(Jesse Green’s, Maya Phillips’s, Laura Collins-Hughes’s, Elisabeth Vincentelli’s and Alexis Soloski’s article appeared in The New York Times, Sept. 11, 2020; Photo: The New York Times; via Pam Green.)
Six months dark. Thousands of artists out of work. Could this disaster have a surprise ending? Five critics on what must change, onstage and off.
When New York City shut down on March 12, its theaters were preparing for a busy spring season: big names on Broadway, Tony Awards mania, millions of dollars in sales and of course a smattering of thoughtful, important plays on smaller stages.
That’s all gone.
A cause for grieving, yes: especially for the thousands of artists out of work. Playwrights awaiting their breakthroughs no less than producers awaiting their windfalls instantly faced a future that had literally gone dark.
But what if the end of the business-as-usual party were actually the start of a new dream of what theater could be in New York — and by extension in the rest of the country? It’s not as if the shotgun marriage of art and industry that for decades decided what and whom we see onstage had produced an equitable, or even a sensible, result.
Just the opposite, as the Black Lives Matter movement and cultural offshoots like We See You White American Theater have pointed out. The racist assumptions, lordly practices and bad compromises that have favored some voices and squelched others at every level of production amount to what Jamil Jude, artistic director of True Colors Theater Company in Atlanta, has called “a gross case of malpractice.”
And then there is the garden-variety malpractice of an industry perpetually at odds with itself. As the increased violence against Black Americans has laid bare the inequities of creative access, the collapse of the economy has forced us to notice just how badly organized the business part of show business has been.
Things clearly had to change — and with the enforced pause of the pandemic, the opportunity has now arrived in the nick of time. If ever there was a need, and a moment, to fix the theater, this is it.
So for the six-month anniversary of the shutdown, The New York Times asked its theater critics — as well as dozens of people who make theater every day — what those fixes might look like.
Some of their ideas are pie-in-the-sky. (Profit-sharing?) Some are small-bore. (No more couches onstage!) None taken alone, or even all together, will effect an immediate, magical change to full equity, inclusion and financial stability. And even the biggest, best innovations will be difficult to sell in an environment that lacks concerted vocal leadership from those in power. It may be up to artists themselves, working from the ground up, to make change happen.
But it’s worth noting that the American theater has remade itself during disaster before. The Depression led to a flourishing of socially conscious (and often government funded) drama that produced a golden age of playwriting. In the aftermath of World War II, the regional theater movement arose to make the art form more responsive to local audiences and less fixated on profit.
Likewise, in the six months since theaters went dark, we have already seen that theater can arise from the ashes of the world’s (and its own) failures. In some ways it has even thrived. Artists in their lockdown apartments, whether next door in New York or anywhere in the world, have been creating new work online and delivering it to anyone who wants to watch it. This new ecology of all-access production has reminded many of us that the human need to make and share stories, not just to sell them, is immortal.
Even so, especially at moments of great change, it needs to be midwifed. As the actor and playwright Nikkole Salter has said of this moment, “Ask women who have given natural birth: There is a time to breathe and a time to push.”
This is a time to push. And here are some ways to start. JESSE GREEN
Class, it’s time to review the syllabus. Shakespeare, Ibsen, Williams, Miller, Pinter: If the history books have taught us anything, it is that theater loves a singular image of brilliance — and that image is often of a white man.
To build a new theater, we need to break open this canon, making room for people of color to be studied in classrooms and thus, eventually, take their place on contemporary stages.
We have, and will surely see again, the plays of August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry. We are well-acquainted with Suzan-Lori Parks and have just met Jeremy O. Harris. But to expect them to represent the whole history of Black theater is lazy and ignorant.
Embrace Hansberry and Wilson and Parks and Harris, but consider them in a long, rich and largely unknown historical context.
Three points on the timeline: In 1821, William Alexander Brown opened the African Theater, the first Black theater in New York City, and two years later his play “The Drama of King Shotaway” was presented there. It’s considered the first work by a Black playwright produced in this country.
In 1896, George Walker and Bert Williams were the first Black performers on Broadway in “The Gold Bug.”
In 1916, “Rachel,” by Angelina Weld Grimké, became the century’s first full-length play written by a Black playwright and acted and produced by Black people.
I knew of Grimké as a noted Harlem Renaissance poet, but not as a dramatist. Is that because her work was billed as a “race play” and derided as too political?
“Rachel” — about a bright young Black woman who becomes disillusioned with the injustice African-Americans encounter and decides she’ll never bring children into this unjust world — is worth revisiting now, for its lively dialogue, advanced sexual politics and stubborn portrayal of racism.
There are countless others ready for their close-up. New York theaters have recently presented work by Adrienne Kennedy, including a brand-new play, and the Roundabout Theater Company promises to stage “Trouble in Mind” by Alice Childress on Broadway when theaters open again.
I want to hear from May Miller and Ed Bullins, Louis Peterson and Lonne Elder III and Eulalie Spence — playwrights of the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement, moments in American cultural history marked by pride in self-presentation. (Several of them I learned about only through research; I, too, need to expand my education.)
The Black Arts figures were central to the tradition of activist art from the 1960s and ’70s. Agitprop gets a bad rap, but it was a powerful tool of protest against the Vietnam War. So if radical times demand radical means of expression, why not revive the incendiary dramas of Amiri Baraka? Or look further back, to the political plays of the Harlem Renaissance poet Georgia Douglas Johnson, who wrote fiercely about lynching?
We need to look forward, too. Contemporary playwrights of color are plentiful in the pipeline, and they are getting commissions. But they need more than residencies and promises of consideration; they need productions.
Once Covid has left us, let’s see theaters deliver full seasons of work by people of color, and not just fill a slot. Let’s keep track of the commendable promise just made by Lincoln Center Theater — commissioning writers of color for shows aimed at its big, potentially lucrative Broadway house, not one of the smaller spaces.
“The Negro is already in the theater and has been there for a long time; but his presence there is not yet thoroughly normal,” W.E.B. DuBois wrote. “His audience is mainly a white audience and the Negro actor has, for a long time, been asked to entertain this more or less alien group.”
That was 1926. Things haven’t much changed for Black artists, nor for Latinx and Asian and Native American ones, and every other nonwhite group.
In this time of turbulence, we must rally for a theater that rises to the full force of the moment.
While we’re at it: Schedule more “Black out” nights — discounted performances exclusively for people of color, as Harris arranged for “Slave Play.” This will help make theater welcome, and accessible, to audiences that rarely get to see people like themselves onstage.
Theater Must Embrace Streaming to Grow Audiences
Experiments in lockdown have made live performance far more accessible, reaching new fans all over the world. There’s no going back. By Jesse Green
Streamed theater was supposed to be a tourniquet: an emergency measure to stop the industry from bleeding out while the pandemic made in-person performance impossible.
Those advantages are so important that they need to be part of the new normal. When live theater finally returns, the streamed kind, far from disappearing, must continue in parallel.
Fairness alone demands it. The low-cost, high-impact, huge-reach format allows artists who could barely get past the gatekeepers before to establish themselves on a nearly equal footing with long-ensconced figures.