America is in the midst of a cultural reckoning. The unhealed scar that is the country’s history of slavery is taking the stage, literally, in drama and satire and challenging audiences in new ways.
On Broadway, the provocative new “Slave Play” is expected to be the buzzed-about show of the Fall. Opening in October, the play by Jeremy O. Harris about race relations within sexual relations, was called transgressive and outrageous in its off-Broadway beginnings.
Several theaters in Denver this season will deal with race and racism head-on.
Curious Theatre, which has long addressed matters of social justice in artistic ways, launched its 22nd season on Sept. 7 with Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” a play about the systemic racism in our society and police brutality against young black men. It is likewise provocative, in part for its frequent use of “the n-word.”
This fall, Local Theater Company offers the world premiere of “Flame Broiled. Or the ugly play,” written and directed by Rodney Hicks, at Boulder’s Dairy Arts Center. Hicks has penned a satire about race and identity politics in contemporary American society. The actor (original cast of “Rent,” “Come From Away”), writer and director (whose husband Chris Coleman is artistic director of the DCPA) is making his debut as a playwright with the piece.
The Denver Center for the Performing Arts will mount “Until the Flood,” about the Ferguson riots, in March. And CU-Colorado Springs staged “The Mountaintop,” a play imagining the Rev. Martin Luther King’s last night on Earth, earlier this month.
Clearly the country is having a moment regarding race and identity politics, and theater seems to be proving itself the scrappiest, most accessible medium to explore it. While The New York Times’ 1619 Project is admirable, Colson Whitehead’s latest books are prize-worthy and Jordan Casteel’s paintings at the Denver Art Museum are variously challenging and moving, theater singularly manages to hit raw nerves.
Why is theater so adept at evoking a visceral response?
“You feel on a different level when you are in the theater,” Hicks said, noting a British study that found audience members’ hearts synchronize when watching live theater. As an actor, too, he knows “there is nothing like theater getting a visceral response right back to us.”
Steven Sapp, who is directing “Pass Over” at Curious, similarly cites the singular power of theater: “To be sitting in a room with other Americans and wrestling with ideas and being entertained, shocked, insulted, all these things that should happen in a room… for it to be live, in your face, it’s not backing up at all, that is another level of being in the room. To hear a gunshot! And if you’re lucky enough to have a talk-back” (taking questions from the audience after the show, as Curious cast members do regularly), “that’s when theater has power.”
“Pass Over” is a riff on “Waiting for Godot” with a dollop of the Exodus story on top, inspired by the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin. (A filmed version produced by Spike Lee is available on Amazon Prime.) In the play the two young black men, Moses (played by Gregory Geffrard) and Kitch (Gregory Fenner) desperately just want to get off the block. The angst that is existential in “Godot,” here is more literal. According to Sapp, “if it was any more metaphorical, people would dismiss it.”
Hicks’ “Flame Broiled” is a vignette play — four black and two white actors portray 32 characters — about “race, culture, identity, all of it.” His show is not written to preach or condemn, he said, but to “turn a mirror onto us through the lens of comedy.”
His inspirations were Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons,” which managed to awaken the country to its social ills via TV in the 1970s, and George C Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum,” a 1980s montage of theatrical “exhibits” illustrating African American history. It’s all about “the art of subversion,” Hicks said. “If it’s done right, it’s not only about making people laugh but making people see themselves.”
Sapp agrees theater is having a moment, addressing Black Lives Matter themes in works around the country. “The only reason is because these regional theaters in particular are beginning to change their management. For a long time, you had 70 regional theaters, with five people of color in top management and, of those, one was a woman.” (He acknowledges Chip Wilson and Curious are among the exceptions, having been pushing progressive topics and working across racial lines for years.)
For most theaters, however, the change has only come in the last couple of years.
Now that there is more dialogue about people of color. “There are more plays on the docket that are challenging things,” Sapp said.
The language in “Pass Over” is challenging — but audiences should know August Wilson isn’t the only one who salts his dialogue with that offensive word, Sapp suggested.
“If you want an authentic black voice, this is what it is. Sorry, it’s not going to be dressed up for you,” Sapp said. “If you’re not prepared to hear that, then you’re not prepared to deal with the issue that’s being brought up in it.
“Theaters have to open the palate,” Sapp said, “You’re going to have to sit and deal with this and get over the fact it’s not coming in the package you want.
“We’re screaming at you. Hello! Trying to give you an inside peek here…You have to trust it’s a professional playwright, professional actors, professional producer all putting a production together.”
In fact, playwright Nwandu has embedded a little discussion of the n-word within “Pass Over.”
“The trick is,” Sapp said, “we have to be able to get the audience in, and show them the storytelling is interesting enough I’m going to ride through this. It’s not Sesame Street.”
Hicks said he has also written the n-word into his play, and not for shock value.
“Personally, as a black gay man in America, it’s not a shock,” he said, laughing. “It’s from all of our ugly history. I don’t see using that word to shock at all, it’s used to educate, to remind ourselves where we all came from, to remind us all of our inherited American trauma.”
Hicks’ play evolved from an assignment in a master class with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel (“How I Learned to Drive”). “She asked us to write a five-minute play,” as an exercise, he said. Hicks recalled seeing a white woman crossing a street as a black man approached and noting that she fearfully clutched her purse until he had passed. It was a familiar scene with loads of subtext. Hicks started writing.
The five-minute version of “Flame Broiled” was developed further at the Local Theater Company’s New Play Festival. The full-length play is now 80 minutes. “It was written with a diverse audience in mind,” Hicks said. “Everyone will take something different away from it.”
In this age of “wokeness,” when the term “Caucasity” — a mashup of Caucasian and audacity, defined in the Urban Dictionary as “the audacity of white people. Meaning, the willingness to take bold risks only white people feel safe doing.” — has entered the language, satire may help the medicine go down.
The humor may be what makes the message palatable to a white audience. Local’s Artistic Director Pesha Rudnick touts “Flame Broiled” as “a searing satire that examines, dissects and subverts race and identity politics in contemporary American society.”
In the Curious rehearsal room on a recent weekday, Sapp said his intention was to make the white character in “Pass Over” more empathetic, “make it a little more accessible.
“If you’re looking at a character that’s just evil, it’s very easy to dismiss,” Sapp said. The version of “Pass Over” that Denver theater audiences will see will have a “more subtle ending” than the Spike Lee film version, Sapp said.
Isn’t doing this at Curious, known for its left-of-center offerings, a matter of preaching to the converted?
“After our last election,” Sapp said, “we can’t assume we’re preaching to the converted at all.”
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