D.R.E.A.M. Freedom Revival: Where big-tent gospel theater meets political activism

Local activist Kevin Bott has run for mayor in Syracuse, but his real political power comes from his electric performances in the D.R.E.A.M. Freedom Revival, a musical theater group.

The first time Reverend Ebenezer Abernathy invited his audience to testify, a man stood up and declared he was an undocumented immigrant.

The reverend and his “choir” of time travelers had just delivered a fiery sermon of musical theater, mixing vaudeville and clap-along gospel to tell the tale of Syracuse’s rich democratic tradition. Kevin Bott, who had added an Irish accent and top hat to his mischievous goatee and become Ebenezer Abernathy, wanted this performance to inspire the spectators to participate in community politics.

Photo: Nathan McAlone
Accompanied by music, Bott's performances are engineered to be half gospel sermon and half stump speech.

The last part of the show was asking the audience to individually “testify,” to stand up and make politics personal by sharing a truth, or fear, or hope. And as Bott listened to the crowd cheer each other’s declarations during the premiere, he knew this new “D.R.E.A.M. Freedom Revival” had the power to zap people out of their political apathy, at least temporarily, just as it had already roused him out of his own.

Bott was in a bad place emotionally when he began to conceive of DFR (as he calls it) in the winter of 2011. After years working as an actor and then on an educational theater Ph.D. focused on prisons, he now had, in his late 30s, his first nine-to-five office job and two babies at home. That snowy winter he and his wife, Aimee Brill, went on a tear of watching “peak oil” documentaries and brooding over the rise of the Tea Party.

“It was pretty overwhelming,” Brill said. “Kevin isn’t someone who gets depressed almost ever, but he was in a dark space, and feeling like this ho-hum, middle-aged academic guy.” Though his job at Imagining America, a consortium dedicated to making universities more democratic, aligned with his political goals, he still felt detached from a struggle his side was losing.

“Our democracy is in danger,” Bott said. “It’s being monopolized by money and power, and average people really aren’t part of the decision making. And at that point, I was feeling it very acutely.” But he didn't know what he could do about it until a friend asked him to give a speech on the role of art in politics at a rally. The request reminded Bott that he had talents to offer the world besides his day job.

That spark led Bott to dive into research about Syracuse, trusting that once he began to understand that nature of his home, he’d figure out what he could do to help shape its future. He and Brill stayed up late at night talking about Syracuse’s deep history of progressive politics and the tradition of religious tent revivals. He began delivering lilting monologues around the house about participatory democracy, developing the character of Reverend Ebenezer Abernathy, who will lead his ensemble into the fourth D.R.E.A.M. Freedom Revival season on December 11.

Bott finally knew what he wanted to create: a tent revival that used song and dance to fill people with the spirit of community-based democracy instead of religious fervor.

“Normally I’m someone who keeps ideas like that to myself,” Bott said. And indeed he did, for a few months. But at a Memorial Day barbecue in his backyard, with one too many beers in him, he decided to pitch it.

After he rambled out his hazy vision of the project to the partygoers, the founder of Syracuse University's La Casita Cultural Center came up to him and asked if D.R.E.A.M. Freedom Revival would perform at their opening that October.

“I am D.R.E.A.M. Freedom Revival,” Bott replied. “I’m making it up right now, and I hope some of you will join me because I don't have anything.” But he said “yes” anyway and spent the following months putting together a team of amateur actors and musicians, who helped him craft the original songs, dances and costumes that filled his spiritual carnival with the hoot-and-holler energy it needed.

In October, as that inaugural show unfolded and the audience participated for the first time, the guiding principle of DFR emerged from all the chaotic preparation. DFR was a call to change the world around you — in whatever way you wanted — wrapped in a joyous and supportive atmosphere to help you believe it was possible.

Video from Kevin Bott's YouTube page.

“I finally get what the f--- this is,” said the oldest member of the ensemble, a 70-year-old African-American woman.

