Theater

Gut Check: 2016 Obie Winners Test the Boundaries of Belief

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Theater has always had a way of distilling the tensions of the present moment, rendering our collective obsessions and anxieties poetic or strange or mournful (or just funny). Communal moods find expression in the stories we choose to tell onstage, and our struggles to define the borders of acceptable politics or morality emerge through dramatic conflict and theatrical form.

In this particular pre-election moment, as the boundaries of political affiliation and public behavior are tested — by both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and over questions as foundational as the right to use a restroom or enter the country — it’s no surprise that many of the 2016 Obie winners examine our willingness to believe. A diverse group of playwrights, directors, actors, and designers, working in a diversity of theatrical modes, these artists probe the possibilities and terrors of adhering to longstanding beliefs about ourselves or our communities, and the ways in which belief systems permeate daily life.

“It’s gonna be rough with where America is and the future,” remarks Peter, the brother (and self-appointed advocate) of Ray, the star swimmer whose story Obie-winning playwright Lucas Hnath tells in Red Speedo. (Lucas Caleb Rooney garnered an Obie himself for his portrayal of the thorny, complex Peter, a lawyer who puts everything on the line for Ray.) Hnath’s play traces the moral dilemmas haunting Ray’s skyrocketing career — corporate endorsements on the horizon, performance-enhancing drugs in the shadows. But Hnath also uses the pressurized culture of athletic achievement as a way to explore the traps of American capitalism and the ideology of success it promotes: For the economically precarious Peter and Ray, stardom is the only route to survival.

Marco Ramirez’s spare, rhythmic drama The Royale, the tale of African-American heavyweight boxer Jay Jackson (inspired by the real story of Jack Johnson), likewise examines American ideologies of athleticism, tracing the champion’s struggle to overcome the entrenched racism keeping him out of the ring. Khris Davis won a performance Obie for the role. And Obie-winning playwright Stephen Karam’s The Humans, a fugue on economic upward mobility, offers a poignant, poetic glimpse of a single family, as parents and children strive to find, and maintain, stability in their working and home lives.

Even making good in America — as Danai Gurira suggests in her play Familiar — so often means leaving something essential behind. Performer Tamara Tunie received an Obie for her portrayal of the character Marvelous, the matriarch of a Zimbabwean-American family who takes pride in her hard-won American success. Marvelous faces a wrenching test of cultural loyalty when her children try to connect with their Zimbabwean roots. Tunie expertly balanced grace with rage in the role, confronting old family secrets and systems of faith she thought she had left behind.

As Gurira eloquently observes, the beliefs we once held are always somehow with us. This is also true for the autobiographical protagonist of Clare Barron’s I’ll Never Love Again, which brought director Michael Leibenluft an Obie. Through an evolving sequence of theatrical forms, Barron explores the intimately held truths we construct around love and sex: An impressionistic first act, staged as a choir concert, meditates on the extremities of teenage love and lust, then dissolves into a painfully realistic sex scene before flashing forward to a naturalistic office drama in which an adult protagonist reflects on her younger self. Under Leibenluft’s deft direction, these shifting theatrical modes spoke to the impossible subjectivity of our relationships to others, and to the presence of teenage imagination even in the most mundane adult realities.

The existential pains of teenagehood were also compassionately explored in Best Musical winner Dear Evan Hansen, written by Steven Levenson with songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The play follows lonely high school outsider Evan (Ben Platt, who won a performance Obie for the role), who, through a painful misunderstanding, finds himself cast in the role of grieving best friend to a teen boy who’s committed suicide — a boy who, in reality, Evan barely knew. Afraid to correct the devastated family, Evan constructs a fictive friendship between the boys, backdating confessional emails and spinning out false memories, until the family — plus a world of strangers on social media — is in thrall to his heartbreaking tale. The potency of Evan’s deceptions testifies to our need to believe in consoling stories about the people we love. Michael Greif’s taut direction makes Evan’s struggles painfully palpable, while Peter Nigrini’s projections — blurry, ever-shifting social-media pages — offer a reminder of the ways that cyberspace realigns our relationship to truth.

If Dear Evan Hansen and I’ll Never Love Again inhabit worlds of deeply personal belief, Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj — winner of Best New American Play — parses the ways that ideologies of power are personal too. The two-hander, set in seventeenth-century India, features a pair of security guards tasked with protecting the freshly built Taj Mahal — without ever turning around to look at the building, which they have been told is the embodiment of beauty itself. The ruthless strictures governing this stratified world are tested when the men are forced to violently punish a group of laborers (who committed no crime apart from building the masterpiece, which the shah wants to ensure can never be duplicated). Afterward, the guards must decide whether they can imagine an alternative to the harsh power structure they’ve always inhabited. (Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed won performance Obies for their roles.)

There’s more, of course: Hnath’s The Christians, which also factored in to his playwriting win, considers the American megachurch; Skeleton Crew, for which playwright Dominique Morisseau and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson won a collaboration award, examines the psychology and morality of survival in 2008 Detroit.

But if the Obies offer a look back at last year’s theatrical provocations, they also look forward, by honoring fresh, boundary-breaking theater companies with grants. This year’s went to Bedlam Theatre, Noor Theatre, and Prospect Theater Co., companies that rethink classics; that produce works by artists of Middle Eastern descent; and that reimagine the American musical, respectively. In the coming year, our political landscape will inevitably shift again, bringing new kinds of social questions and testing our systems of belief in new ways. Here’s to following these companies — and others like them — into a new collective moment.

[This is part of the Voice‘s 2016 Obie Awards coverage. Check out the rest of our Obies features here.]

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