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Bending the arc of theatrical liberation

Last weekend, I watched Ryan Murphy’s Netflix production of The Boys in the Band, adapted from Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 off-Broadway play about a group of gay male friends at a birthday party who confront each other over drinks and struggle with the (pre-Stonewall) internalized hatred of living in a deeply homophobic society. It became the first commercially successful American play in which all the characters were gay men (though not all the actors in that first production were gay). Crowley, who died in March, got to see his play finally make it to Broadway in a 2018 Tony Award-winning 50th anniversary staging. Murphy brought the 2018 cast (this time comprised entirely of openly gay actors, including Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto as nemeses Michael and Harold) and director Joe Mantello back together for the Netflix film.

Having seen Windy City Playhouse’s excellent immersive revival earlier this year, before COVID closed down everything, I was particularly interested to see how Crowley’s story would hold up when opened up for a cinematic treatment. (I have never seen William Friedkin’s 1970 film version, nor did I see the Broadway production onstage.) 

From my perspective as a cisgender straight woman, the answer is “pretty well” (though I have some doubts about the effectiveness of the post-party coda added for the Netflix film). Which is interesting, since Crowley’s characters were accused of perpetuating gay stereotypes over the years. (Undoubtedly a line like “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse” landed even more uncomfortably once the AIDS pandemic decimated the generation of gay men featured in Crowley’s world.) 

But as Reader critic Albert Williams noted in 2018, “What’s often overlooked is that the script actually charts the characters’ first steps toward ridding themselves of the self-hate and self-destructive behavior that characterizes them at the beginning of the play. Every character has an arc toward self-liberation.” The fact that Crowley’s story has been turned into a film with a cast entirely of out-and-proud actors is a marker of how things have changed in half a century.

I was thinking about The Boys this week as well, when the announcement of Broadway’s Spotlight on Plays star-studded virtual readings series was made. You want throwbacks? Baby, they’ve got ‘em! 

Sure, a revival of Gore Vidal’s political comedy, The Best Man, probably makes some sense given the current election season. (If this is actually an election and not some collective national fever dream.) But it’s 2020. We’ve had a summer dominated by BLM protests and the growing voices of BIPOC artists, particularly as expressed by We See You White American Theater (We See You W.A.T.)

The series features one work by a BIPOC writer—Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue, a satire about the politics of race and reality television that was produced locally by Strawdog Theatre in 2017. There is not a single play by a woman or femme-identified writer, or a trans author. In a year when a woman of color has made history by being on a major-party presidential ticket, that exclusion feels even more archaic.

Instead, we get TWO plays by David Mamet: one on race (his 2009 play entitled, um, Race, produced at the Goodman in 2012), and the other (1999’s Boston Marriage) on a close relationship between two women—a minor work that feels like it was written by Mamet on a dare to show that he could, contrary to naysayers, write something that centers women. There’s also Neil LaBute’s version of Uncle Vanya and a couple of relatively well-known plays by Kenneth Lonergan and Donald Margulies. So essentially, we’re talking about work created by older straight white males. I repeat: it’s 2020.

Yes, the casts and directors are somewhat diverse as well as famous (O’Hara directs his own play, and Phylicia Rashad directs Race—though Mamet is directing Boston Marriage). And yes, given that this series is designed to raise money for The Actors Fund, perhaps playing it safe makes sense on paper. You want people to log on and open their wallets, give ‘em what you think they want.

But are these really the plays that deserve a spotlight at this point in history? I get the appeal of seeing original Broadway casts (which is what Margulies’s Time Stands Still with Laura Linney, Eric Bogosian, Brian d’Arcy James, and Alicia Silverstone offers). It was definitely a selling point for Netflix’s Boys and the Disney+ streaming of Hamilton this past summer.

A constant refrain these past few months in conversations I’ve had with theater artists and leaders in Chicago has been that going back to “normal” isn’t actually what we should be aiming for. Granted, what I’m talking about here are one-night readings, not an entire Broadway season, and Broadway is first and foremost a commercial beast. Capitalism is gonna capitalize. And with all performances on Broadway suspended through May 2021, the industry is facing an unprecedented financial cataclysm that will inevitably affect artists and workers far beyond those few blocks in Manhattan. 

Still, I can’t help thinking that as the world is on pause (if not meltdown), maybe there’s a way to use this time to rethink what we think people actually want to see onstage. Maybe we should assume that audiences  are in fact hungry for new stories and new perspectives. 

Looking over some of the virtual season announcements from Chicago companies, I’m heartened by how they’re celebrating the new amid the new normal.

Steppenwolf offers up “Steppenwolf Now,” a streaming series with plays by writers I always want to see more from. These include What is Left, Burns by James Ijames (whose Kill Move Paradise at TimeLine was one of the best shows of this truncated year on stage and whose The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington at Steppenwolf was canceled due to COVID). There’s also rising local dynamo Isaac Gómez’s Wally World, about 10 mega-store employees facing down unemployment (surely a relatable topic for too many of us). 

Collaboraction takes its annual Peacebook Festival online with We Still Dream, kicking off on October 17 and featuring two separate programs of original work by diverse local writers. This weekend, Congo Square unveils its all-new sketch comedy webseries, Hit ‘Em on the Blackside. The Neo-Futurists keep their aesthetic of over 30 years’ vintage going strong with their own election-season piece, 45 Plays for America’s First Ladies.

Finally, Perceptions Theatre, a south side company that formed just this year (and what a year to make your debut!), opens its first full-length virtual production, Jerluane Jenkins’s Black Magic, this weekend. Directed by company artistic director Myesha-Tiara, the story follows a group of siblings sorting through the belongings left behind by Tituba, the family matriarch who was also a priestess. 

Magic, loss, resilience, reckoning. Sounds good to me. Let’s see what happens if theaters decide to ride that arc of liberation from the same old stories.  v

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