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Politics and Theater

By Alec Harrington

In 2007, in the midst of a glut of anti-Iraq-War plays, experimental theatre venue P.S. 122 presented the most challenging piece of political theatre that I’ve seen performed in New York in my lifetime: Young Jean Lee’s Church. Political theatre aims for efficacy – it means to change the world. But few works of art have caused political change. In pre-Revolutionary France, Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro brought criticism of the aristocracy out into the open. In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (of which numerous stage adaptations were produced) stirred up opposition to the fugitive slave law and won people over to the abolitionist cause. Many believers in the politically transformative power of art would cite The Group Theatre’s production of Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, which sent its audience out into the street shouting “Strike!” But I wouldn’t put Lefty on my list of politically efficacious works of theater since I imagine its audience was predisposed to shout Strike and I’m not aware of any effective political action that followed from these outbursts.

Short of broadscale social transformation, political art can achieve three things. While such art rarely changes the world, it may change minds. If political art does not actually win over its audience, it may challenge its assumptions. Finally, political art may be content to please its audience. I’m thinking here of entertainments such as Dr. Strangelove and Aristophanes’ scathing satires of the demagoguery and patronage of Athens democratic politicians, the Peloponnesian war, and the dramatic innovations of Euripides.

Church challenged the assumptions of its audience and probably changed some minds. That’s unusual in New York City where the audience for “serious” theatre runs the gamut from liberal to left wing and the bulk of political theatre espouses left wing to liberal views. Espousing such opinions on New York stages is about as challenging as mounting a passion play at Bob Jones University.

presents an evangelical Christian service. After the house lights go out, the audience hears the voice of José - the only male clergy member of this congregation in which everyone is addressed as reverend:

Your spiritual bankruptcy is reflected in your endlessly repeating conversations about your struggles to quit smoking, quit drinking, quit junk food, quit caffeine, quit unsatisfying jobs and relationships – and this is what you talk about when you’re trying to be deep. You claim to care about suffering in the world and take luxurious pleasure in raging against the perpetrators of that suffering, but this masturbation rage helps nothing and no one… Let go of these superficial earthly ties and deliver yourself in humility to the Lord.

Later, another Reverend, backed by chanting Sisters and Brother, asserts the congregation shares the professed values of a downtown New York audience:

We believe that all of Jesus’ political beliefs are right and just and that we must stand against racial discrimination, homophobia, anti-abortion, commercialism, war, and indifference. (chant: God is life) We believe that is sin to engage in masturbation rage against the perpetrators of this evil without doing anything concrete to create change. We believe that pontificating and making art about political subjects doesn’t count as concrete action and is a form of masturbation rage (chant: Jesus Christ is Lord). We believe that it is sin to attempt in self-help therapy; it is just as wrongful as living a polluted and dysfunctional lifestyle if one is only focused on the self. (chant: The spirit is love. Rev Karinne: Dear God please have mercy on me.)

Reverend José has already affirmed:

Now, Jesus didn’t go around picking on people for drinking too much or having pre-marital sex or being homosexuals. He wasn’t interested in condemning people for their personal lives. Jesus was interested in things we experience as clichéd abstractions: police brutality, illegal immigrants in prison, the child living in poverty, trying to do his homework without electricity …all the greatest evil that has been done in this world has been perpetrated by people who are prospering and terrified, just like you.

Young Jean Lee’s Christian voices confront downtown, hipster audiences - breaking down bourgie bohemian fantasies. By giving Church’s congregation politics her “progressive” audience can’t resist, Lee removes an obstacle to walking a mile in the shoes of an evangelical.

The 2009-10 New to New York theatre season has brought another spate of political plays, though the Iraq war is no longer a hot topic. Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall explores the same territory as Church. It tells the story of the romantic relationship between Adam, a secular liberal lapsed Catholic, and Luke, an evangelical. If you are wondering how an evangelical could be in a homosexual relationship, the answer is that, like George W. Bush, Luke believes all people are sinners and all sins are equal. Nauffts attempts to challenge his audience by portraying Adam and his friends as being, in varying degrees, prejudiced against Luke. Next Fall may inspire a modicum of sympathy for evangelicals in that Luke tries to convert Adam out of love and a desire to be with him in the after-life. Luke, though, is not the sharpest tool in the shed – in an exchange that Sarah Palin would not appreciate, he confuses someone who lives in a country north of China with someone who has Down’s Syndrome. He’s a well-meaning naïf, and his theological convictions are underarticulated and hard to take seriously. Any sympathy that Luke may evoke for evangelicals is wiped out by the depiction of his father Butch. While he comes across at first as an intelligent man genuinely concerned about his ex-wife’s addiction to prescription drugs, the audience is bound to lose all sympathy for him when he responds to evidence that his son is gay. At that moment, referring to an actor who played Jim to Luke’s Huck in a musical stage adaption of Huckleberry Finn (presumably Big River), he wonders: “Do you think the nigger was a fag?” This lets a New York audience off the hook - no one need consider Butch’s religious convictions (regarding homosexuality or any other matter) since he can be dismissed as a bigot.

