Louisville, Kentucky—“Too bad that all the people who really know how to run the country are busy driving taxicabs and cutting hair,” George Burns once quipped. By the evidence of this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays, they’re also writing for the theater. Social satire, domestic debate, personal polemics, impassioned crusade—the offerings on display at the Actors Theatre of Louisville last week may not have made for scintillating drama, but they demonstrate that complexity of political thought hasn’t entirely vanished from the public scene.
Now if only we could find a few dramatists capable of delivering ideas with style, wit, sharpness, and daring.
But first, the good news: Despite the welter of seemingly insoluble social issues confronted in the festival—from the war in Iraq to the inverted morality of reality TV to slavery’s insidious legacy—there was an overriding sense that there’s more to be done than curling up in blank despair. Varied in their stylistic approaches, the six playwrights who had major Humana productions—Kathleen Tolan, Kia Corthron, Adam Bock, Allison Moore, John Belluso, and Carlyle Brown—somehow remain optimistic while avoiding easy solutions to their characters’ morally complicated dilemmas.
What trips these writers up isn’t the scope or honesty of their visions. Rather it’s the lackluster dramatic forms that contain them. Bertolt Brecht, the 20th-century paradigm shifter of political theater, never let his theorizing get in the way of his theatrical fun. True, he wanted the stage to do more than mindlessly enthrall. But Brecht understood the power of a compelling yarn.
In terms of narrative interest, Tolan’s searchingly honest and sensitive Memory House (coming to Playwrights Horizons in May) ranks low. The story, unfolding in real time, involves a divorced mother’s confrontation with her teenage daughter, who refuses to write her college application essay about what she keeps in her personal “memory house.” Young Katia has ethical difficulties with her own international adoption. “Basically, it’s about ripping children off from their own bleeding countries,” the Russian-born teen says, slunk on the couch in a fit of pique.
Not wanting to be overbearing, Mom decides to make a blueberry pie from scratch—rolling out the dough, adding sugar and cornstarch to the fruit, forgoing a lattice in favor of a smooth top—all the while drawing out her sullen daughter’s feelings of resentment. By the time dessert is ready, the deadlock is broken and the college deadline met. To her credit, Tolan doesn’t wrap things up too neatly (life, like a homemade pie shell, is imperfect), but neither does she involve us emotionally enough for such a slow-bake resolution.
Bouncing between the offices of a cable news program and war-torn Iraq, with living-room pit stops riven with domestic strife, Corthron’s Moot the Messenger moves in a completely different direction. Epic to a fault, the piece explores the rise of a young African American journalist named Briar, who graduates from amateur scribbler to embedded reporter in a blink. Ideas drive the action here rather than springing from it, which makes for some screeching dramatic developments. Corthron uses Briar—and two older African American women—as mouthpieces for issues ranging from workplace discrimination against blacks to the sorry state of contemporary journalism to Abu Ghraib to disabled veterans to . . . well, it might be quicker to itemize what she doesn’t touch on. “So many topics, my head almost split open trying to choose,” Briar says about her next big assignment. Clearly, Corthron also has a lot on her well-informed mind. And as usual she says it forcefully. But the impatiently structured drama seems likes a pretext for her riffs on current events. Moot the Messenger is a blog clumsily disguised as a play, an edifying series of rants that cries out to be posted, not dramatized.
In Bock’s The Shaker Chair, three women in late middle age consider radical environmental activism involving a local pig farm whose sewage is threatening the groundwater. The characters are meant to embody different states of mind (depressive narcissism, pacifist idealism, crusading militancy). But Bock patterns the dialogue in such an annoyingly clipped way (a device he used more wittily in The Typographer’s Dream) that he creates a mono-voice for the trio, lulling the audience into the sleepy indifference he seems dead set against.
Moore’s Hazard Country, a satire with a farfetched story line and incongruous multimedia flourishes, tackles the cracker stereotypes of The Dukes of Hazzard‘s South. While the author treats her characters with admirable dialectical complexity (they’re both white-trash racists and economically downtrodden dupes), her refusal to settle on a genre undermines the credibility of a world that doesn’t know if it’s tragedy, comedy, or avant-garde spoof.
Part modern parable, part soap opera, Belluso’s A Nervous Smile keeps spoiling his promising premise of a playboy husband and his mistress selfishly turning their backs on their handicapped children (each has one with cerebral palsy). The problem is the tone-deaf dialogue and ridiculously melodramatic turns. Belluso understands that it’s not necessary to grapple directly with the headlines to comment on our greed-driven society. If only the fictional universe he creates were remotely convincing.
The irony of this year’s festival is that the breakout hit, Brown’s Pure Confidence, has the most theatrical flair and the least radical political content. The story of jockey Simon Cato, an African American slave who attempts to buy his freedom from his exploitive though ultimately quite likable white owners, has touches of comic brilliance, thanks largely to a rough, charismatic protagonist you actually don’t mind spending a little time with. One scene in particular, involving Cato’s calling of an imagined horse race between freedom and slavery, charges the stage with Suzan-Lori Parks–like linguistic vigor. But the work panders to the sentimental sensibilities of the audience. By striving to show the good and bad in all his characters, Brown skirts the harshness of his real subject—the no-win situation of blacks in pre– and post–Civil War America. Here’s a historical tragedy that isn’t gray. Drama 101 may contend otherwise, but some things really are black and white.
Sad to say, the rousing standing ovation that erupted at the end of Pure Confidence was more disturbing than the play itself. Playwrights will have to ignore such cheap rewards if we’re ever to achieve the political theater we sorely need.