Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 18
Curated by Advisory Company member Mike Fischer
Advisory Company member Mike Fischer is a dramaturg and former theater critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This. Guy. Knows. Theater. We hope you'll enjoy his recommendations for the best arts-in-quarantine content.
VOLUME 18: SEPTEMBER 23, 2020: AESTHETICS AND POLITICS
The title of this week’s picks comes from Aesthetics and Politics, a book collecting some of the key texts in an old debate regarding the relationship between art and public life. Do artists have a responsibility to create work that directly engages the social and political context within which they work and live? And just what does such a responsibility entail and enjoin?
Aesthetics and Politics revolves around the response of the German Left to the rise of fascism in Europe. There are clear parallels between those debates and discussions among artists in the here and now regarding what art can and should look like, as we continue to walk down what Timothy Snyder refers to as the road to unfreedom: the rise of authoritarianism in America and abroad.
Beset by three pandemics – one involving this country’s crumbling democracy, a second involving its structural racism, and a third involving Covid-19 – it comes as no surprise that many theater artists feel compelled to create drama that directly addresses some or all of them, often through what is pejoratively labeled agitprop. Reflecting the other side in that century-old debate referenced above, other theater artists are creating and producing work that tackles such issues more obliquely and ambiguously.
The older I get, the more inclined I am to see potential value in both approaches. For what was true in the 1930’s is equally true in Trump’s America: all art manifests what literary critic Fredric Jameson refers to as a “political unconscious”: it necessarily winds up reflecting and commenting upon the world, even when not overtly intending to do so.
This week’s picks, all of which might be labeled political, showcase the breadth of theatermakers’ responses to our fraught and frightening moment. What these picks share is a belief that the stories we decide to tell – and the way we choose to tell them – can and do shape our collective sense of who we currently are, where we should change, and why those changes matter.
As American theater continues a long overdue discussion regarding how it might build a more equitable and representative future, stories like those below aren’t just contributing to the conversation. They’re also expanding our sense of what theater might look like, once we reach the other side and can gather again. I’d like to think we’ll be better for it, as a theater community and as a country.
Please don’t hesitate to share your personal thoughts about this week’s political picks, or about your own hopes for the theater of the future. You can reach me via email through Forward at email@example.com or directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, both “theater” and “Fischer” are spelled with an er. And as always, I promise to write back.
First, from the Guthrie Theater’s virtual benefit in August, here’s actors Ava Saunders and Ryan Colbert, performing an excerpt from Toni Morrison’s breathtakingly beautiful Nobel Prize acceptance speech, with its stirring insistence that the words and stories we tell can remake the world; I’ve also provided an audio recording of the full speech.
Performed Guthrie excerpt from Toni Morrison’s Nobel acceptance speech: WATCH
Audio Recording of Toni Morrison’s complete acceptance speech: LISTEN
Second, from the inaugural edition of the Antonyo Awards recognizing Black excellence in theater, here’s Ayana George, Angela Birchett and Drew Shade leading a version of Sondheim’s Being Alive that I could listen to all day: WATCH
Finally, let’s go to the barricades and hear the people sing, from a musical I’ll always be willing to fight for. From the 1987 Tony Awards, here’s Colm Wilkinson and his Les Misérables castmates, in a stirring cri de coeur for personal and political freedom against injustice: WATCH
Selections for Volume 18 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. Say Their Names (12 Angry Men . . . and Women: The Weight of the Wait; Billie Holiday Theatre):
It’s fitting and right that the first Equity-approved production in New York City – staged on Fulton Street in Bed-stuy, in the middle of a Black Lives Matter street memorial – is a series of monologues chronicling the ongoing harassment of Black Americans by police who claim to protect and serve and instead harass and kill.
First staged by the Billie Holiday Theatre five years ago and now updated to include the murder of Breonna Taylor, this harrowing collection of stories – taken from real life accounts about Living While Black gathered in Gregory S. Parks and Matthew W. Hughey’s book 12 Angry Men – begins with the words of an escaped slave in 1854 before dead-ending in Louisville in 2020. This dramatic arc emphatically does not bend toward justice. “This is not apartheid South Africa,” one man angrily says to the police, after being stopped for taking a walk in his own neighborhood. But he’s wrong. In 12 Angry Men, our land of the unfree all too often looks exactly like apartheid South Africa in, which left me angry and ashamed.
