What We Talk About When We Talk About Democracy

What We Talk About When We Talk About Democracy

Democracy, or “rule by the people,” took roots in Athens, Greece around 508 B.C., and though this particular strain of Athenian democracy endured for only two centuries, traces of its governing philosophy can be found today in modern politics.

This April, the Public Theater joins Onassis USA for “Onassis Festival 2019: Democracy is Coming,” a 19-day festival dedicated to the subject of democracy and its many manifestations throughout history.

On Thursday, festival organizers announced that actors Phylicia Rashad, André Holland and Michael Imperioli; architect Elizabeth Diller; Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith; and sculptor Kostis Velonis will take part in the program’s already packed line-up of theater, music, talks and art that engage conceptions of democracy.

“This festival is named after a Leonard Cohen song, ‘Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.,’” said Onassis Festival curator Mark Russell in a statement earlier this year. “Just as Cohen’s song is a provocation, so too is this festival. What is the condition of democracy today when we see it undermined at every turn? The ancient Greeks created this form of government, our founding fathers revived and reinvented it for their time. How do we reinvent it for ours? Using song, story, and discussion, ‘Democracy Is Coming’ is an invitation to all New Yorkers to take measure of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going.”

The program will split its billing between the Public and La MaMa, with Tim Blake Nelson’s “Socrates,” starring Michael Stuhlbarg as the play’s titular philosopher, as the festival’s centerpiece production.

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“There is a lot of talk about democracy these days, but, as is often the case, it can come across as shallow or devoid of meaning. So what are we talking about when we talk about democracy?” said Onassis USA’s Karen Brooks Hopkins in a recent announcement. “To be reminded, we have to look back, to the Greeks, and forward, to the artists, who more accurately and honestly than any politician can remind us of what democracy is meant to look like, in its purest form.”

“Onassis Festival 2019: Democracy is Coming” runs April 10-28.

Top Image: Socrates. Photo by Sven Seiler.