Summer is the off-season for Manhattan fundraising. But with headlines consumed by hate crime, police conduct and race relations, the New York Civil Liberties Union says its July 18 Broadway-themed benefit is timely in the extreme.
“This is a very charged and heightened time in politics and civil liberties,” said Susan Blackwell, a performer and writer who will host the event, Broadway Stands Up for Freedom, at NYU’s Skirball Center. “It’s easy to get bogged down and overwhelmed.”
Like the organization’s mission—which includes criminal-justice reform and reproductive and gay rights—Monday evening’s program is broad. Wallace Smith, who plays James Madison in the upcoming Chicago production of Hamilton, will read prisoner letters written in solitary confinement. (In December, the state settled an NYCLU lawsuit by agreeing to overhaul solitary confinement and to limit its use.) Liesl Tommy, who directed Eclipsed last season on Broadway, about women caught up in the Liberian civil war, will give the keynote address. In the audience will be Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, who died on July 17, 2014 after being put in a chokehold by police on Staten Island. (The show also coincides with night one of the Republican National Convention.)
Other performers include Ben Platt, the lead in the new musical Dear Evan Hansen, which generated acclaim off-Broadway and will open at the Belasco in December; and Jennifer Simard, a Tony nominee for the musical Disaster! Expect songs by Stephen Schwartz, James Taylor and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The annual benefit began 13 years ago when Liana Stampur, a singer-songwriter and NYCLU intern en route to NYU Tisch School of the Arts, recruited performers to play at a now-defunct Hell’s Kitchen cabaret. The event today raises about $150,000. Founded in 1951 as the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, the organization resonates with artists, said Stampur’s mother, NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman.
“The NYCLU historically has been deeply committed to the arts and defending free speech,” Lieberman said. “Music and theater and dance and art is the best medium for the values we hold dear.”
The fundraiser marks the birthday of the late anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela—who would’ve been 98. And it will note the recent shooting deaths of five police officers in Dallas, and of two black men by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and St. Paul, Minnesota. The killings “reflect the enormous racial divide caused by racial bias and hyper-aggressive policing,” Lieberman said. “It is a wake-up call to all of us that it’s time to end the broken policies of broken-windows policing and mass incarceration.”
Blackwell said she’s passionate about the NYCLU’s efforts to aid prisoners “parked” in jail for long periods awaiting due process. While she and the other performers aren’t compensated for the benefit, she makes it a priority. “It’s an event I return to year after year.”
A version of this story appears in Crain’s New York Business.