My temptation is to protect political theater.
Every time I hear someone groan “oh, no, not another play about Iraq” or “ho, hum, another docudrama about exonerated prisoners” or “save me from more tales of slaughter in Rwanda,” my first impulse is to put a sock in the complainer’s mouth and launch into a brief historical diatribe about theater as a force of social conscience.
After all, I want to say as pleasantly as I can through clenched teeth, big-picture theater has been a relative rarity in this country.
As recently as 1993, when Tony Kushner’s far-reaching “Angels in America” pulled Broadway into the intimate vastness of AIDS and Reaganomics, most theater was still circling the drains of dysfunctional families and individual pathology.
British playwrights have long been encouraged to venture out of the house to get a longer view. But for America it took AIDS - initially, the fury and the statistics in Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” at the Public Theater in 1985 - to shake New York theater back to the urgency that fueled plays about Vietnam and the black-theater passions of the late `60s and early `70s.
Then came Sept. 11, then wars on terror and on civil liberties. I’m simplifying, of course. But suddenly, or so it seems, we have had such a load of political theater that people with no memories can say, “Guantanamo? Again?”
And, though the sentiment is obnoxious, I think I know what they mean.
In the past months, Off-Broadway has had major productions of new political plays about Iraqi translators (George Packer’s poignant “Betrayed” at Culture Project), a `60s radical still in prison (Willy Holzman’s earnest “Something You Did” at Primary Stages), Tony Blair and America as gay lovers on the dark side (Caryl Churchill’s provocatively paranoid little “Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?,” at the Public), British Jews disillusioned with Israel (Mike Leigh’s verbose “Two Thousand Years,” at the New Group) and ancient Greeks conflating Caesar and George Bush (Richard Nelson’s heavy-handed but thoughtful “Conversations in Tusculum,” at the Public).
Just last week, the Wings Theatre had a festival of plays about the Middle East. This week at New World Stages, a docudrama called “The Castle” explores the struggles of ex-convicts in New York. Next month, the Public Lab opens Naomi Wallace’s “The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East.”
On April 30, Laurence Fishburne stars on Broadway in “Thurgood,” a solo play about Thurgood Marshall, the world-altering black Supreme Court justice. And May 7, Broadway finally gets to see “Top Girls,” Churchill’s 1982 evisceration of women and their careers.
It seems too obvious to mention, but there is a difference between a good cause and a good play. But what is that difference?
Whatever it is, it was live onstage in “Sizwe Banzi Is Dead,” which closed a two-week final engagement Saturday night at BAM. This 1972 collaboration was written by its South African actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona and playwright Athol Fugard.
I’ve always been grateful to Fugard for making apartheid real, for demonstrating how theater can make faraway masses feel the profound specifics of a few. When I would read a South African headline, it made me wonder how it might affect people Fugard allowed us to know. A small story, told by a master with a context, can make us share oppression more directly than the nightly news bite of crying children and rifles in the streets.
Some political theater is meant to inform. For example, many of the docudramas at the thriving Culture Project in SoHo are primarily intended to exclaim “look at this” and, perhaps, to make us want to make it better. For more than a decade, Allan Buchman has been putting such stars as Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover together with issues in work that, he says, “sparks conversation, lifts the human heart and incites political action.”
Can theater change the world? Probably not. But every so often - as with Fugard and with Kushner’s “Angels"and his eerily prescient “Homebody/Kabul” in December 2001 - the information is transformed into something that seems to need the stage, into textures so direct and subtle that we believe they can only be understood live in a dark theater.
Some of that same resonance comes through in “Betrayed,” the Culture Project’s small but moving fact-based fiction based on Packer’s 2007 New Yorker expose about Iraqis who signed on to help our country and themselves after the invasion five years ago.
In a program note, Packer says that theater does “these individuals and the moral complexity of their situation more justice than even long-form journalism can effect.”
Oskar Eustis, whose era as head of the Public has a robust commitment to political theater, praises Caryl Churchill’s amazing work as engaging “deeply and passionately with core social, political and human realities.” He says she affirms that “theater matters.” I love when that happens.