Theater In The Time Of Not Normal

The Obie-winning writers of 2017 confront our deranged historical moment


Left to right: David Cromer, Director; Kecia Lewis, Performer; Heather MacRae, Performer; Arin Arbus, Director; Pete Simpson, Performer; Michael Urie, Performer; Lileana Blain-Cruz, Director. Photographed at the National Arts Club in New York
Left to right: David Cromer, Director; Kecia Lewis, Performer; Heather MacRae, Performer; Arin Arbus, Director; Pete Simpson, Performer; Michael Urie, Performer; Lileana Blain-Cruz, Director. Photographed at the National Arts Club in New York

Plays are rarely written overnight. They take weeks, months, even years of preparation, and come to fruition onstage haphazardly, at the mercy of finances, of institutional planning, of scheduling conflicts. Timing is everything; all too often, a play that arrives too late or too soon ends up missing its chance. Yet sometimes luck, or a prophetic instinct, blesses the playwright, and the work seizes the ideal historical moment to confront its audience. The magical effects of that conjunction can be felt surging up and down the aisles at intermission, gathering in pools of excited conversation after the performance, resonating for weeks afterward in ripples through the press, through personal conversations, through public discussions live or online, through blogs, podcasts, message boards. The capacity to excite such discussion is one of the small miracles that make us love the theater and keep going to it.

You don’t need to be told that the historical interval unfolding since last June has been one of the most exceptional in our nation’s history. Even if it hasn’t heightened your stress level or disrupted your normal sleep pattern, chances are you know a dozen people for whom it has — and it’s not over yet. In such harrowing times, theatergoers’ hearts tend to cry out for a play that will help them coalesce the chaos of their thoughts and feelings into a coherent picture. Help me see what is wrong, the theatergoer’s instinct begs. Show me how it might be repaired. Teach me where the problems lie. In a time when “This is not normal” has become a political catchphrase, that silent inner cry is more intense and more widespread than ever.

And, this year, magic struck, not once but multiple times. Along with the usual profusion of new works that come and go, some unexpectedly big, powerful, exceptional events raised their impressive heads, collecting bands of eager enthusiasts, rousing debate, focusing passions, and stirring new determination to challenge our national politics’ seeming normalization of fundamental wrongs. These plays then spread out from Off-Broadway into the cultural mainstream: Of the four Tony nominees for Best Play, all currently running on Broadway, three are by writers honored at this year’s Obie awards and the fourth (which came to Broadway from a resident theater outside New York) is by a young writer whose two previous plays were jointly honored with an Obie award for Playwriting last year. Oh, and please note: All four of these Tony-nominated playwrights — including the one honored by this year’s Obies with a Lifetime Achievement award — are making their Broadway debuts.

Our theater — Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and the innumerable connections in the resident-theater network crisscrossing this nation — is now the theater. (Three of the four Tony nominees for Best Musical also began in that network.) What starts for New Yorkers in a small experimental workshop or nonprofit subscription theater now regularly moves to a theater triple or quadruple the size, most often on a commercial basis, and from that lofty vantage point addresses the world. Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, J.T. Rogers’s Oslo, and Paula Vogel’s Indecent are this year’s Tony nominees. And before the Tony ballots are counted, Sweat will have received an Obie award for Playwriting (Nottage’s third), while Oslo will have shared the award for Best New American Theatre Work with the eyebrow-raising Underground Railroad Game, and Indecent’s author will have added to her two previous Obies our salute to her lifetime of achievement — including the impressive body of her collected works and the profound influence of her teaching.

This overlap, too, is not normal. It is a flood tide that reveals the existence of a flourishing interactive system of cultural institutions. All these plays began their performing lives in nonprofit theaters, many of them recipients of funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, a meagerly funded federal program that the current administration in Washington has announced its intent to eliminate. This is not solely an issue for New York theatergoers: Theaters around the country helped to develop some of these works; theaters in communities and colleges in every state will build their repertoires from plays like these. Students in libraries and classes across the country will read them and think about them — and some will be challenged or inspired to write plays or create theaters of their own. Republican members of Congress who promulgate the myth of “elitism” do not know how far into their own communities the arts have reached, but then, recent public statements have made clear that these same Republicans don’t even know that people can die from lack of health care.

Though partly the result of simple ignorance, the Republican Party’s official philistinism betrays deeper and more dangerous underlying causes. It moves in tandem with such efforts to limit public knowledge as Trump’s constant threats against the press and the removal of scientific or factual advisories from federal agencies’ websites. All art is a form of information, and Republican chicanery prefers to keep the public as uninformed as possible.

Note that the three works by Obie winners among this year’s Tony nominees are all based on historical facts, though their subjects and methodologies couldn’t differ more widely. Oslo deals with the evolution of the 1993 Israeli- Palestinian peace accords, drawing on innumerable documentary sources and personal interviews. Sweat examines more recent racial and economic tensions among factory workers in Reading, Pennsylvania — again based extensively on interviews, though its naturalistic scene-by-scene build is a far cry from Oslo’s elliptical, audience-addressing, time-jumping technique.

Most freeform of all is Vogel’s Indecent, which tells the factual story of a notable play’s suppression on Broadway in 1923, when Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance was charged with blasphemy and indecency, not least for its presentation of openly lesbian love scenes. As Vogel’s kaleidoscopic treatment of the events makes clear, the explicit depiction of lesbianism was only one troubling aspect of Asch’s play: Its principal character is a tyrannical father who makes a great show of piety and family values in his upstairs flat while operating a whorehouse in his basement. One can easily imagine many of today’s Republicans being as perturbed by this image as the judge who ruled against the work in 1923.

Art’s ability to trouble conventional expectations, politically and socially as well as morally, is built into its nature. That power does not make entrenched rulers happy when their goal is to create a docile, easily manipulated public. Art finds infinite ways of sneaking past official attempts to suppress dissent, a good sampling of which can be found in three of our Obie honorees that have not (yet) been enshrined on Broadway.

Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard’s Underground Railroad Game lures its audience with a promise of participatory fun, but then keeps changing its rules, drastically and often shockingly. Christopher Chen’s Caught changes its nature even more radically, transmuting into four different kinds of play before it leaves us wondering what, exactly, we can place our trust in. And both works begin, wickedly, by lulling us with, then exploding, the standard liberal assumption that we know good from bad, that history will not judge us as we judge the past. The acclaim received by both works shows liberalism’s advantage over right-wing thought: The former is at least willing to question its own complacency. The party now in power is run by men who resent the raising of any questions.

And in acknowledgment of our countless questions that urgently demand answers, I close this survey by citing playwright-performer Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes From the Field. Smith neither makes nor demolishes assumptions: She becomes the people she has interviewed — students and inmates, teachers and prison wardens, parents and protesters — and leaves such matters to them. Each person is a question our society needs to answer. Like Oslo, Sweat, and Indecent, Notes From the Field creates a social landscape composed of human individuals. The issue that digs chasms within that landscape is different in each play, but each firmly supplies the injunction that points toward a solution: Concentrate on the human.

That’s the answer our playwrights have supplied to the chaos that afflicts us. Now it’s only a matter of making sure those in power hear it.

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