The Drum Major Instinct, a Theater of War Production, with Councilman Jumaane Williams (Brooklyn’s 45th District) reading the text of King’s sermon (all photos by David Andrako)

“We are little bundles of ego,” and this is a fact that “runs the gamut of human life.” This is the core premise of the argument made by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who almost comes back to life via the voices of the film and TV actress Samira Wiley and New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams (who represents Brooklyn’s 45th District). The words of King’s last sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct,” fills the BRIC House Ballroom as Wiley and Williams alternate reading successive passages from the homily. As they do this, two combined gospel choirs — the Phil Woodmore Singers, from Ferguson, Missouri, and the Voice of Hope Singers from Brooklyn and Queens — interject with songs familiar to those who have grown up in or near the black Christian church. I recognize “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “If I Can Help Somebody” from my own time in that church. This performance, The Drum Major Instinct, commissioned by BRIC and Theater of War Productions and NYC Public Artist in Residence Bryan Doerries, is constructed to evoke that feeling of being in church on a Sunday morning — and it succeeds in this ambition. I feel that the whole audience is being exhorted to be better than we typically are, to find our way to being advocates for justice, peace, and righteousness.

Member of The Phil Woodmore Singers, which includes members of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Choir, Trinity Community Church Singers, Center of Creative Arts Singers, and the Voice of Hope Singers

That encouragement, that entreaty almost works, partly because King was such a great orator (and Wiley channels his energy and forcefulness, while Williams has that and the added benefit of sounding a little like King). More, the choir serves as an amen corner, saying “that’s right,” “preach!” and similar encouragements at opportune times. Also the argument is conveyed through that powerful rhetorical strategy used by many preachers: definition of a problem, usually one that is intrinsic to people; elaboration of that problem as the source of most of our troubles; constant repetition of these themes; presentation of the solution as ultimately residing is the surrender of personal agency to God.

Thus, we hear that the drum major instinct is that desire for attention, for distinction, to lead the parade. Then we are told it’s the wellspring of our susceptibility to advertising, leads to wanting to live above our means, ends up in criminality, is at the core of “the race problem,” causes nations to vie with each other for supremacy. In short, it’s all that’s wrong with us. But blessedly, King has the solution, which is to turn that instinct over to God, who will transmute that urge into the desire to be first in humility and generosity.

Members of The Phil Woodmore Singers, which includes members of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Choir, Trinity Community Church Singers, Center of Creative Arts Singers, and the Voice of Hope Singers

It made sense to draw on the sentimental and ideological legacy of King as the closing event to BRIC’s first ever Open Festival, which sought to highlight the voices of those who are underrepresented in culture to demonstrate “the power of inclusive, participatory arts & media programming,” according to its press materials. These aims jibe nicely with those of messianic Christianity and of the contemporary social justice movement: they all meet in a desire for social transformation. These two ideologies both want to see a new world come into being. However, Christianity tends to take the contradictory position that this revolution is dependent on one’s personal transformation, while everything that happens is completely planned by and under the control of a god. Social justice warriors, meanwhile, tend to think that the personal transformations need to happen with everyone else.

Samira Wiley reading the text of Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon

And that’s where drawing on King does not make sense to me. His belief system essentially imagines one completely surrendering personal ego to the service of some supernatural being, but the needs that get us out of bed are always deeply personal ones. In fact, when we recognize another as inhabited by someone else’s will, as having lost their autonomy, we alert the authorities because we know that something is manifestly wrong. More, the adherence to and study of what Christians understand as God’s law (some texts of which were written more than 2,000 years ago), insists on precisely the kind of rigid, hierarchic, conservative thinking that doesn’t provide us with the analytical or empathetic tools through which a new social scheme can be constructed. Look at the theocracies that exist: they are some of the most illiberal and repressive places on the globe.

The Drum Major Instinct is important because it reveals the difficulty we have in this moment of historical transition when the power of the church to shape and condition our relations with each other is waning. And while we are looking for alternative bases for creating ethics and social rationales that are fair and emphasize peace and are respectful of difference, we fall back on an ideology that seems like it can lead us out of the wilderness, but ends up taking us in long, loopy circles back to a past we repeat ad infinitum. I disagree with King’s premise: it’s not only the urge to be first that dooms us; it’s also the desire to follow our inherited religious templates. We might be able to recreate the world if we could hold on to our autonomy while also recognizing that we only have meaning by being in a community, and comprehend that being human is an opportunity not a set of obligations.

Members of The Phil Woodmore Singers, which includes members of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Choir, Trinity Community Church Singers, Center of Creative Arts Singers, and the Voice of Hope Singers

The Drum Major Instinct, co-produced by BRIC and Theater of War Productions, took place on April 30, as part of BRIC’s first Open Festival, which ran from April 27 to 30.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...