This fundamental tenet didn't accidentally crop up in DFR; it’s part of an underlying philosophy that has run through Bott’s work in theater, politics and education.

“I think the way you engage people is you invite them to speak,” Bott said. Many of Bott’s projects involve the act of “testifying” in one form or another, of encouraging people to publicly share their true point of view, messy as it might be.

“Kevin has a real belief in other people,” said DFR member Mary Jean Byrne-Maisto, and in the combination of other people’s ideas. “He teaches you to step out past your fears, into previously unknown spaces that may scare you s---less. And that’s the only way the world is going to change.”

Last year when Bott ran against Stephanie Miner as the Green Party candidate for mayor of Syracuse, he’d hoped he could bring the idea of inclusive public discourse to party politics. What he learned was how massive the political machine is, even for a third-party candidate, and what the level of public cynicism toward politicians is.

Bott would show up at supermarkets on Syracuse’s South Side to hand out leaflets, and one day, a man turned to him and said, “Why am I going to vote for this guy? Is he going to lie to me too?”

Bott looked at the picture of himself on the front of the leaflet, uniformed in a politician’s suit and tie, and realized the man didn't recognize him in casual clothes. “No, that’s me!” Bott said.

“Oh, OK,” the man replied. “Let’s talk for a minute.”

“That’s the gut reaction nowadays,” Bott says. “It’s cynicism. We are asking a smaller and smaller percentage of people to participate in a process that seems rigged, first of all, and outdated.” Bott got 15 percent of the mayoral vote, but only 13 percent of registered voters came out on Election Day, the smallest percentage to vote in a major election in Syracuse since 1913.

Bott had wanted to change the style of a “campaign” by holding town hall meetings throughout the city and doing political theater on the steps of city hall. He’d hoped to connect with people in the way he had with DFR, but he crashed into the wall of the electoral political system. The party didn't want Bott’s antics to be reduced to a 5-second clip on the evening news that could undermine its larger goals, he says.

Bott’s 5-year-old son had perhaps the best takeaway from the seven-week whirlwind that left Bott drained and pessimistic: “Next time you should run as a Democrat. They win everything.”

But Bott’s drive to bring theater and activism together has never focused on causes with easy wins. Before coming to Syracuse, Bott worked with the nonprofit Rehabilitation Through the Arts on theater programs in prisons.

“All your preconceived notions of what a prisoner is are blown out of the water,” Bott said of his first time working with inmates. “You are presented with intelligent, creative and thoughtful human beings who are hungry for an outlet to express anything.”

Bott’s Ph.D. dissertation at New York University focused on creating a reentry ritual for incarcerated men. He felt there was disconnect between the ritual of going into prison — complete with costumes and gavels — and the hushed way people are released, with a plastic bag and a train ticket back to the city.

“He’s a champion of second chances,” said Ronald Day, who worked with Bott during a prison term. “He has this ambition, but it’s ethical, not unscrupulous.”

Bott’s ambition was to help these men create a new rite of passage, something that signaled they had paid their debt to society and had crossed back over. “If it meant weeping and saying sorry or if it meant telling everyone in the room to go f--- themselves, they were free to do what they needed,” Bott said. He was inviting them to “testify” on their own terms.

When Bott was growing up sheltered and middle class in New Jersey, he wanted to be a Broadway star. He gelled his hair and tried to mold himself into whatever approximation of a boy band he thought would sell. He dropped out of acting conservatory twice — both BFA and MFA — before he realized that fulfilling that Broadway dream would have made him miserable.

Bott has the same drive as the Reverend Ebenezer Abernathy: to sing and preach his truth to the world, in all its strangeness, and to get everyone around him to do the same. He believes that’s the way we can start to change our lives and communities. Bott wants us all to break down the wall of convention and politeness and to speak from our hearts in the middle of the performance.

Post new comment

* Field must be completed for your comment to appear on The NewsHouse
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.