Tales of the American Heart(land)

Amidst the seemingly endless array of doomsday scenarios regarding the onset of Trump’s America being bandied about by many artists – a majority of whom are obviously liberal – a rare, commonly held bright spot in this darkness is the promise that at the very least some amazing art will be created in response to the years ahead. Very few have ever countered the quasi-adage ‘misery inspires better art than happiness’ for a reason.

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For those who oppose the moniker ‘Trump’s America’ because they believe it comes with the implicit prediction that the whole country will start behaving like his more extreme, reprehensible supporters, ‘Trump’s America’ only entails Americans are currently living in a country of people willing to elect a man like Donald Trump to the highest office of the nation. People are free to interpret the implications of that fact however positively or negatively as they want. 

Artists, it’s safe to assume, will probably fall on the more negative side of that spectrum. Throughout human history, art has been host to some of the most potent responses to societal issues, and regardless of whether or not you believe it can facilitate real progressive change – you can guess on which side of that aisle I reside – socially-conscious art will undoubtedly be in high supply in the coming years, both in regards to the socially-conscious intent behind that art and the socially-conscious lens through which audience’s will interpret it. This election has already allowed the beginnings of this predictable phenomenon to take root: all year, audiences have been interpreting much of the art – and really everything else – they consume through the lens of the election, which is almost unavoidable since the election has been the predominant focus on so many people’s minds. 

Because of this, since November 8, I’ve been pondering the best and worst ways that artists will feel compelled to respond to Trump’s presidency. As we enter an artistic landscape where seemingly every serious work of art will be trying to make some sort of social statement, artists should not expect to receive kudos simply for trying to communicate an important message. Such artistic endeavors should of course command attention and respect, but now more than ever the success of their executions in regards to how well they communicate their points – and how much the audience will benefit from hearing those points – should be considered in most critical evaluations. As such, a plethora of Write All Nite pieces in the coming months will wrestle with these issues.

In fact, they’ve already influenced my perception of shows that I’ve seen since the election ended. Regina Taylor’s two contributions – the first written before the election, the second afterwards – to Theatre for One’s (T41) recent residency at the Signature Theater serve as quasi-case studies epitomizing two different ways to approach – one not-so-good, the other good –the type of socially-conscious work that will occupy many stages in the coming four years. 

Her first T41 play – Déjà vu – was the sort of direct polemic to the audience that many other playwrights will undoubtedly churn out in hopes of delivering a clear message to people living in Trump’s America. Since the play was written before his election, however, it obviously didn’t directly comment on his Presidency; rather, that potential feels like a motivating factor behind her decision to write the play, which features a black woman (the always wonderful Myra Lucretia Taylor) imploring her audience of one to vote by emotionally taking them through the hard-fought history in which she and her ancestors participated to ensure they would have the right to vote. Though that history was richly drawn and richly conveyed by the Taylors (no relation), the clear and straightforward ultimate intent of the piece almost couldn’t help but replace the sort of nuanced dramatic and thematic depth of many of the other T41 entries. But given the highly intimate relationship struck between the art and audience by T41’s unique set-up – in addition to Taylor knowing that the play would only be performed in the week leading up to Election Day – its civic duty being emphasized over its dramatic success is very understandable and thus forgivable.

Yet without the particular conditions surrounding this play, such artistic forgiveness will not be as easily doled out to future plays that similarly so obviously prioritize communicating a simple intention over creating a complex dramatic landscape, no matter the nobility of that intent. Plus, since most people would rather pay to be entertained than challenged by art, most other shows like this would exclusively attract audiences whose beliefs already match the playwright’s, and preaching to the choir may be the most useless – and frankly masturbatory – of all theatrical antics. Simply put, polemics suffer from the tendency of their creators – the ones with the big ideas to impart – to forsake the nuanced authentic realism of their characters and instead treat them as mere pawns in their dramatic schemes to make incisive points. 

Fortunately, Taylor’s second play for T41 – This Moment After – posed a much more resonant way to respond to societal issues. The play was actually a last-minute addition to the residency, clearly inspired by Trump’s unexpected victory in the election that was such a big focus of Taylor’s first T41 play. Myra’s character makes another appearance, but this time she’s struggling to come to terms with waking up the morning after the election in a country that she used to believe was very different, including during the first play. The unannounced nature of this play being added to the lineup conveys that Regina must not have been initially commissioned to write it; rather, she probably felt a deep desire, or perhaps even need, to re-enter T41’s magical theatre box to come to terms with the disappointing outcome of the election. 

