From far left, Carlo Albán, Jack Willis, Kevin Kenerly, Terri McMahon, Kimberly Scott and K.T. Vogt, in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat.”
JENNY GRAHAM / OREGON SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
SEPTEMBER 13, 2016
It’s not unusual for theater, like many of the arts, to address a pressing social or political issue. But what strikes me as unusual this fall is that most of such work comes from notable black female playwrights: Sarah Jones, Anna Deavere Smithand Lynn Nottage all have new (or new to New York) works that grapple with problems preoccupying contemporary culture.
What’s more, the Signature Theater Company will begin its celebration of the work of Suzan-Lori Parks, whose plays, while stylistically exploratory and tremendously varied, nevertheless often have a powerful social consciousness. (Another example: Danai Gurira, whose “Eclipsed,” about sexual abuse of women in African civil wars, was a Tony nominee for best play this year and opens in San Francisco in the spring.)
With Black Lives Matter and #OscarsSoWhite galvanizing attention; N.F.L. football players stirring controversy by failing to stand for the national anthem, to protest endemic racism; and even Beyoncé taking fierce political stands in her new music, these playwrights are in sync with the national mood, using the tools of theater to bring us face to face with hard facts about the world we live in.
I am particularly looking forward to a further bracing encounter with Ms. Nottage’s “Sweat,” which I first saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and which begins performances at the Public Theater in October.
In shaping this well-wrought drama about factory laborers facing bleak futures, Ms. Nottage and her director, Kate Whoriskey, drew on interviews with residents of a Pennsylvania city ranked among the poorest in the country. Mostly set in a bar where the workers hang out, the play explores the tensions — racial, interpersonal and otherwise — that tear at the fabric of the community, as jobs in manufacturing that once provided a solid middle-class living for millions of Americans grow scarce.
I probably don’t need to remind you that anger at the decline of the rust-belt economies has been much discussed in the presidential election this year. But as in her previous plays, including “Intimate Apparel” and “Ruined,” Ms. Nottage nimbly avoids the didactic in her exploration of the fallout from the collapse of manufacturing. “Sweat” handily earns its grabby title, pulsing with the intensity of drama drawn directly from the hard-lived experiences of its characters.
The playwright Sarah Jones, whose “Sell/Buy/Date” explores the lives of workers in the sex industry.
The playwright and performer Anna Deavere Smith has a long history of addressing topics of meaty political or social currency, having examined racial conflict in “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” and more recently the chronically problem-plagued health care system in “Let Me Down Easy.”
Her new show, “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education,” focuses on how the failings of public schools are ineluctably intertwined with the high incarceration rates of young men, and young black men in particular.
Drawing, as always, on dozens of interviews, Ms. Smith once again is the sole performer, using her virtuosic acting skills to embody various characters discussing an issue that has been boiling up in the public sphere for more than a year, as the deaths of black men at the hands of the police has become a matter of national attention. The production, directed by Leonard Foglia, is now at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and begins performances in October at the Second Stage Theater in New York.
The playwright and performer Anna Deavere Smith will star in her “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education.”
And this fall brings the welcome return of Sarah Jones, like Ms. Smith an incandescent performer who holds the stage on her own, most famously in her show “Bridge & Tunnel,” seen on Broadway in 2006. In her latest, “Sell/Buy/Date,” which begins performances in September and is presented by the Manhattan Theater Club, Ms. Jones explores the lives of workers in the sex industry. Like Ms. Smith — and, for that matter, Ms. Nottage — Ms. Jones likes to draw from life, and conducted nearly 100 interviews to gather material for the show, in which she will portray almost 20 different characters.
And, finally, this fall Ms. Parks becomes only the second black woman to have a series of productions dedicated to her work at the Signature Theater, after the pioneering playwright Adrienne Kennedy. Ms. Parks’s “residency” will comprise four plays, spanning both this season and next.
It starts in October with “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World,” a surrealistic play that riffs pointedly on stereotypes of black culture as it depicts what the title suggests, an event that takes place over and over. In the spring comes “Venus,” which explores the life of a South African woman, Saartjie Baartman, who became an object of public fascination — not of a flattering kind — when she was taken to London to be exhibited in freak shows.
It may well be a coincidence that the season will bring us a rich handful of plays by black women addressing issues reverberating through American culture today (and yesterday, and the day before). Or it may be an indication that while many playwrights continue to concentrate on staple American-theater themes of troubled families and personal strife, black women are using their gifts to widen our perspectives and confront truths that it might be more comfortable to ignore.
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson