Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 34
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 34 (JANUARY 20, 2021): THE POLITICAL UNCONSCIOUS
Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties – coming to a screen near you in a Forward production opening this Friday and running through February 7 – majored in history at Yale and then taught American history for five years. In nearly every interview she gives, Burgess makes clear how much she geeks out on history, and you’ll see that love on full display in The Niceties (individual tickets remain available for those of you who are not Forward subscribers, although our reasonably priced subscriptions for the remainder of this season may tempt you to become one).
So why did Burgess leave teaching and become a playwright?
“Because,” she said when asked this question, “writing for me starts where the work of the historian stops . . . there’s all the people whose stories never got told. There’s the stuff that the official public record doesn’t say . . . A wonderful thing that storytelling and fiction can do is supplement the telling of collective history with untold stories and speculation.”
In a book that forever changed how I see narrative, philosopher and literary critic Fredric Jameson referred to such “untold stories” as our “political unconscious”: the often unrecorded and even unnamable historical truths that “will not forget us, however much we might prefer to ignore them.”
Jameson contends that this unconscious exists in every story, fighting against narrative efforts to contain and control it. It’s readily apparent in The Niceties, which is itself a battle between two competing narratives regarding how History works, who it serves, and what it excludes. It’s a story about the how and the why of the stories we tell.
Each of this week’s picks gives voice to stories and storytellers that master narratives seek to restrain and repress. Selections below spotlight playwrights from Africa and the Caribbean as well as this country’s indigenous population. We’ll visit with a relatively unknown play by the underrated Lillian Hellman, focusing here as in so much of her work on the rarely broached topic of class. And we’ll check in with two works – a classic set in Nigeria and a formally innovative, hard-hitting audio play traversing the Middle East – that take the measure of British neocolonialism, still wreaking havoc long after the sun set on the Evil Empire.
History should always be about such recalibrations; like all stories, it’s a living, dynamic organism, dialectically evolving under the pressure of newly discovered facts, emerging movements, and consequently changed perspectives.
It’s fitting, in this context, that this week’s picks are being published on the day when the 46th President of the United States is being inaugurated. We’re turning the page and opening a new chapter in our nation’s history. How will it read? The better question might be: what will we each do to help write it? The point of living isn’t to passively interpret a predetermined set of facts, but rather to make a mark and change the world, one (f)act at a time.
What plays have opened your eyes to historical truths we don’t hold as self-evident in our congratulatory myths of American exceptionalism? Tell me, please, so that I might continue immersing myself in theater that challenges my understanding of how the world began and why it spins forward. I solemnly promise to read any plays you recommend. You can reach me through Forward at email@example.com or directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, both “theater” and “Fischer” are spelled with an er.
First, let’s give it up for Forward Advisory Company member Sam D. White, who directed the upcoming production at Madison’s La Follette High School of Alan Haehnel’s What I Want to Say But Never Will; additional members of the Forward family also worked with students on various aspects of the production. In Haehnel’s play, teens indulge in the fantasy of being able to say what they want, without fear of judgment or repercussion (I’d like me some of that, too!). It streams here from this Friday through January 29: TICKETS
Second, check out Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s first-ever zoirée (i.e., a soirée on Zoom): the world premiere of Wisconsin native Matt Zembrowski’s In the Cloud: A Virtual Musical, as embodied by Norman Moses, Rae Paré, and Marilyn White. There will be six performances of this “intimate drama for the Covid era,” beginning Friday; get your tickets ($22) here: TICKETS
Third, how did we go from a literate and communal culture to narcissistic Twitter feeds that cannibalize experience while fostering a cult of personality? Branden Jacob-Jenkins explores this and so much more in Gloria, one of the great plays of the 21st century. Yes, really. Through this Sunday, you can watch the original cast reprise their 2015 Vineyard Theatre production, in a benefit reading for Vineyard. Tickets begin at $25 and can be purchased here: TICKETS
Fourth and finally, a real treat: Here’s MasterVoices – the country’s first interracial and interfaith chorus – in the first of four digitally produced chapters of Adam Guettel’s Myths and Hymns, Guettel’s glorious 1998 song cycle about the yearning for transcendence in a secular world. Rolling out between now and May and presented by a gob-smacking collection of talented vocalists, it’s free. I wouldn’t skip a single one of its splendiferous 28 minutes, but if you’re pressed for time and want a preview, pick things up at 13:38 for an inspiring four-minute hymn to human possibility, presented by Julia Bullock, Renée Fleming, and Kelli O’Hara. I can’t imagine a more appropriate way to channel the hope and promise of a date many of us have been eagerly awaiting for four horrifically long years: WATCH
Selections for Volume 34 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. Mixing it Up (African Caribbean MixFest; Atlantic Theater Company):
This year, Atlantic Theater’s MixFest – an annual celebration of diverse voices in theater – traces the common threads (while exploring the differences) among Black voices from Africa and the Caribbean, in a series of free readings and panels that continues through January 29 (registration is required).
