On Monday afternoon, a small crowd gathered on the Grant Street sidewalk across from Sweet_ness 7 Cafe to watch "Butterfly Sky," Michele Costa's new performance celebrating the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As traffic screamed by, occasionally slowing to check out the show, Costa hit "play" on her iPhone and the voice of Lyndon B. Johnson boomed out from a portable speaker:
"We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights.
We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings—not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin.
The reasons are deeply imbedded in history and tradition and the nature of man. We can understand—without rancor or hatred—how this all happened.
But it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it."
As the speech played, Costa retreated behind her portable stage and began to unspool one of three meticulously painted scrolls. Portraits of Lyndon Johnson, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Marilyn Monroe and other symbols of the era inched their way into view, while Costa's arms reached through two holes in the canvas, gesticulating as the soundtrack and the personality of each famous figure demanded.
From there, as the soundtrack shifted to Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech," Costa unfurled a concise and moving overview of the civil rights movement. Her paintings showed the defiant mugshots and numbers of Alabama's Freedom Riders, the faces of King, Rosa Parks and 14-year-old Emmet Till, whose name still calls up seething rage at the injustices of his era their audible echoes in ours.
By the time the 15-minute performance was over, the crowd was just about in tears. That's often how Costa's performances, full of stunning creativity and performed with such simple and effective gestures, end. And "Butterfly Sky" is undoubtedly one of her very best.
The show repeats nine more times through the rest of the Infringement Festival. The next show scheduled for 4 p.m. today on the steps of the Karpeles Manuscript Library on North Street. Click here for the rest of the dates.