Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 23
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.
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VOLUME 23 (OCTOBER 28, 2020): THE FATE OF THE NATION
“The hero of a David Lodge novel,” writes Timothy Snyder in On Tyranny, “says that you don’t know, when you make love for the last time, that you are making love for the last time. Voting is like that.”
“Will we,” Snyder continues, “come to see one of our own elections much as Russians see the elections of 1990, or Czechs the elections of 1946, or Germans the elections of 1932?” Will our current election be the last one that is even nominally free?
Snyder’s book offers 20 suggestions for preserving democracy; in the aggregate, they urge us to appreciate and take collective responsibility for democratic institutions, be courageous in fighting for their preservation, and contribute financially and personally to the cultivation of a private life that contains multitudes, reflective of the diversity that is a hallmark of any truly functioning democracy.
Theater does all of these things; going all the way back to the Greeks, it’s been integral to ensuring that private persons worked together as public citizens to create polities reflective of and fair to all people. In fostering empathy, theater promotes diversity. It’s no accident that long before they marched by the thousands this past summer, American theater artists had consistently been on the front lines in opposing tyranny, subverting conformity, and championing democracy.
In this special election-themed issue, I celebrate some of the many currently streaming plays and theater-related events involving elections. Each of them underscores theater’s vital role in preserving and expanding our freedoms. Each of them challenges us to embrace the alternative pluralisms reflecting the rainbow coalition that is America. Each of them connects the dots between free elections, the importance of choice, and what choice means to being fully human. Each of them challenges all of us to celebrate our humanity by taking our choices seriously and making them honorably.
Will we choose this November to continue working toward that still-distant day when all of us are free? That’s our choice.
I hope these picks encourage reflection regarding how important that right to choose is – on November 3 and every single day of our lives. And I also hope they encourage reflection regarding how unevenly that right is distributed and exercised, thanks to a racist American kleptocracy that unfairly restricts citizenship as well as the vote. Intent on preserving the privilege and power of the few, our so-called representatives dishonor this country’s promise of liberty for all.
I’d love to hear what plays and theatrical events you’re voting for. Snyder rightly recognizes in his book that making “small talk” isn’t “just polite. It is part of being a citizen and a responsible member of society.” It’s how we make new friends, Snyder continues. Which, he concludes, is how we make change. I can’t promise a game-changing conversation, but I can promise to enthusiastically engage you and your ideas. You can reach me via email through Forward at firstname.lastname@example.org or directly at email@example.com. As always, both “theater” and “Fischer” are spelled with an er. And as always, I promise to write back.
First, from the National Black Theatre, here’s six short plays from women of color offering their perspective on voting in America (I have not yet seen the sixth and final piece, which drops today – after my deadline for filing this column). Collectively, they invoke heroines past like Fannie Lou Hamer and Shirley Chisholm, ask hard questions of white feminists, and underscore the resilience of women who’ve fought for the vote and so much more – and won: WATCH
Second, here’s the trailer for William Greaves’ recently restored and newly released Nationtime – Gary, a documentary covering the March 1972 National Black Political Convention; it had previously only circulated in a shortened form deemed more politically acceptable. Narrated by Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, it includes poetry by Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes and a galvanizing 20-minute speech by Jesse Jackson making clear that political rights must be accompanied by economic justice: WATCH
Third, here’s a star-studded Broadway cast of hundreds (including Forward Advisory Company member Karen Olivo), in a benefit for the Biden-Harris ticket that features one of the most wonderfully diverse visions of how theater might build back better that I’ve yet seen during this pandemic. Mixed in with plenty of speeches from the pols are previews from several new musicals, a Nathan Lane monologue, a heartfelt plea from Paula Vogel, a moving rendition of Being Alive, a cameo from 98-year-old Norman Lear, Jennifer Hudson raising the roof with a rendition of Tomorrow, and so much more. You can check it all out here: WATCH
Fourth, enjoy more of the same on Election Day Eve, courtesy of the Public Theater’s free celebration of community, solidarity, and hope, through testimony, video postcards, music, and poetry in an event featuring Adrienne Warren (Tina) and Brandon Victor Dixon (NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar). Titled We the People, it gets under way at 7pm CDT; you can learn more and sign up (it’s free) here: WATCH
Selections for Volume 23 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You (JQA; San Diego Rep):
As he’s demonstrated as a director at American Players Theatre, Madison native Aaron Posner adores George Bernard Shaw, and there’s more than a little of Shaw (as well as a touch of Brecht) in JQA, a stirring play featuring John Quincy Adams, 6th U.S. President. Adams knew seemingly everyone from Washington to Lincoln; in Posner’s imagined history, which unfolds over ten scenes stretching from 1776 to 1847, Adams has conversations with both of them as well as James Madison and Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson and Frederick Douglass.
