Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, James Carter.
Recently Athol Fugard “berated dramatists” (will the overhyped online headlines never cease?) for failing to confront injustice. He, like those before him, scolds writers who take on more lucrative projects in film and television, and he suggests that these sister mediums are “passive experience.” There is a paragraph where Nicolas Kent, artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre, disagrees with Fugard, but there aren’t many details. Fugard does praise David Hare for his fight against injustice, and he suggests several global topics that are intriguing and valid. However, as I finished the article, I asked the question: Why doesn’t he write these plays?
To be clear – I love Athol Fugard. When I was in high school, I performed a cutting of his Master Harold…and the Boys as part of speech competition, and the first time I read that play I burst out crying. I lived and loved that play all the way to state finals. He is an activist, a director and a phenomenal dramatist. The respect I have for what he does is huge.
That’s why I’m so disappointed. Mr. Fugard obviously hasn’t been to see any theatre OOB in the past nine years. From the start of these despicable wars, I have seen more anti-war plays than anti-war films. The anti-establishment sentiments in theatre are so strong I’ve grown weary of them. Just as people have grown weary of the wars. This isn’t meant to rip apart Mr. Fugard’s opinion. His experience and reputation far outweigh my humble career. It is, however, easy to complain about the lack of political plays, overlooking a more important question:
Do political plays become irrelevant when they continually preach to the choir?
The real reason social change in the theatre is ineffective is because it often plays to an audience who agrees with the themes or messages. This also goes for film and television. Most drama confronting injustices are now passive because audiences have heard it all before. When it comes to film and television, people who want to see politically charged stories will Netflix or TiVo them (Let’s be real here – no one goes to the movies to see an anti-war film. They rent or record them).
A few years back, I went to a festival of “political theater” at the Ohio Theater, and all of the pieces I saw were slightly subversive, quickly & cheaply produced, and very, very leftist. I remember sitting there thinking, “Who is this festival for? Are any of these companies really effecting change in the community?”
Then, stuck onto the end of the evening, like drunken Uncle Harry, who happened to show up at the party and wanted to give a toast, was “The Right Wing.” Not the entire Right Wing, mind you, just a few viewpoints. A couple monologues and vignettes about abortion, the war and the economy. Mostly, social issues. All pushing back hard against an audience that didn’t agree at all.
I was one of those who didn’t agree. I laughed it off. I thought it was a piece of shit theatre (it was poorly done). But then I saw people talking, reacting, and getting riled up. It was the highlight of post show conversation. Taylor Mac had performed at the beginning of the night, and most people were asking “How did this conservative piece end up in a festival about politics?”
It was beautiful.
It was the first time I saw a New York theatre audience think about their politics. It made people discuss issues, rather than heading to the bar after the show and patting each other on the back for a “job well done” for “sticking it to the man”. I have no way to gauge the percentage of political plays produced in New York every year, but my guess is that of those political plays, over 90% of carry a leftist view. I’m not suggesting everyone go out and write plays supporting the Republicans, The Tea Party or fundamental religious groups. I’m suggesting we stop preaching to the choir. These plays are not effective in the echo chamber of liberalism. One of our foremost political playwrights doesn’t even hear the messages anymore. They are caught in the cacophony of leftist messages from people who don’t know how to propagate their message.
Granted, there are theaters across the world that are choosing seasons to placate subscribers, and Mr. Fugard’s argument that theaters are more concerned with the bottom line than facilitating change is spot on. What would happen, though, if political plays really took their message to the people?
About six years ago, The Imagination Liberation Front produced a play at Performance Space 122 titled I’m Gonna Kill the President: A Federal Offense. It was a huge success, and people loved it for the subversive and leftist outlandish antics. At the end of the play, they brought an audience member onstage and made her take out a cell phone and call the “White House.” At which point, the entire audience yelled in unison: “I’m Gonna Kill the President!” Not only was it political, it was funny and pushed peoples’ buttons on many levels. People left the show feeling a little unnerved, more supported in their beliefs that President Bush’s regime were full of assholes, and very entertained. In the end, though, I wonder if anyone was really stirred to action.
Cut to two years later: I’m Gonna Kill… goes on tour. The company packs themselves into a van and hit the heartland: Kalamazoo, Michigan. They present the play, and it all goes as planned – until the end. After the phone call to the White House, “FBI agents” (actors) storm the location and “arrest” the entire cast. The cast is handcuffed, the audience requested to exit the theater. That’s supposed to be the end of the play. Everyone goes home. But, one audience member wasn’t about to go quietly. He began to argue with the “FBI agents” and other audience members began arguing with him. Punches were thrown and a fight ensued. The producers had to talk the audience down, insisting what they’d experienced was part of the show. Finally, embarrassed and disheveled, the man backed down, and the play was truly over.
When was the last time you went to the theatre and there was a fist fight? Or, an argument? Or, even a heated discussion?
Danny Hoch’s most recent show Taking Over played The Public Theater a couple seasons back, and the play dealt with gentrification, primarily. The performance I attended was dead quiet. The lack of audience response was palpable. I enjoyed the show, but I felt a disconnect between Danny and the audience. A couple months before his engagement at The Public, Danny performed the play as part of the Hip Hop Theater Festival in The Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. I had the opportunity to ask Danny how those shows differed from the performances he gave at The Public. The difference, he said, was huge. In the boroughs, Danny was playing to his audience, his crowd. When a character in the play, a native New Yorker, yelled at those gentrifying, Danny said the hometown crowd cheered the character on. At The Public, he was “public enemy.”
It’s important for us to be public enemy, and we won’t do that by staying in black boxes in downtown NYC where our 10 friends, 4 family members and a couple strangers cheer us on. We need to take it to the unconverted. If you have a play about the economy, figure a way to do it on the steps of The Federal Reserve or in front of the bull statue on Wall Street. A play about war? Find a way to do it next to an Army recruiting center. Have a great idea about a satire on Barak Obama being a Muslim? Do it in Alabama. Just don’t get shot.
OOB doesn’t just mean small, it doesn’t just mean scrappy, it doesn’t just mean New York City. It means doing theatre the big boys won’t touch. When New York Theatre Workshop wouldn’t put up My Name is Rachel Corrie, members of LAByrinth Theatre company met at a bar across the street from the theater and read excerpts of the play in protest. It wasn’t a production, but it took the controversy directly to the doorstep of injustice.
The only way to bring change is to raise awareness, and when we produce plays and share them for people who are already aware, it might as well be falling on deaf ears. We don’t need more plays confronting injustice. We need to take the plays fighting injustice to those causing injustice.
It's a start, a work of art
To revolutionize make a change nothin's strange
People, people we are the same
No we're not the same
Cause we don't know the game
What we need is awareness, we can't get careless
You say what is this?
My beloved lets get down to business
Mental self defensive fitness (Yo) bum rush the show
You gotta go for what you know
Make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be
Lemme hear you say... Fight the Power
“Fight the Power” – Public Enemy, 1989