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Note how the powers that be had to literally write-in This Moment After for the schedule of T41’s final week

This urgency is tangible throughout: Myra’s character is palpably searching to find meaning in a country whose meaning radically changed to her overnight, and her performance emotionally captures her struggle to connect to the person in front of her out of a desperate need to recognize her fellow (wo)man. Since self-identity is intrinsically linked to a person’s conception of their place in the world, that world being turned upside down overnight – as happens when someone realizes they’ve falsely believed that more than half of their country shares their vision for it – almost unavoidably plunges those people into a desperate quest for meaning, which has long been the fodder of great art. Though Trump specifically inspired this play, the introspective emotional anguish depicted within is universally resonant – no matter what side of the aisle an audience member’s politics fall on – and touches upon the sort of nuanced complexity that transforms a work of art from being a time-bound polemic to a timeless exploration of the human condition. 

If we’re lucky, more artists in the coming years will adopt Taylor’s approach to her second T41 play over her first. There will always be a place in the theatre for playwrights to deliver pointed social messages to their audiences, but the most successful plays – in terms of how much they resonate with audiences – will be those that respond to the current social climate not with knee-jerk, angry, hot take reactions where the playwrights hop on their soapboxes to spew out solutions to all the world’s problems, but rather those that strive to explore the universal – and universally timeless – motivating human factors that ushered in the specific conditions of today, which will always connect to – but not be the exact same as – past conditions and eras.

Richard Nelson’s THE GABRIELS: Election Year in the Life of One Family deeply understood this timelessly cyclical nature of history. The Public Theater commissioned Mr. Nelson to write three plays that would – as the title suggests – comment on the election year that was. Since he had no real way of predicting the events of this year – thus seemingly preventing him from being able to work on these plays in advance – most expected this card-carrying Democrat to theatrically respond by having his liberal characters bellow on and on about the dangers of Trump through the lens of his inevitable, ripped-from-the-headlines abhorrent behavior. But Nelson – one of the most invaluable and flat-out best theatre practitioners in the world – is too smart to regurgitate such a temporally-bound perspective. Instead, the actual events of the election took a backseat to his dramatic mission to explore through his achingly realistic characters the damaging societal trends that have often lead suffering people to find solace in a populist like Trump.fullsizeoutput_1ced

Though many Americans believe Trump’s ascendency will bring about a brave new world – which may be good or bad, based on their personal political beliefs – Nelson understands that, in the words of Bruce Springsteen’s “Jack of All Trades,” a song about the type of working class folk both artists often depict: “The banker man grows fat, working man grows thin / It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again.” Nelson putting forth the theory that history tends to repeat itself should not be taken as a declaration of the impossibility of progressive change; rather, progress does not move in a straight line but instead adheres to the Hegelian dialectic of push-pull-synthesis. Any work of art that attempts to inspire the audience – and for that matter, the world – to change should incorporate the forces attempting to push into the future AND the forces attempting to pull that future back to the status quo, because both are necessary in determining the synthesis that will affect both of them. Polemics tend to only appeal to the pusher-half of that equation, and they often fail because the historically-minded pullers need to come along as well.

Recent case in point: Penny Arcade’s Longing Lasts Longer at St. Ann’s Warehouse. I recognize this (in?)famous avant-garde’s  shtick is to rail against the world, but as the title anticipates, she basically spends the entire duration bemoaning how much better, well, EVERYTHING used to be. She claims midway through that this is in no way a nostalgia act – a sentiment she, unsurprisingly, detests – but I don’t know what other way to label an endless barrage of scathing indictments against all things 21st century. As much as I may have agreed with her viewpoints quite a bit – and many of them were delivered with her usual impassioned comedic zest – I still couldn’t figure out what anyone could derive out of her show besides mere enjoyment. That’s of course more than enough for many works of art, but for one that’s so concerned with the problems of today, what point does it serve simply complaining about them? 

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Plus, since Penny makes no attempt to understand how yesterday became today – or even to understand today in a complex way outside of her own inherently restrictive perspective – her piece doesn’t actually engage with any of her subjects in a meaningful way. Even worse, no one – except those who cherish her every word – will be even remotely affected by what she’s saying because an artist who refuses to even try to bridge the gap between themselves and ‘others’ will never prove convincing. The same, of course, holds true for all such heated polemics, of which Longing Lasts Longer can be considered an absolute distillation. Raging into the night in a way that only your followers will remember feels a little meaningless nowadays; a string of words uttered on a stage does not a significant play make.

Though activists exclusively demanding radical change play their part, progress is often gradual and moderate, and almost never entirely deviates from the principle norms historically established. Nelson devotes so much of his ‘Election Year’ plays to the past because he believes everyone can learn from the accomplishments and mistakes of ancestors of all kinds, not only our own. It is only by studying history that we come to know not only how to honor our past but also how to use it to foster a new future. To borrow from the Boss again: “So you use what you’ve got and you learn to make do / You take the old, you make it new.” Theatre has long been the ideal medium to explore such transitionary periods because it basically embodies this notion: a group of people gathering in a shared space to hear a story is a traditional ritual quite literally as old as recorded time, yet each subsequent generation makes their own mark on it through (re)visionary updates.