Nauffts’ style in Next Fall is sit-com-like. This is both a strength and a weakness. It’s a weakness in that regular theatre-goers don’t need to spend time and money to listen to facile jokes they could hear in the comfort of their living rooms. It’s a strength because a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down. While Next Fall is ineffective in challenging secular urban liberal assumptions about evangelicals, if it were performed in more rural and more conservative communities - and if Butch’s racism was cut from the play - it could upend evangelicals’ assumptions about gay people. Next Fall underscores W’s point that homosexuals aren’t worse than straight people because everyone is a sinner. It also depicts a loving, spousal relationship between two men.

Both Church and Next Fall take abortion off the table in dealing with secular liberal views of evangelical Protestantism. Young Jean Lee doesn’t aim for straight realism - Church contains several surreal speeches – so audiences can finesse the improbability of pro-abortion-rights evangelicals. In Next Fall, Adam mentions Luke is pro-choice. This defies credulity: would a Christian who rushes to pray for forgiveness after having sex with another man condone what he believes to be murder?

In Jonathan Reynolds’ Girls in Trouble, performing at The Flea Theatre, abortion is the central issue and religion is peripheral. I know from speaking with Reynolds after a performance that he opposes abortion rights. But his play leaves an audience uncertain about his views. The first act of this play presents abortion in the context of callous womanizing. Reynolds resorts to a device Coppola used in Apocalypse Now when the director had one of the soldiers find and then lose a puppy – the pet’s loss works on the emotions of audiences long-desensitized to cinematic depictions of human suffering and death. In the first act of Girls in Trouble, the child of the abortionist (who is African American – and there are social and political ramifications to this fact) takes a newborn kitten to bed with her in spite of her mother’s warning not to. When the kitten claws her, she wrings its neck. The dead kitten evokes more emotion from the audience than an aborted fetus.

In the second act, the girl, who’s now in her twenties (and has changed nick-names from Cyndy to Sunny) seems to be performing at a poetry slam where she declares her determination to have an abortion to spite the man who impregnated her. In the third (and final) act, she’s abandoned both her plans to abort (and her nick-names): she’s now a married mother and anti-abortion activist named Cynthia. She worms her way into the Upper West Side apartment of Amanda, the host of an NPR cooking and political talk show called The Virtuous Vegan, who is planning to abort an accidental pregnancy. Cynthia sets out to persuade her to have the child. A debate The New York Times called Shavian, ensues. Cynthia has the stronger voice, and the inadequacy of Amanda’s arguments had me thinking up retorts on Amanda’s behalf. For example, when Cynthia shows up with two freshly killed grouse to add to the cook’s “Sri Lankan Surprise” dish, vegetarian Amanda is horrified at the “slaughter” and Cynthia accuses her of anthropomorphizing. Yet later, Cynthia describes how, at protests outside abortion clinics, she would follow prospective patients speaking for their fetuses: “Mommy, why don’t you want me to see the sun? Why don’t you want to buy me ice cream?” So who’s anthropomorphizing now (or, at least, age-opomorphizing)? She could just as easily have said, “Mommy why don’t you want me to bring my laundry home when I’m 32? Why don’t you want to see me shoot up?”

