Theatre for Truthtellers
I suppose I am somewhat prejudiced on the subject, but I have rarely come across a play or a production devoted to one social or political cause or another that made me believe that the artists involved were not only emotionally worked up about their cause, but mentally on their game as well. However, I will give the benefit of the doubt to the possibility, and therefore it seems that certain observations are in order. In the business world, people talk about identifying “best practices,” which means looking at those who do something very well and noting how it is they do it.
The best social and political dramas and comedies do not propagandize. They analyze, and they incise. They cut deep into the human marrow of an issue, open it up and look at it in such a way that we can really see what’s there. The people who do such work know that ultimately, political and social issues turn, in the theater, into questions about character, not about theme. The stage has that unique ability to put a human being in front of us, live and in person, breathing the same air we breathe, sharing the same space we share. When the theater succeeds in doing that on the basis of characters and situations that call up the tensions and fissures in societies and governments, really powerful political theater can happen. When the theater succeeds only in parading an open mouth and a closed mind, very little of any power or value ensues.
It might seem obvious that in such an effort, one point on the checklist would be, “Avoid stereotypes.” Stereotypical characters are a mark of bad drama regardless of subject, but especially so in any theater that aspires to expression of valuable political or social ideas or messages. However, when we think about stereotypes, there are more kinds than we might be alive to off the bat. We all know about negative stereotypes—the plays from the 19th and early 20th centuries that feature black characters only as cheerful housemaids, singing farmhands, and the like. However, there’s another, subtler, equally pernicious way to stereotype people. That’s by making them nice.
I recently saw the premiere of a play about the homeless. The two homeless characters who form the heart of the play are very nice people. They’re courageous, charming, quirky, articulate, easy-going, idiosyncratic characters with touching histories and upbeat attitudes. The play ends with them dancing a charming little waltz just before they have to give up their cardboard boxes and go off to a shelter. In short, they’ve been portrayed exactly the way 19th century American plays used to portray the Irish immigrant or the southern black. The seemingly positive stereotype masks the human reality of the people it allegedly portrays, and at the same time, lets the audience off the hook. We are encouraged to think that homeless people are really just nice, happy, satisfied people who have no real problems and present no real issues. The positive stereotype does as much or more harm than the negative one.
What we need in a play about the homeless, or about any other kind or group of people, is the truth, the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly. We want neither rosy rouge nor latex scars, neither pretty pink with diffusion gel nor searing white with carved shadows. We want just the real skin and the natural light. Tell us the truth—the whole truth—and nothing but the truth, preferably in a way that makes us know that but for the way the Fates spun and measured and clipped the threads, there we might go as well. You can do that while making us laugh or cry or both.
It really boils down to honesty. Artists must be honest with themselves and with their audiences if they want to do good work. All plays are always loaded. Know your subject and what lies beyond it. Keep your fingers off the keyboard until your spirit has found the focus. Then, and only then, are you ready.