Ostensibly they’re discussing the issues of the day, from the birth of a new nation to its near-death because of slavery. But as becomes clear in watching the excellent San Diego Rep filmed production of Posner’s play – streaming for $40 through November 5 with a multiracial cast, each of whom takes a turn as Adams – the issues confronting Adams bear a marked resemblance to those we confront today as we head to the polls. Similarly, some of the historical figures appearing in JQA bear a marked resemblance to our own public leaders (James Madison suggests a post-2016 Obama; Henry Clay suggests Pelosi, and Andrew Jackson has more than a little in common with Trump).
In his old-fashioned commitment to public service – he served nine terms in Congress after serving as President, and died two days after collapsing at his desk in the U.S. House – Adams is a throwback to a better time. In a brief 80 minutes, we watch him mourn the loss of an America in which ideas mattered more than “like-mindedness” (Posner’s swipe at social media’s toxic group-think) and policies mattered more than personality. We watch him struggling to choose the good over the perfect. And we see the toll his public service took on his private life. Most important, we’re privileged to watch what we rarely get in contemporary American politics, in which the second Presidential debate was as vacuous (if less heated) than the first: the play of genuine ideas, as presented through a first-rate play.
2. A Classy Dilemma (Conflict, Mint Theater Company):
If you’ve heard of him at all, you’re more apt to know British theater artist Miles Malleson as a comic actor. But he was also a first-rate dramatist, as evidenced by his 1925 play Conflict, streaming through Sunday thanks to archival footage from New York’s Mint Theater Company.
The conflict in question involves rival candidates – one Tory, one Labour – vying for a London seat. As the plot thickens, it becomes clear they’re also fighting for the same woman: daughter to a Lord who is the Tory’s primary backer. Structurally, thematically, and even tonally, Conflict calls to mind Born Yesterday (and would be an equally worthy candidate for the first-class treatment that American Players Theatre recently gave this American chestnut). Like JQA, Conflict also has a great deal to say about the tension between a substantive debate involving ideas and a popularity contest involving personalities.
The Mint’s stream is a film of an excellent 2018 production; much like the archived Mint productions I recommended in Volume 8 back in July, the production of Conflict is a high-quality, three-camera shoot. You’ll need to register your email with Mint to obtain a password, but the stream itself is being offered for free.
3. Backward, Wisconsin (Conscience, George Street Playhouse):
On June 1, 1950, Senator Margaret Chase Smith took the floor in the Senate and spent the next quarter hour decrying what Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy was doing to America. A moderate Republican (remember those?), she didn’t want any part of a GOP that would “ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny – fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear.”
Six additional moderate Republican Senators signed on to what history remembers as Smith’s Declaration of Conscience. Ridiculing them as Snow White and the Six Dwarfs, McCarthy moved to take them down; as a result, Smith lost her seat on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. She was replaced by a rising Republican star named Richard Nixon. Draw your own parallels to our current moment; it isn’t hard.
