“Our stupid two-party, either/or system heightens phony division on behalf of venal politicians and the masters they serve and keeps us from one another. Currently [in America] we have self-service dividing and conquering.”
There’s no doubt that one of this year’s hot-button Fringe topics is the state of politics in America, in particular the lightning rod that is President Donald Trump. Yet many of 2017’s Fringe shows from American artists will dig deeper than the simple dichotomies of Trump/Clinton or Democrat/Republican to look at more ingrained causes of division in the States.
“My show looks at how the discourse in America has become so polarised and vicious,” says comedian Sara Schaefer, “and asks how we got so far apart when we were all taught the same thing. Where are we at and what can I do about it, if anything at all? How do we find meaning when things have become so clichéd, and we’re all camping out in our own place of rhetorical purity? But it’s not very serious, believe me. There’s a lot of comedy in the absurdity of it all.”
An Emmy Award-winner who co-hosted her own talk show on MTV, Schaefer approaches the subject from a personal perspective, having grown up as a Bible Belt Christian in Virginia; she intends to bridge the perceived divide between the rural and the metropolitan sides of her life in the form of, for example, whether or not it’s okay to visit a craft store she really loves when its owners are known to be deeply right-wing. “Everyone is trying so hard to be like, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong!’ but the world is way more messy and complicated than that. And messy is where the funny is.”
“My show is about community-building and collective delight in dark subject matter,” says Deanna Fleysher, a native of western New York State, whose comedic private detective, Butt Kapinski, touches on what’s happening in the world. “The forces of darkness have been around a lot longer than President Trump has. I guess it’s ‘political’ for art to reflect that darkness, but I think it’s far more surprising when it pretends the darkness doesn’t exist.
“Perhaps a lot of the world just has a morbid fascination with the USA, and Trump makes our ridiculousness as a nation more easy to pinpoint, but it’s always been there. We’ve always been a nutty, dumb, reckless country, and all I know how to do is channel my dark feelings, so maybe someone watching me will feel some relief about their own.”
Such is the temperature of the time that many other ongoing social issues have once more been thrown into the foreground of public debate. “Being political is back in fashion again, but we’ve never done what we do to be fashionable, or to meet some market niche,” says Ben Schatz, founder member of “America’s favourite dragapella beautyshop quartet”, the Kinsey Sicks, who were formed on a night in drag at a Bette Midler concert after a dark period in the history of gay men.
“We had planned this show to be a nostalgic retrospective,” says Schatz, “and then Donald Trump won and I knew it had to change. Right after the election we were performing in some right-wing parts of the country, and as I was feeling heartbroken I had to come up with jokes which addressed what had happened. But people were so hungry for that; it made me realise that, shockingly, we provide some social value! We started this show during the devastation of the Aids crisis, and I came to realise there are still so many things which need to be said.”
Returning to the Fringe after the success of Black Is The Colour of My Voice last year, Apphia Campbell’s new play is Woke, which tells two tales set 42 years apart, of the female Black Panther Assata Shakur and a young college student engaging with Black Lives Matter. “Race relations have never been perfect, and who knows, maybe we need an explosion so we can have a conversation and hopefully grow from it,” says Campbell, who is from Sarasota, Florida. “Since Trump arrived I feel that younger people have woken up and taken notice, more people are focusing on the system and realising how it oppresses minorities and the economically challenged.
“You can’t talk about race in America without also mentioning class, [the Black Panther activist] Fred Hampton said this. In order for change to happen, we have to stop dividing ourselves. At this moment America’s so divided by political parties, race and economic hardships that we aren’t listening and trying to understand the other side. If we’re going to change we have to reach our hands out and go speak to the other side. I can’t say I’ve mastered it yet, but I’m trying.”
At Summerhall, Faith No More’s Roddy Bottum premieres Sasquatch: The Opera, his musical love story about the mythical creature, reflecting his fascination with characters such as Frankenstein’s monster and the Elephant Man.. Even as last year’s election was happening, a fire in his New York apartment destroyed all his work on the show, and he had to recover everything from scratch. “That’s the encouragement that I push on our country at this point,” he says. “Work creatively and politically through this madness. The story of Sasquatch is about compassion saving the planet, and how working together through kindness and open-mindedness is the only light in an otherwise dark and hopeless world. It’s absolutely a parallel to the American political climate.”
Others are focused more specifically on the mechanics of politics in 2017, like rappers Sage Francis and B Dolan, who return with Tricknology. “It’s about con-men,” says Dolan. “Self-help gurus, populist millionaire presidents, social media data mining and even some of the parlour tricks of rap and spoken word. The theme is how susceptible the human brain is to trickery and marketing, which we can’t help but be struck by in the aftermath of Trump’s election. We watched millions of working class people vote against their self-interest, because Trump knows how to sell. The fate of our planet may literally hinge on our ability to stop people from exploiting these security glitches in our brains.”
The singer Michelle Shocked, a self-described “contrarian” and no stranger to controversy herself, who returns this year with the aptly-named Truth vs. Reality, feels concerned about what she calls a shift away from “the stooges of crony capitalism – the politicians – to the robber barons themselves,” but just as wary of the might of the big tech giants and their effect upon the voting process. “It’s not a dystopian nightmare, it’s a real, algorithmic formula,” she says. “People’s opinions and votes are being manipulated.”
Mancunian comedian Chris Turner is an outsider to all of this, having moved to Los Angeles between the Brexit and Trump votes (“comedy’s all about timing!” he notes). “Pre-election, people were talking about how idiotic Britain had been in the referendum, and how the US would never make such a suicidal decision,” he says, “so at least there was some relief when Trump won and I was no longer the dumbest guy the room. The show comes from my perspective as a recent transplant to the relatively protected West Coast, and about how Trump’s made it feel safer living closer to Pyongyang than the White House.”
By titling his show What A Time To Be Alive, however, Turner has touched upon one common thread between all these shows; that, as he has it, this time is “incredibly exciting” for any artist looking for inspiration. Despite his pessimism, it’s Crimmins who sums up the way out which all of the above seem to be looking for. “When we as a people gain the courage of compassion,” he says, “we won’t be wandering around looking for leaders because each time we look in the mirror we will see one, and we will have a nation of leaders and a nation that is truly free.”
All shows until 27 August except where otherwise stated. Barry Crimmins: Atlas’s Knees, Stand Comedy Club, 15-27 Aug; Butt Kapinski, Pleasance Dome, not 9, 14, 21 August; Chris Turner: What A Time To Be Alive, Pleasance Courtyard; Kinsey Sicks: Things You Shouldn’t Say, Gilded Balloon at the Museum, until 13 August (not 9); Michelle Shocked: Truth vs. Reality, The Boards, until 16 August (not 6, 13); Sage Francis and B. Dolan present: Tricknology, New Town Theatre, not 7, 14, 21 August; Sara Schaefer: Little White Box, Pleasance Courtyard, not 14; Sasquatch: The Opera, Summerhall, not 3, 14 August; Woke, Gilded Balloon Teviot, not 17-19)