And also left me impressed, at how effectively director Indira Etwaroo staged this piece, with flashing police lights bathing a quartet of actors, effectively accompanied by violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain. All five performers are confined within three-sided glass cubicles, but lighting designer and projectionist Devin Cameron makes you forget such barriers, the better to remember these tales of wronged men and women, played out on a memorial that names more than 150 of the recent Black victims of police violence. Their stories unfold just “upstage” of that portion of the memorial commemorating the murder of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
Available for free streaming through Election Day, this production’s “openers” include an account of how that memorial came to be and why it is necessary. As are plays like this one, holding a mirror up to who we are, and thereby challenging us to do and be better.
2. Second-Class Citizens (The 51st State; Arena Stage):
Residents of the majority Black District of Columbia pay more taxes per capita than any state in the country, but they aren’t represented by voting members in Congress. That gave this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests in D.C. a special resonance. Ditto the U.S. military’s unprovoked – and unforgettable – assault on peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors so that 45 could enjoy a photo-op with a borrowed Bible.
Herself a direct witness to the state-sponsored violence against American citizens in downtown Washington this summer, Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith’s response was immediate. Arena interviewed Washingtonians for their reactions to George Floyd’s murder, the ensuing protests, and the taxation of D.C. without representation. Ten local playwrights then shaped this material into monologues (and one duologue) delivered by eleven actors to create The 51st State, an hour-long theatrical docudrama that combines the ten resulting vignettes with footage from this summer’s protests. The inspiring result is streaming for free.
The 51st State covers a great deal of ground – from a broad spectrum of perspectives – with remarkable candor and nuance. Among the big questions in play: Does activism make a difference, and how can one’s voice be heard? Are white progressives really as liberal as they think they are? Have this summer’s protests focused on symbolic change while ignoring systemic problems? And just why doesn’t Congress allow American citizens living in D.C. to exercise a meaningful right to vote?
The 51st State often reminds me of the Public Theater’s The Line, another ripped-from the headlines docudrama – this one involving medical first responders during New York City’s nightmarish spring – that I profiled in Volume 9. The 51st State similarly confirms what Rebecca Solnit describes in her uplifting book A Paradise Built in Hell: Contrary to what 45 and his fear-mongering minions repeatedly suggest, people don’t generally respond to crises by degenerating into chaotic and selfish mobs, but rather by expressing our communitarian impulse with joy and love. Protestors aren’t anarchist thugs. They’re concerned citizens who care about each other and their country.
3. A Dying Republic (What the Hell is a Republic, Anyway?; New York Theatre Workshop):
In his magnificent biography of George Washington, Ron Chernow (yes, the guy that wrote the Hamilton bio that inspired Hamilton) describes how Washington rallied his discouraged men at Valley Forge through a staging of Joseph Addison’s Cato, in which a Roman statesman commits suicide rather than knuckling under to Caesar’s tyranny. Our nation’s founders were obsessed with Rome; it was their model of all a republic could be – and how easily it could be destroyed.
Even before the election of the gangster currently ensconced in the White House, theatermakers Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson – creators of An Iliad, given life by James DeVita in memorable productions at Milwaukee Rep and American Players Theatre – had begun writing Song of Rome, an Iliad-like exploration of what this 1,000-year story could teach us today. Between now and November 3, they’ll be sharing a piece of it in four installments (each $10) exploring the parallels between the death of Rome’s republic and the frightening erosion of ours. The first installment debuted last night and will be streamed twice more; the last installment debuts on Election Eve in early November.
I haven’t yet seen the first installment, but O’Hare and Peterson’s description of it (in an informative “fireside chat” with dramaturg Anna Morton) suggests something like Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me: a combination of scripted material (some of it autobiographical) and improvisation. The piece will include the audience in a collective exploration of the dynamics of democracy, while trying to understand why democracies fail – and what we can and should do when institutions become so corrupt that they cease to function (insert commentary about the Senate Republicans’ sickening post-RBG volte-face here). You can prepare by checking out a source book O’Hare and Peterson are using and that I highly recommend: acclaimed classicist Mary Beard’s eminently readable SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.
O’Hare and Peterson’s piece is the opening gambit in New York Theatre Workshop’s new season, revolving around the theme of Artistic Instigators: theater artists who’ve been commissioned to create work that pushes the envelope on how plays get made and what they might talk about. The super-impressive list of instigators includes some of the most exciting names in contemporary theater, including Ayad Akhtar, Hilton Als, Claire Barron and Sam Gold, David Cale and Dael Orlandersmith, Aleshea Harris, Jeremy O. Harris, and Liliana Padilla.
On Monday, NYTW released preliminary information regarding six more fall instigator projects, including one by Ayad Akhtar (whose new novel I discussed in last week’s picks) with the intriguing title Trump is Just the Name of His Story; it’s tentatively scheduled to be released sometime in October. I’ll have more to say about this and other NYTW projects as the Fall progresses.
