Where are the theaters that are bold enough to stage challenging and risky dramas about race? Not just talk the talk.
By Bill Marx
Tis’ the season for regional theater companies to release their announcements for their 2015-2016 season. As usual, promises of future delight and provocation are trumpeted. The Huntington Theater Company proclaims that a “big, bold, and ambitious” season is a-comin’; the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s lineup will contain “diversity and world premieres”; the Lyric Stage Company of Boston pledges to celebrate “the power of storytelling, music, and theatrical transformation.” Of course, hype, used as branding bait to lure increasingly skeptical (and aging) subscription audiences, is as old as the hills — at this point the shows are like brightly wrapped Xmas presents that have yet to be opened. Who knows what riches (or lumps of coal) sit within? Only our programmed-for-positive theater critics, God bless them, need take this PR guff very seriously. Does any audience member walk out of a Boston-area stage production these days and think that what he or she just saw was “bold’? Local reviewers, charged with the task of coming up with bright blurbs for a theater company’s website, make good use of the flashy marketing kindling.
What caught my attention this time around were claims that were so transparently far from what was contained in the season to come that my reaction jumped from an initial snort of laughter to head-shaking anger. Here is Trinity Repertory Company artistic director’s public rationale for its choice of shows (Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, The Hunchback of Seville, To Kill a Mockingbird, a world premiere, and Oklahoma!):
When we plan a season, we ask ourselves the same question about every work: ‘Why is this play relevant today?’ The 2015-2016 season reflects what is going on in our society right now,” states artistic director Curt Columbus. “Through a series of classic and modern adventures, we dissect, understand and honor the Rebels, Renegades and Pioneers among us. From children to heads of state, Western settlers to first-wave feminists—the brave ones, the unique ones, the different ones help us understand what it’s like to be in someone else’s skin, even just for a minute.
To the credit of most of our Boston-area theaters, at least they don’t have the chutzpah (or myopia) to claim that the scripts they are producing are relevant — they aren’t and they know it. Spotting “what is going on in our society right now” in Trinity Rep’s upcoming season is pretty much a fool’s errand, unless you are a burble-minded critic or in the 80 to 100 demographic. Who else but the utterly geriatric would spot the “Rebels, Renegades and Pioneers” in the feel-good ’40s musical Oklahoma!?
But what really riled me up is the statement that a 1990s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird somehow contains a “direct response to the events in Ferguson, New York City and elsewhere this past year.” Balderdash! The Trinity Rep staging may be splendid, but in our post-Ferguson era Harper Lee’s 1960s warhorse has pretty well gone lame. It is based on a stale (if comforting) scenario in which audiences are invited to identify with a crusading white lawyer, Atticus Finch, who is defeated by Southern yahoos in his admirable efforts to defend a black man unfairly accused of raping a white woman.
What we have happening here and now is far more complicated: the Federal Department of Justice report on Ferguson uncovered how police, lawyers, and judges thrive by systematically exploiting struggling black neighborhoods. The officially-sanctioned chicanery not only helps pay salaries, but keeps local tax rates down as well. In America, just everybody wins when the underclass loses. Chances are that today’s version of Atticus Finch could be on the payroll — doing his liberal duty while collecting the high fees that are part of an egregiously unfair set-up. A drama that explores the paradoxes, dissonances, and ambiguities of this kind of corruption, which is not only found in Ferguson, that would be powerfully relevant. Compared to racism’s real politick, the principal merits of To Kill a Mockingbird are its antique name recognition (“The movie was so good …”) and the assurance that the production will reinforce the virtuousness of Trinity Rep audiences. No yahoos in the vicinity … not a chifforobe in sight.
Where are the theaters that are bold enough to stage challenging and risky dramas about race? Not just talk the talk. The irony is that this kind of up-to-date material is already being presented, sometimes very well, on Cable TV, Netfilx, YouTube, documentaries, and in contemporary music. But our theaters are dangerously out of step: when major local stages take up scripts that deal with racial issues we are usually shoved into a prophylactic way-back machine. The Huntington Theatre Company returned to the 1960s with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and the 1980s with The Colored Museum; the American Repertory Theater went over much-trod 1960s ground with LBJ and MLK in All the Way. Arts Emerson turned to historical drama with Breath and Imagination.
To the Huntington Theatre Company’s credit, the troupe recently staged Lydia Diamond’s cheeky play Smart People, which deals with up-to-date racial quandaries. But the choice was an exception to the rule: when it comes exploring what is happening in American race relations after 2000 the theatrical break-down is massive — either no scripts of quality on the issue are being produced by the herds of playwrights flooding out of our numerous MFA programs (What are our young dramatists being taught?) or theater producers are wary of staging scripts that might unsettle audiences because they will be considered too ‘hot button’ or propagandistic. I have written about this evident bias against producing plays that engage social issues directly in my review of Washington Post theater critic Nelson Pressley’s valuable book American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice.
A serious theater critic in 2015 should ask, loudly, some elemental questions — why must our professional theaters go back thirty years to find a play that explores race relations in America? Why must racial dramas be set decades in the past? Have no playwrights written a quality script about what is going on in our country in terms of race over the past decade or so? Why are our theaters so damned scared of reflecting the times we live in?
Here is a modest proposal: the Justice Department’s civil rights investigation of Ferguson, MO revealed a powerfully dramatic picture of systematic municipal corruption: the exploitation of the black community by police, judges, lawyers, and city government. Send a dramatist to some of Boston’s marginalized neighborhoods and have him or her interview the residents, the police, politicians, and judges about the inter-conncections among racial and economic issues — the stories and conflicting points of view that are uncovered could surely generate a play about what is going on around us. The injustice uncovered in Ferguson is not unique … let’s see versions of it dramatized on stage.
We need to nurture new To Kill a Mockingbirds or the theater will stagnate. Unfortunately, our major regional theaters are currently in love with the “amusing ourselves to death” aesthetic of Broadway, which means that any racial dramas that manage to make the cut are inevitably laminated in boomer nostalgia. Spiky, confrontational dramas about current injustices don’t go over very well with tourists and subscription audiences: they pay to get their money’s worth of entertainment and empowerment — not revelations of tragedy.
There are alternatives. Local African-American actress and dramatist Jacqui Parker has written a drama entitled A Crack in the Blue Wall, which deals with a white policeman who shoots a young black man. I have not read or seen the play, but I look forward to taking a look at its “try-out production” (July 9 through 12) in Boston’s Hibernian Hall, where Parker is Visiting Playwright during 2015-2016. At least the script sounds contemporary — ‘grabbed from the headlines,” so to speak — so there’s not much chance any of our major theaters would stage anything like it. Why take a chance on something timely when you can check off the ‘race’ box with another revival of To Kill a Mockingbird?
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.