From this profile in courage, Tony winner Joe DiPietro (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change) fashioned the play Conscience, which debuted at the George Street Playhouse in DiPietro’s home state of New Jersey just before the pandemic shut down the production. It’s now back for a four-day virtual run, with the original cast and sound design as well as photos from the staged production. The stream continues through Friday; a donation of $25 is suggested.
4. Standing Small in Texas (Why Would I Dare: The Trial of Crystal Mason; The Commissary, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater):
In 2016, during her federally supervised release from prison, Crystal Mason filled out a provisional ballot in the November election; it wasn’t ultimately counted because Mason was not in fact eligible to vote. Mason insisted she didn’t know, and wouldn’t have so readily risked a return to jail, after she’d just been reunited with her family, found a decent job, and cleared her house from near foreclosure.
Looking for evidence to support Trump’s sham allegations involving nationwide voter fraud, Texas Republicans decided to make an example of Mason; she was arrested in 2018 and convicted of voter fraud in 2020, with a five-year sentence. Mason is Black; conversely, a white judge in the same county who’d forged signatures to get on the ballot was given probation. Since 2014, Mason’s home county has rejected 88 percent of the almost 13,000 provisional ballots cast there because voters filling them out weren’t eligible. Mason is the only one who has been prosecuted for “illegal” voting. Offered probation rather than jail if she’d drop her appeal, Mason has adamantly refused to give up the fight.
The newly formed Commissary ensemble, working in conjunction with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, has channeled Mason’s trial transcript into an 80-minute performance, drawn entirely from that transcript. It’s an infuriating production to watch; it dramatizes everything that’s wrong with a bankrupt American legal system that consistently misses the forest for the trees, making a travesty of justice while reinforcing the voter intimidation that’s been used to tamp down the Black vote for as long as there’s been a 15th Amendment.
5. Dreaming a Better Future (American Dreams; Working Theater):
Imagine a game show in which the prize is instant U.S. citizenship. That’s what Leila Buck has written as American Dreams, in which contestants from Pakistan, Palestine, and Mexico compete against each other for a single available spot as a new U.S. citizen. The nightly audience is placed in the markedly uncomfortable position of choosing which of the three contestants will be sworn in as a U.S. citizen, in a context where all three are clearly deserving.
I don’t want to say too much in advance about this show, which streams intermittently on a pay-what-you-can basis through November 15; suffice it to say that what begins as a spoof of 1960’s game shows eventually devolves into something closer to Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. Which is, essentially, what U.S. immigration policy has become. We’re shutting out and thereby jeopardizing the lives and futures of countless would-be immigrants. And in turning our back on the world, we’re devaluing the meaning of freedom at home.
As my fellow audience members and I were asked to offer on-screen thumbs up or down assessments of contestants’ answers, it occurred to me how much American life now resembles a Roman gladiatorial contest, in which a privileged few make comfortably removed decisions determining the fates of millions.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Rather than spending our lives in a rigged gameshow offering constricted choices, we can vote and fight for an imaginative and expansive vision of a better America – throwing out the old script and voting for a new and more joyful play. How and what will you choose to see on our country’s stage?
References (in order of mention):
* Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Tim Duggan Books, 2017).
* Unbossed and Unbought: Reclaiming Our Vote (National Black Theatre):
* William Greaves, Nationtime – Gary (Brooklyn Academy of Music, $10 rental, with 50% of proceedings supporting BAM programming):
* In Our America: A Concert for the Soul of the Nation (Broadway for Biden): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwkZJt8595I
* We the People (Public Theater):
* Aaron Posner, JQA (San Diego Rep):
* Miles Malleson, Conflict (Mint Theater Company):
* Joe DiPietro, Conscience (George Street Playhouse):
* Marin Ireland, Peter Mark Kendall, Tyler Thomas and Reggie D. White, Why Would I Dare: The Trial of Crystal Mason (The Commissary; Rattlestick Playwrights Theater):
* Leila Buck, American Dreams (Working Theater):