Co-produced by playwright Guadalis Del Carmen and Young Vic Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah (previously the Artistic Director at Baltimore’s Center Stage for seven years), this year’s line-up includes the latest play from Kwei-Armah himself (Jan. 21 at 5:00 CST) as well as the second installment in L.A.-based playwright France-Luce Benson’s Deux Femmes on the Edge de la Revolution (5:00 CST on January 26; Benson will also speak about her trilogy on February 3 at 4:30 CST, in a talk sponsored by UC-Irvine).
2. Putting the “I” in BIPOC (Reflections of Native Voices, 2021; New York Theatre Workshop and La MaMa Indigenous Initiative):
In the moving Prologue to his novel There There, Tommy Orange warns against viewing this country’s indigenous communities through a single, rarefied lens that fetishizes the past while ignoring the alterative pluralisms reflected in contemporary indigenous life.
Channeling multiple native voices, There There consistently embodies what its Prologue preaches. Having reviewed the lineup for the upcoming Reflections of Native Voices, 2021 – a two-week showcase of indigenous dance, music, and theater – it’s clear that this festival will similarly deconstruct any monolithic misconceptions involving indigenous life and culture. I’m particularly looking forward to checking out Murielle Borst-Tarrant’s delightfully titled Don’t Feed the Indians: A Divine Comedy Pageant, a satire loosely based on Dante in which “Indian show business meets the Doctrine of Discovery” while examining what happens when indigenous peoples push back against cultural appropriation.
The festival runs from January 25 through February 7 and includes both live performances and on-demand streaming. You can pay to watch individual productions at $10 per pop, but why go that route when you can purchase a pass to the entire festival, offering unlimited access, for just $15? It’s a legitimate steal, which is more than one can say for what happened to Native Americans’ land, culture, and intellectual property.
3. Cry, the Beloved Country (Three Sisters; National Theatre):
Nigerian playwright Inua Ellams’ adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters transports us from Russian sisters longing for Moscow to Igbo sisters yearning for Lagos. Ellams ups the ante by setting his adaptation in the breakaway republic of Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War, when as many as 2 million Biafrans died of mass starvation while a people’s nationalist aspirations were crushed. Ellams’ characters lay much of the blame for this avoidable tragedy on British colonial policy, exacerbated by Britain’s support for the Nigerian government during the Civil War.
Beautifully filmed and acted, Ellams’ adaptation gives texture and depth to Chekhovian characters’ plaintive lament that their lives are meaningless – and that all they’ve loved and fought for will be forgotten. Including their stillborn country and thwarted dreams of freedom.
“There’s this myth that the classics are so far removed from who we are, and that we don’t have anything to learn from them,” said Orange is the New Black star Samira Wiley, on the most recent episode of American Theatre’s Three on the Aisle podcast. “But we do have things to learn from them,” Wiley insisted, while noting how fully the classics speak to our moment and adding that she’d appeared in 2020 virtual productions of plays by Molière (see Volume 8) and Chekhov (see Volume 26).
I’ve written frequently in this column about how our “classic” texts can and do continue to speak to us, long after the white men who wrote them are dead and gone. They live on through brilliant adaptations like Ellams’ Three Sisters, which suggest how classical theater companies like American Players Theatre might move into the future while simultaneously honoring their past.
