In a time of tumult of anger, theater can still show us the way forward

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One of the compelling properties of theater is that although a production is essentially the same from performance to performance, its meaning can change overnight. Events in a turbulent world have a way of doing this to a living, breathing art form.

This idea came back to me last week, as art and life intertwined in a way that re-illuminated them. The convergence carried a scathing irony, as an age-old stage work that had been radically transformed suddenly seemed in bitter conversation with the radical act of an age-old institution.

The act was the United States Supreme Court’s stunning repeal of a woman’s right to choose, a right considered constitutionally guaranteed by generations of women, many of whom have known no other reality. And the play was a thrilling new take on a musical as American as the Supreme Court. The production, a cover of the Tony-winning “1776,” wasn’t just another musical retread. Staged by the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., the inspired Broadway-bound revival focuses on a slate of male characters from the story played entirely by female, non-binary, and transgender actors.

It struck me now that the performance I attended on June 9 took place on another planet. At the time, the story of the haggling and passage of the Declaration of Independence looked like other savvy plays. As with “Hamilton,” it was a diverse set embracing a chapter in American history — and in this case, a 1969 musical — that had practically written them. How exciting to see them, in this supposedly more enlightened age, finally having a blast.

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After the slaughter of Roe vs. Wade, I had to rethink. Were the words spoken and sung by the actors more hollow than they were 2 and a half weeks ago?

“I hear the bells ringing. I hear the roar of cannons. I see Americans – all americans – free forever! sings Crystal Lucas-Perry, the actress playing John Adams, in her climactic Act 2 solo. argued over fundamental moral issues of nation-building, such as whether the Declaration should contain a denunciation of slavery.

Now, in retrospect, the song’s most desperate passages, by composer-lyricist Sherman Edwards, seemed to be what drove home his point:

“Is there anyone there?” Lucas-Perry sings. “Does anyone care?”

Theater is by nature an art form about freedom. Its mission has always been to challenge us to think innovatively about the state of the world – as a vehicle not only for the loudest voices, but also for the most upset, oppressed and marginalized in the society. His defense of inclusivity is not, as some would have it, a mere display of virtue or enlightenment. As ART’s “1776” and other similar productions reveal, theater is more acutely in tune with the times. It opens floodgates of opportunity, seeking to fill our imaginative reservoirs with the creativity—as Adams puts it—of all Americans.

In this regard, I was also struck again by the eagerness with which theater has tried to tell us where we stand as a country – a responsibility that has grown even as forces are working to divide the country. It’s a niche art form, that’s for sure: theater can’t touch the influence of a streaming service or TV network. But it often has a finger on the pulse of the nation more artfully than any other type of art.

Take, for example, Tracy Letts’ new Broadway comedy-drama, “The Minutes,” about the city council of a small American town in an unnamed state. The mythology of its founding is exploded in captivating fashion, as a council member lays out the details of the atrocity against Native Americans in its true origin story. (Revealing the truth is always an act of patriotism.) A fundamental aspect of our national identity is also central to Heidi Schreck’s smash hit “What the Constitution Means to Me,” a first-person account of the protections we celebrate. as a legal birthright, but this has not always provided an equitable safety net for women.

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Then there was the recent “Suffs,” a new musical from Shaina Taub at Off-Broadway’s Public Theater, which told the story of suffragists’ fight for the right to vote through a cast, again, composed entirely of women and non-binary performers. The show itself could have used some extra sharpness, but its symbolism alone imbued it with outsized emotional impact. I have friends who cried as much about how the actors were able to capture the story as their own, as they did about the story itself. It finished its run last month, but how galvanizing the performances could have been, after the opinion of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization went down ?

Is the public really so sensitive to topical nuances? Of course they are: we switch instinctively in a theater between the world as it is represented and the one we live. In the performance I attended last Wednesday at the Kennedy Center of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for example, the ugly realities of today collided with the stark truths of 1934. The news that a viewer could not forget as the unfolding piece was generated just a few miles away, during the House hearings on the January 6, 2021, uprising.

I’ve always loved Link Deas’ observation of the story, a white man relegated to outcast status by his neighbors in Maycomb, Alabama, for marrying a black woman: “When Horror Comes to Supper,” he said, “She comes dressed exactly like a Christian. Audiences greeted the line from Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel with loud murmurs of approval. They understood the connection between the foundations of bigotry of Jim Crow and contemporary sedition fueled by white grievances.

That sense of community affirmation — the absence of which has been so deeply felt during the pandemic’s long shutdown — is a narcotic that I relish. In this convulsive moment, I think of other evenings at the theater that could strengthen and inform us as a community, other examples of how theater illuminates who and where we are. One seems particularly fitting, a 2017 piece by Lisa Loomer that performed at Arena Stage: “Roe,” the 1973 decision story. Roe vs. Wadewho granted the right that the court has just eviscerated.

Loomer had the foresight to include a scene late in the play and set decades after this decision, in which an angsty pregnant young woman claims to be overwhelmed by the deployment of new abortion barriers. “Just tell me this: is it a baby? she asks, inconsolable – a voice that now resonates hauntingly from coast to coast.

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