4. Does Poetry Serve a Function? (I, Cinna; Royal Shakespeare Company):
Cinna the Poet graduates from a cameo in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to soloist and star in this evocative Tim Crouch monologue, which celebrates the power of words and a poet’s moral obligation to use them when he sees his country slouching toward tyranny. In this 2013 Royal Shakespeare film (currently streaming for free), Jude Owusu’s Cinna wants to simply hang out in his room and write about love, even though he knows that Caesar and his angry mobs are destroying the Roman republic. “What use is poetry when the tanks are in the street?,” Cinna asks. “Tell me that,” he continues.
But as Cinna ruefully recognizes while watching Antony’s demagogic but highly effective funeral oration, words can exercise tremendous power when one musters the energy and courage to deploy them. “Words work,” Cinna tells us, “but only if you work words.” He puts us to work to make his point, asking us to write certain words down and then imagine their power. He even gives us two brief writing exercises.
Royal Shakes suggests this piece is appropriate for anyone age 11 and up, and that feels about right. For young people, it can serve as a wonderful introduction to Shakespeare (while focused on Cinna, Crouch’s monologue also recounts the plot of the Bard’s play). For the rest of us, it’s a timely (and hopeful) reminder of why poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world: words can move mountains – thereby underscoring our obligation to make our own words matter. “Now that I know what my poem should be, it’s too late,” a murdered Cinna tells us from beyond the grave, as he wishes he’d spoken up earlier, while there was still time to save his beloved country. Enough said.
5. An Apple a Day (Incidental Moments of the Day; Apple Family Plays):
Of all these picks, the play that resonates most for me – and which, I’ll wager, is going to hit home for a great number of people reading this column – is the conclusion of Richard Nelson’s moving pandemic trilogy featuring the Apple Family, whose members are now the subject of seven plays (and no, you don’t need to have watched any of the prior six to make sense of this one, particularly as this production opens with a summary introduction as to who the Apples are).
I’ve written about Nelson’s profound understanding of the relation between the personal and political in Volumes 1 and 7, so I won’t repeat myself, here. In this concluding play – titled Incidental Moments of the Day, streaming for free through November 5, and performed by the same stellar cast familiar from prior Apple plays – the all-white Apples squarely confront the potential blind spots in their own progressive ideals, particularly in relation to race. But since Nelson follows his beloved Chekhov in being all about the questions rather than prescriptive answers, he also bravely asks whether, in this long-overdue moment of political reckoning, we’ve simultaneously forfeited the ability to speak honestly about race and so much else, including all that we share as Americans.
There’s more. Nelson also invokes James Baldwin, Athol Fugard, Robert LePage – and, in an especially sly but moving sequence, Scott Joplin – to ask whether our current discussions involving identity politics, representation, and appropriation have reduced difficult conversations and negotiations involving cultural exchange to reductive sloganeering, thereby dividing us from one another and making our world smaller.
Art is supposed to expand our horizons while making us grow. In Incidental Moments of the Day, Nelson does both. It’s the best play in a trilogy that is itself the best newly made cultural artifact – in any medium – I’ve encountered thus far during this pandemic. It’s also a stirring reminder that even as the skies darken all around us (literally, thanks to climate-induced wildfires) – and even as we’re enmeshed in a national mental health crisis (also squarely addressed in this play) – art can still save us, challenging us to see beyond our differences and find common ground.
References (in order of mention):
* Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize acceptance speech excerpt (Guthrie Theater): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFDMaXaelIs&feature=youtu.be&utm_source=...
* Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize acceptance speech (audio recording):
* Stephen Sondheim, Being Alive (2020 Antonyo Awards):
*Alain Boublil and Claude Schönberg, At The End of the Day/One Day More (Les Misérables medley; 1987 Tony Awards):
* Ronald Taylor, ed., Aesthetics and Politics (Verso, 1977).
* Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (Penguin, 2018).
* Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Cornell University Press, 1981)
* Arthur Yorinks (arranger), 12 Angry Men . . . and Women: The Weight of the Wait (Billie Holiday Theatre):
* Gregory S. Parks and Matthew W. Hughey, 12 Angry Men: True Stories of Being a Black Man in America Today (The New Press, 2012)
* The 51st State (Arena Stage):
* Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (Viking, 2009)
* Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (Penguin, 2010)
* Dennis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, with Anna Morton, Fireside Chat (New York Theatre Workshop):
* Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, What the Hell is a Republic, Anyway? (New York Theatre Workshop):
Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Liveright, 2015)
* Artistic Instigators Initiative (New York Theatre Workshop):
Tim Crouch, I, Cinna (Royal Shakespeare Company)
* Richard Nelson, Incidental Moments of the Day (Apple Family Plays):