With the launch of National Theatre at Home’s new streaming service last month, plays like Three Sisters are now available to be streamed on demand for the first time; a 72-hour rental will only set you back $7.99. You can also enjoy unlimited access to this and numerous other NT productions; a subscription runs $12.99 per month and $129.99 per year.
4. A Map of Misreadings (A History of Water in the Middle East; Royal Court Theatre):
Originally staged in late 2019, Sabrina Mahfouz’s repurposed audio play begins by making clear that this 60-minute history will be “highly edited, highly condensed,” as it reviews the history of water in Middle Eastern countries from Egypt to Bahrain that were reshaped by British imperial policy. Mahfouz’s editing is a metacommentary on how history works, as seen here through the various ways imperial powers like Britain arbitrarily redrew the region’s lines to suit Brit needs rather than letting the peoples living there go with the organic flow of their own history.
Combining poetry, history, and Kareem Samara’s arresting music (sung with haunting anguish and heartache by Laura Hanna), Mahfouz pulls no punches while building a compelling case, itself interspersed with semi-autobiographical stories of her attempts as a young woman to become a British spy. Thankfully, she was unsuccessful, allowing her to instead become the passionate playwright and poet we meet in this lyrical piece (in which Mahfouz herself is one of the performers). The Royal Court’s production streams for free through January 30.
5. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Days to Come; Mint Theater Company):
I noted in recommending their productions in volumes 8 and 23, New York’s Mint Theater Company has a distinguished track record of giving new life to old plays, much as the excellent podcast Backlisted does to old books. But I digress.
Lillian Hellman’s Days to Come closed almost before it had opened in 1936, which makes the Mint’s current stream of its 2018 revival especially welcome. As I’ve also noted previously and as is demonstrated anew with Days to Come, the Mint’s archival films are exceptionally well produced.
Nobody will mistake the sometimes talky and often melodramatic Days to Come for a great play, but I heartily recommend it all the same; while it takes its time getting started, the ensuing drama actually has a great deal to say (and says it well) about how readily monied liberals forsake their vaunted convictions when backed against a wall. That makes Days to Come as relevant today as it was 85 years ago; now as then, liberals rarely let their commitment to progressive values truly pinch their pocketbook – while tending to ignore class conflict and substituting narrowly conceived identity politics for genuine structural change.
Hellman’s play revolves around a liberal, factory-owning family whose workers are on strike; the patriarch who’d paternalistically imagined those workers as friends brings in thuggish strikebreakers to put them down, while looking the other way so he need not dirty his hands. Except to wring them while wallowing in self-indulgent guilt. Plus ça change . . .
Hellman’s play is the first of six the Mint will share this spring; two of them were also shared last year (see volume 8) and are worth watching now if you missed them then. They’re all free, although you must register at the Mint’s website if you haven’t already done so. Days to Come streams through February 21.
References (in order of mention):
* Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Cornell, 1981)
* Alan Haehnel, What I Want to Say But Never Will (La Follette High School):
* Matt Zembrowski, In the Cloud: A Virtual Musical (Milwaukee Opera Theatre):
* Branden Jacob-Jenkins, Gloria (Vineyard Theatre):
* Adam Guettel, Myths and Hymns (MasterVoices):
* African Caribbean MixFest (Atlantic Theater Company):
* Deux Femmes on the Edge de la Revolution: A Discussion with France-Luce Benson (International Center for Writing and Translation, University of California-Irvine):
* Tommy Orange, There There (Knopf, 2018; Vintage, 2019)
* Reflections of Native Voices, 2021 (New York Theatre Workshop and La MaMa Indigenous Initiative; curated by Safe Harbors NYC):
* Anton Chekhov (as adapted by Inua Ellams), Three Sisters (National Theatre):
* Sabrina Mahfouz, A History of Water in the Middle East (Royal Court Theatre):
* Backlisted Podcast (Giving New Life to Old Books):
* Lillian Hellman, Days to Come (Mint Theater Company):