Frankly, it’s a bit comforting to hear Brian Stokes Mitchell admit he’s not immune to the ubiquitous, 2020-induced states of anxiety, depression, and anger. Because you wouldn’t know it from hearing him speak, as the Tony winner navigates myriad calls to action with a consistent mile-a-minute exuberance and a baritone that conveys both comfort and urgency.
Check out his recent YouTube videos for an idea. The daily, caffeine-fueled PSAs are part of a regimen that keeps Mitchell stalwart amid a plethora of concerns. He’s also championing ArtsVote, a new campaign from the Americans for the Arts Action Fund to ensure that Americans stay on top of their polling plans.
The campaign’s objectives are two-fold. First, the platform hosts a database of every state’s voting rules and deadlines, carefully curated and maintained by the Action Fund’s Executive Director Nina Ozlu Tunceli and her team. Each state has its own one-sheet with necessary registration links, available methods of voting (including absentee by mail and early in-person), and more. Second, ArtsVote encourages individuals to take its “Make Your Vote Count” pledge, ensuring that their vote will not be suppressed due to the COVID-19 pandemic or roadblocks created by state requirements. Those who take the pledge will also receive resources—including social media graphics by Barack Obama’s “Hope” artist Shepard Fairey—to both celebrate their vote and urge others to join.
“All this dysfunction is so stymied, and we feel there’s so much going on,” Mitchell says. “But this site makes it so easy and understandable. You don’t have to have an encyclopedia of knowledge in your head.”
The stage favorite plans on partnering with ArtsVote to record spots specifically for states with personal significance: New York, his home state of Washington, and his wife Allyson Tucker’s Wisconsin. On other fronts, he’s encouraging census completion through his aforementioned “60-Second Census” YouTube videos and through his advocacy as a founding member of Black Theatre United. And as chairman of The Actors Fund, he regularly rallies for economic relief and protections for theatre artists in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and continued shutdown.
Yes, it’s a lot of roles, but the Stokes Show is still running strong, and the curtain’s not coming down anytime soon. “Each of us has some skill, some talent. We’re all put on this planet for a reason, and I think it’s to make it a better place than we found it, ultimately,” he says. “Maybe you only have the bandwidth to deal with just one thing. If that one thing is making sure your vote counts and taking the census, that’s a lot. That’s a huge amount.”
Ready to raise that up a key? Great, Mitchell has you covered: “If you can do more, even better. There’s all kinds of things people can do that, in a sense, amplifies your vote by your influence. All you have to do is steer people to ArtsVote, and now you just made voting easier for a whole bunch of people.” He also suggests the Poll Hero program, which encourages college and high school students to become poll workers as the pandemic has kept older poll workers from returning to their polling places.
What unites Mitchell’s work across various fields is the tethering of advocacy and art: “People listen to artists in a way they don’t listen to politicians, though they may be saying the same thing. Art has the ability to change people in one, epiphanic moment. That’s what I respond to. It doesn’t go into my head or my ears. It goes into my soul; it goes into my heart.”
A few of Mitchell’s standards have that effect, such as Man of La Mancha’s “The Impossible Dream” or “The Flag Song,” a cut tune from Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. But one lyric from Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Ragtime permeates his entire credo: “Make them hear you.”
“There are ideals that we strive for, but we don’t often execute those ideals perfectly. The world is imperfect. Our country is imperfect. But we need to keep working toward those ideals. That’s why there’s a census. That’s why we vote. Even though there are people trying to suppress those freedoms, we still have that ability. Which is why it’s important to take this particularly incredibly important opportunity to ‘make them hear you.’”