Guernica Magazine

Theater for a Now Audience: A Roundtable

Today's playwrights and directors weigh in on politics in theater and the state of the stage in a time of upheaval. The post Theater for a Now Audience: A Roundtable appeared first on Guernica.
Nike Kadri, Nabiyah Be, Paige Gilbert, Mirirai Sithole in School Girls, or, The African Mean Girls Play at MCC Theater. (Photo: Joan Marcus.)

It happened without warning.  There I was, seated between my two young granddaughters, watching School of Rock, expecting nothing more than a mindless musical. The kids on stage had worked themselves into a frenzy as their substitute teacher instructed them in the art of being angry. “Stick it to the man,” they shouted. And suddenly I was on my feet, my fist thrust defiantly in the air, along with the entire audience. We swayed in unison, singing, then screaming, at the top of our lungs, “Stick it to the man.” At that moment, we all seemed of a single mind. The restrictive authority of the fictional elementary school administration on stage was a stand-in for our real-life, common enemy: an orange-haired despot living in the White House, furtively stealing freedoms.

It was exhilarating. Satisfying. We were new converts at a revival meeting.

Theater can be a temple, where politics and civic values are preached, where action on the stage of even the most banal show can incite a fervor in the house. I was converted as a pre-teen, when Martin Duberman’s In White America, a docudrama about the civil rights struggle performed in a dark little Greenwich Village theater, made me a fan of Malcolm X.

In the decades since, theater has oscillated between eschewing topicality and taking a fierce stand. Which is the way it’s always been, really. Aristophanes wrote overt chastisements of ancient Athenian society in the fifth century BC. And when Plautus revised the dramas for the Romans three hundred years later, his interpretation was ribaldry rather than criticism. Nowadays, the most celebrated theatrical work asks its audiences to ponder questions of great contemporary import. It challenges complacency and presents the consequences of inaction. It puts political agendas, ahem, center stage.

Last season, all four Tony nominations for Best Play went to dramas that explored subjects ranging from the gender-biased minefield of relationships to the malaise of Middle America, from the Israeli-Palestine logjam to the destructiveness of prurience. Off-Broadway and regional productions were no less potent. Gun control, women’s rights, racism, LGBTQ concerns, et al., dominated the theater landscape nationwide. None necessarily offered antidotes, but each provided great comfort. It was reassuring to hear the discussion among the exiting throngs, to know that the force of the plays had already moved people to ponder, to talk among themselves. Even now the hope remains that out of the discussions, perhaps we’ll find solutions.

Our political moment is a good time for weighty theater, plays from which audiences come away contemplating their own prejudices and complacency, the consequences of their inaction.

But a host of looming questions haunts me every time I leave a show feeling guilty or compelled to write my senator. Must great drama heal us? Should it be

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