Cynthia did finally voice an argument I found persuasive. She tells Amanda she doesn’t want her to keep the baby, but to give it up for adoption, pointing out childless couples are currently traveling to developing and former communist countries to adopt. On the other hand, and to the play’s credit, Amanda’s point of view gets a boost from an unexpected quarter. It turns out the partner in her pregnancy is her ex-husband, whom she recently seduced and with whom she has a teenage daughter. When he finds out about the pregnancy and Amanda’s plans to abort, he demands she have his child. When she says she will if he takes sole custody, he backs down. The fatuousness of this defense of Amanda’s unborn child starts to balance the scales. Finally, Amanda has an argument that seems weighty. Yes, she allows, abortion is murder, and she doesn’t care: it’s no different from killing the grouse. I don’t agree that abortion is murder, but at some point a fetus becomes a feeling being, whose awareness of life matches that of an animal, and probably one significantly less developed than an adult primate, dolphin, dog, or pig. I recognize this puts me on the slippery slope to infanticide – and on that point, there’s a challenging debate to be had.

To me and to others in the audience, the ending of the play seems to turn its right to life perspective on its head, and presents a visceral and devastating condemnation of anti-abortion activists. Reynolds, however, told me this is not his intention.

There are problems with Girls in Trouble. Act I is realistic comedy-drama. Act II is more along the expressionist line of For Colored Girls, but since it’s staged like a poetry slam, it could still be taken for realism. Act III moves into broad satire (The Virtuous Vegan, an NPR segment on the “the value of apology in foreign policy,” direct address to the audience by Amanda and Cynthia, and the caricatured ex-husband). It’s completely disconnected from the previous acts. Still, with its faults, Girls in Trouble is an intellectually invigorating evening at the theatre.

Young Jean Lee followed up Church with The Shipment in 2009. The Shipment deals with attitudes of and toward African Americans. As with Iraq in the W years, race has been the subject of a number of plays in the first year of the Obama administration. Along with The Shipment, there’s David Mamet’s Race, Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park and Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ Neighbors. In Race white lawyer Jack Lawson declares “Race is the most incendiary topic in our history.” Yet, I can attest that three of these plays (I did not see Neighbors) fail to ignite. Why?

None of them deal with aspects of race about which we dare not speak: pervasive black poverty, drug-related crime, and absentee fathers. These plays fail to address who’s responsible for these problems in the black nation and in white America. Nor do they press a white guy, like me, to consider why he has such a prurient interest in having such issues raised. For the most part, the current crop of plays deal with sensibilities of middle to upper-middle class black and white people. In Race, both black characters are lawyers and in Neighbors, an African American college professor married to a white woman is unsettled by the arrival next door of a black family who seem like caricatures from a minstrel show. While Clybourne Park includes two working-class African Americans in its first act, set in 1959, these figures serve as foils to reveal the prejudice, both intentional and unintentional, of white characters. In the second act, set in 2009, the actors who played these working class characters morph into buppies.

Despite its relatively conventional class-bound take on racial/cultural politics, Clybourne Park is wickedly funny. It’s entertaining like Dr. Strangelove and the plays of Aristophanes. (And like Next Fall, it contains a Mongolian/mongoloid joke – this season is not only rife with political plays, but with plays seemingly intended to piss off Sarah Palin.) Race is only moderately entertaining but, in one way, it’s more original than Clybourne Park. Norris’s targets are a little more obvious than Mamet’s. Clybourne Park is set in the all-white Chicago neighborhood to which the family in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is planning to move and it satirizes the attitudes of two types of white folks toward blacks. The first is the NIMBY who’s afraid African American neighbors will lower property values. The second is the unintentionally condescending housewife who lords over her domestic workers. In the second act, Norris goes after both politically correct whites and whites who feel victimized by political correctness. The NIMBY has been a target of pop culture satire since Auntie Mame, if not before. (Surely Sinclair Lewis or Dorothy Parker took swipes at this kind of racism.) The second act’s display of insincere political correctness and white liberals’ self-righteous sense of victimization is less than revelatory; we bourgie libs are completely comfortable with mockery of this aspect of ourselves. As Michael Feingold pointed out in his review of Clybourne Park, Avenue Q has already proclaimed that “everybody’s a little bit racist.” In Race, on the other hand, Mamet makes a hard-bitten, cynical lawyer out to be vulnerable to race-based guilting even as he reveals this character’s ingrained prejudices. Mamet has come up with a fresher target than a stereotypical 1950s racist or insincere white liberal. Nonetheless, Race is a weaker play than Clybourne Park.

