear and see people’s reaction to the fact that we have two boys, which goes something like, “Oh, poor you. You must live in a mad house.” Actually, I live in an incredibly joyous, loving, and yes, high energy house. With beautiful and intense boy energy. We both experience a kind of societal resistance to boy energy. That explicit resistance is destructive because what it creates is a mistrust in the boy that may actually exacerbate the negative aspects of male-ness as boys build tough and defensive facades around their soft and vulnerable parts. Being told you are not quite acceptable as yourself — that your energy is too much, too violent, too loud, too hyper — will do that to a person. As a father I am always trying to nurture and model all aspects of our masculinity so that along with Aimee I can offer the world two men who are wholly human. [I wish everyone would watch the PBS documentary, “Raising Cain.”]

But I digress. The point is, the question comes up for me, “well what’s wrong with male energy?!” Is male energy in and of itself a bad thing?

I’m not about to complain about being a white, “straight”, male. I recognize all of the unfair privileges this particular packaging comes with. At the same time, I’m also not going to apologize for my identity. To quote the Gaga, I was born this way. So there’s a stinging in the criticism because I feel like I work hard to be vulnerable (on stage and off, and not at all successfully a lot of the time; I, too, struggle against conditioning) and to bring forth what I feel are the positive essences of male energy through my work in community and in this project. I was raised in a family where I was taught that the greater the privilege the greater the responsibility. This lesson was a primary reason for abandoning my pursuit of having a Broadway career, and why I started studying “theater for social justice.” Recognizing that my privilege is mine by the accident, primarily, of my skin color and gender, my goal has for a long time been to redirect that privilege, to use it for the greater good. But there is a sticky aspect to that for me since the talents I posses have to do with performance. It’s also what I love doing and where I feel most connected spiritually. Thus, I am often front and center. And the fact is, I’m a man and my energy is male. I do believe that no matter what I do, or how I do it, being a white male leading the show, being center stage, is going to provoke a negative reaction in some people. And I get it. I understand. People see — and have always seen — entirely too many white men leading the show, and doing it from a place of arrogance, or unconscious to the arbitrariness of their position. At the same time, the defensive response is to ask if as a white male I’m disallowed from leading? Am I not supposed to bring my creative ideas forward? Am I only to lead in a way that opens space for others but not for myself?

I see now that an ongoing performance like this requires constant and ongoing calibration. I think all I can do at this point is to keep stretching myself and stretching the DFR concept so that all feel truly welcomed and represented in under the big tent. I’m bummed about May Day. I recognize I overcompensated for external elements and allowed my ideas about what a political rally should do and feel like push the energy too far toward aggression, provocation, and maybe even anger. I don’t know if I would have called it “too male” if it wasn’t pointed out to me, but I know that there was something in it that wasn’t welcoming. Too much output; too little input. On a practical level, as I keep saying, we need a director. I need a director — someone to watch what I’m doing who can offer constructive feedback.

I’m really hard on myself to begin with and was feeling pretty low after the performance Tuesday — something I attributed simply to feeling like, “oh, man, when are we finally going to pull this show together. Something’s not quite there yet.” So when others weigh in with additional critique I admit to being overly sensitive. I’m still getting to know Ebby. I’m still trying to figure out this project. As I said, I suppose the opportunity is to keep working to create a kind of character — and the kind of project, with others taking significant turns at center stage — that welcomes and reflects us all.

Back to work.


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