The Way It Oughta Be: Why This Year’s Plays Matter
“We have a story we want to tell you… about a play… a play that changed our lives…”
The Tony Awards are on Sunday and I’m sure like most of the American public you’re thinking: “So what?” There’s too much going on in the world right now to sit in a theater and watch something, why does something as frivolous as a play need our attention? I understand that most of you don’t care about the Tony’s or the state of American Theatre.
But you should.
After the phenomenon of Hamilton, audiences on Broadway have skyrocketed and it seems that producers have capitulated on this opportunity to bring more daring works into the spotlight. I cannot speak for all of the musicals this year, but the original plays up for the Tony this year are all so supremely important, so monumentally relevant our current times, that they cannot be ignored. It’s hard to pitch to the average American a play about factory workers in rural America, or the censorship of an old Yiddish play, or a three-hour rehash of the Oslo Accords, or a sequel to a centuries old play. However, each of these plays speaks to something that is so prevalent to what is happening in our society right now.
In 1923 a play premiered on Broadway that caused a storm that would last for decades. Paula Vogel’s Indecent chronicles the controversial and tragic history of Sholem Asch’s landmark play God of Vengeance. It is the story of a group of artists fighting for the right of free speech, but it is also a heartbreaking play about the immigrant experience in America and the redemptive power of art.
The characters in all these plays are survivors, fighting for their and future generation’s rightful place in the world. All of them have suffered from the problems permeating throughout the world today whether it’s sexism, persecution, a flailing economy, or the muddied political waters created by long standing and outmoded traditions. None of these people are spotless either. They all carry with them the hypocrisies of what they preach versus what they actually practice. A lot of these characters let the fear of them being wrong shut their ears to compromise and delve further into their own agendas.
In 2008 our economy collapsed and with it the faith in the American Dream. Lynn Nottage discusses all this and more in her recent Pulitzer-Prize winning Sweat. Her characters are all at the bottom rung of a ladder that goes way over their heads and keeps growing. Some are smart enough to start climbing while the rest choose to cling onto the old ways, despite the fact that the old ways have changed dramatically. Nottage’s characters are all looking for their fair share in this remarkable statement on the American working class and human condition.
We live in an age where everyone feels like they are personally under attack. Whether it’s from the left, the right, or your mother telling you that you should call more, times are tense. Everyone’s hurting and everyone has something to say about it, but not everyone is willing to listen. The beauty of art, whether it’s a movie, or a song, or a play, is that it opens a discussion. It may not be a discussion you wanted to have, but it might be one that you needed to have.
In 1879, a housewife named Nora slammed the door on her husband and with came a new wave of feminism in American theatre. Centuries later Nora returns to divulge what she’s learned in Lucas Hnath’s potboiler A Doll’s House Part 2. Hnath curates a compelling and thrilling discussion about the evolution and state of feminism, marriage, and true independence. Through ninety whirlwind minutes we are transported to a world that looks so unlike, but sounds very much like our own.
A lot of conversations happen in these plays that the characters do not want to have, but they do. There are tense fights and shouting galore, but eventually everyone lets their guard down. All the fighting can only get them so far. When the shields are down they are finally vulnerable with each other and then they all finally begin to listen. Not everyone opens themselves up like this, but when they do, great strides are made from an amicable separation to international peace. By showcasing these moments, these plays also open the audience up to have conversations they never imagined having.
In 1993, a historic agreement was made, but only after months of covert dealing and fraught negotiations. J.T. Rogers tells it all in the invigorating Oslo. A Norwegian struggles to facilitate talks in order to bring an end to a conflict that plagued generations for centuries. Rogers weaves an intricate web of backroom talks and secret phone calls in the ultimate story of compromise as progress.
These plays are important. Every single one of them has something to say and we’d be best to sit down and listen. Have them tell you what they’ve been dying to say and then you can go home and have a good think about it all. Maybe it’ll change the way you think. Maybe it won’t. But for 90 minutes or 3 hours, you were willing to give it a chance. That is what makes theatre so vital and art so necessary.
Every year thousands of plays are produced that speak to the needs of our current society, but this year’s crop of plays feel especially important because of the lens through which we are viewing them. A Doll’s House Part 2 discusses the evolution of feminism and speaks for reforming a movement in order to make a change. Sweat looks at working class’s disenfranchisement with the American system. Oslo showcases the fraught and never ending tension between Israel and Palestine, but offers a glimmer of hope through the compromises both sides make to try and stop the fighting. Indecent grows from being a play about a play to a stunning indictment of America’s treatment of immigrants and refugees. Any of that sound familiar to you?
Three out of four of these plays started Off-Broadway and in a different time, they might have stayed there. However the producers of these plays insisted on putting them on a bigger stage because they saw a need to deliver these stories to a larger audience. That the issues they were discussing and ideas they were proposing were destined for much bigger things. The current political and socio-economic climate has everyone up in arms, especially in the artistic community. The right to freedom of speech sits under extreme scrutiny right now and it’s plays like these that speak to the necessity of art as a means of opening a dialogue to start compromise. That’s literally the entire plot of Oslo.
I have no idea which one of these plays will win on Sunday night. I don’t even want to wager a guess because I’m rooting for them all. They are heartbreaking, funny, and illuminating. They show us how far we’ve come, but also how much further we need to go. They change the way we think about the state of the world and how we can make moves to change that. To quote another great play “That is what they cry out for. That is why they were created. That is what they deserve.”
We are a lot of things. We are citizens, immigrants, Jews, Palestinians, women, men, lower class, middle class, Republicans, Democrats, brothers, and sisters, the works. However, above all we are all humans. We all deserve to treat each other with respect because if we don’t, then this global and eternal turmoil we have been living will keep chugging along until we finally consume one another. These plays talk about a lot of things, but they all boil down to one thing: humanity’s capacity for compassion is what will keep us out of the darkness we feel we teeter towards.
Sweat ends with Jason and Chris, best friends until a fight sent them both to prison, reunite at their old hangout. Four years beforehand, they both assaulted Oscar, one of the bartenders in the same place for crossing the picket line at the factory they were striking. During the same fight, the original owner Stan suffered a critical injury that affected his physical and mental health. Oscar takes care of both the bar and Stan now, which Jason points out by saying, “It’s nice that you take care of him.” Oscar just shrugs and says:
“That’s the way it ougtha be.”
You’re goddamn right.