The Shipment begins with a stand-up routine performed by Douglas Streater, in which he criticizes black people and the delight white people take in his “brave” teasing. Black comedians, from Richard Pryor to Dave Chappelle, have been doing such material for decades so I was not challenged. Some critics argue The Shipment exposes this style of comedy as a limiting stereotype – even if that’s so, it still fails to unsettle its audience. The opening routine is followed by a skit that caricatures white people’s views of black people, focusing on an aspiring rap singer’s world of drug dealers, drive-by shootings, and prison. We know this caricature exists – the skit addresses neither the reality on which this caricature is based nor white people’s role in perpetuating that reality. The play ends with a party scene in which the guests (all played by African American actors) vent petty insecurities of the privileged. At the end, it turns out the actors have been playing white people, and the scene is meant to show how African Americans view white life. Whites in Lee’s New York audiences are probably not too put out by such criticism from across the color line. But The Shipment is currently touring other cities including Chapel Hill and Pittsburgh. If the audiences there include somebody other than hipsters and cognoscenti, The Shipment may yet prove to be a challenging piece of theater.

At first glance, Suzan-Lori Parks’ The Book of Grace, performed this season at The Public, seems to be a part of the current crop of race-themed plays. It tells the story of Vet, a white Texas border guard, Buddy (who changes his name to Snake), his African American son from a past relationship, and Grace, the border guard’s cheery white wife. Yet, Vet does not seem particularly racist – abusive, militaristic, and xenophobic, but not racist. Buddy was not the hidden product of a Strom-Thurmond-style liaison; Vet lived with Buddy and his mother. And Snake/Buddy, who has arrived at his father’s house with a trunk full of grenades, sees himself as part of a line of revolutionaries that includes Timothy McVeigh. Once Buddy turns into Snake the terrorist, Parks’ obvious symbolism becomes clear: Vet represents traditional, oppressive white America; Buddy stands in for disaffected revolutionaries; the hopeful Grace, who has said Obama makes her smile, is the image of optimistic liberals who want us all to get along. Throughout most of the play, Grace seems self-destructively naïve, but the ending holds out the possibility she may steer Buddy/Snake from his bloody path. The play is, perhaps, more philosophical than political, in that it seeks to analyze rather than persuade. That analysis, though, is neither profound nor challenging: what audience of New York theatre-goers wouldn’t like to believe liberalism might turn the disaffected away from violence?

Another political play now at the Public aspires to meta-historical profundity. Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson (book by Alex Timbers – who, I believe, also had the idea for the play - music and lyrics by Michael Friedman) equates populist appeal with the sex appeal and charisma of rock stars. I’ve just plumbed the depths of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson; and unless you are a fan of “emo rock” or want to see what may be the best set of the season, you can safely save yourself the price of a ticket. To be fair, Timbers raises a couple of issues. He invokes Jackson’s genocidal acts against Native Americas to point out populism can be racist and nationalist – I’m shocked! Shocked! Timbers depicts Jackson as struggling when he discovers populist pandering does not work as well in governing as it does in campaigning. I doubt the real Jackson was nearly as nonplussed by this as his rock-star counterpart in Bloody, Bloody. Yes, the play’s theme is relevant to the tea party movement and the success of politicians like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin – one Jackson fan declares he feels like he could drink a beer with his hero. But this is as profound as Mr. Timbers’ deep structure gets.

The play breaks some politically correct taboos, but it’s a less than subtle alternative to p.c. piety. The narrator of the play is wheelchair-bound and Jackson, who wants to tell his own story, repeatedly shoots her in the neck. This leads nowhere (again and again). And the depiction of Martin Van Buren is also pointlessly provocative. Van Buren is a Twinkie-fellating (I refer to the mass-produced pastry, not the gay category for boyish young men) queen who’s got it bad for Jackson: “if you love Jackson so much, why don’t you marry him?” This is adolescent political/historical incorrectness, worthy of teen-y heads, not mature theater audiences. Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson is South Park without the wit and insight.

Young Jean Lee’s Church directly called into question the values of its audience. Of the 2009-10 season’s political plays, only Girls in Trouble takes on its audience so aggressively. Church not only had the potential to engender, among secular New York liberals and leftists, tolerance of Christian fundamentalists, but, were it performed in less cosmopolitan communities, it might engender, among Christian fundamentalists, tolerance for sexual and substance-abusing sinners. If Geoffrey Nauffts excised the caricature of Southern evangelical-as-racist, Next Fall might have a similar effect among fundamentalists (in re homosexuality, not substance abuse). It leaves New York audience, however, pleasantly undisturbed. On the other hand, for pure entertainment, Clybourne Park is the best political satire of the season.

From April, 2010

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