This type of timeless ritualistic behavior reaffirms the notion that humanity’s shared history is one of our strongest ‘ties that bind’ unifying us all to each other, not only through time but also through that other fundamental element to theatre: space. One of Nelson’s deftest moves in The Gabriels – which is really saying something since these three plays are rife with deftness – was his decision to have his unanimously Democratic characters face the sort of economic hardships that have been cited as the reasons so much of the working class voted for Trump. In such a divisive era, it’s crucial to remember that the same problems plague so many Americans, and even though some may respond differently than others, those differences are almost always rooted in an individual’s personal upbringing as opposed to any sort of inextricably intrinsic deficit in their very beings. In the same way that any type of person can peacefully co-exist in the shared space of a theatre because we’re not all that different from each other, so too can the same principles apply to every citizen of a country, and art can often provide the best lens to see what form our similarities take today. By taking a concept as old as time – the unity of man – and making it new through differentiated artistic expressions, in the final words of Bruce’s song, “we’ll be alright.”

Doom and gloom will of course always be addressed on the stage, but simplistically placing blame for that doom and gloom at the feet of one side – as many preachy polemics attempt – will always fail to comprehend the complexities of societal problems. By putting forth an ‘us vs. them’ perspective on issues, artists will unavoidably alienate the ‘them’ portion of their potential audiences, and thus their messages will either preach to the choir for ‘us’ or fall on deaf ears for ‘them,’ if ‘they’ even decide to consume that art in the first place. In divisive times of immense societal conflict, finding fault in others will never be as important as understanding what connects everyone; the former often breeds nothing but contempt, whereas the latter will hopefully foster as much universal understanding as possible. And through understanding often comes empathy, which has long been one of the highest ideals of all artistic expression.

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As such, plays that strive to shine a light on ‘others’ often ignored or misrepresented or just not fully understood should be celebrated in the coming years. Two recent plays achieved just that: Samuel Hunter’s The Harvest at LCT3 and Lynn Nottage’s Sweat at the Public Theater, the latter – and inferior – of which will transfer to Broadway in the spring.  They both demonstrate how a vast majority of plays, even those not even written specifically in regards to Trump’s America – and how could these have been, since they were written well before Trump’s charade was proven to be anything but a charade – will still be received and interpreted as social commentaries in the contemporary American landscape. Hunter and Nottage not being cognizant that they were depicting people that would soon be thrust into the societal spotlight – namely, the silent majority of Trump supporters – does not diminish the insightfulness of their observations; in fact, separating them from the always personal political ramifications of these characters’ votes may have actually allowed them to explore their characters from a more compassionate perspective that can more easily facilitate empathetic understanding in audiences. 

Though Hunter and Nottage’s more apolitical perspectives on these characters must have been keys to their level-headed, and thus more resonant portrayals, it’s still almost impossible not to view plays like The Harvest and Sweat that depict conservative groups of people – in this case, small town born again Christians and small town impoverished factory workers, respectively – through the prism of the events of this year. Since many have interpreted the surprising nature of the election results as a sign that an alarming number of Americans – mostly moderate, everyday conservatives who comprise Trump’s aforementioned silent majority – are not being properly recognized in mainstream culture, Hunter and Nottage’s characters almost inherently adopt sociopolitical significance. And to be honest, they should – despite the plays being written well before the playwrights could even fathom this significance, they were still consciously chronicling the lives of those who often don’t find their way into the spotlight, mostly because the largely left-leaning majority of artists and media members aren’t as exposed to them. Conservatives have long been cast in the more villainous roles of left-leaning-writers’ stories, and the left-leaning media often focus on the worst examples of these people since they’re the ones who strike fear in their viewers, and fear has become a prime motivator of watching the news. These extreme examples often obscure from the public eye the far more relatable, moderate members of the conservative half of this country.

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This election may have increased the importance of these people in the public’s eyes, but they were obviously always important – because who isn’t? – and thus worthy of dramatically dissecting in hopes of better understanding them. This has been Trumps’s America for a while in the sense that the surprising number of Trump supporters have always been here with their same beliefs. Trump did not create his supporters out of thin air; it just took the election to make most of America sufficiently aware of the importance of their existence. By being written before the election, Hunter and Nottage’s plays evaluate these people more on their own terms as opposed to defining them through how they decided to vote. Rather than villainizing these people – by making them play villainous roles in popular art, and more recently by labeling them all as immoral racists/sexists/classicists/etc. – both The Harvest and Sweat instead attempt to investigate what understandable, everyday, perhaps even unavoidable factors led them to adopt more conservative beliefs. These characters are not that different from the Gabriels; the same issues affect their lives, and they often cope with them in similar ways, even if they’re politics wildly differ. Hunter and Nottage clearly recognize that the best way to put a human face on those often perceived to be inhuman – and the best way to artistically comment on society today – is by exploring the sort of universally resonant, DEEP anguish that fuels their behavior, and both of their plays provide ideal templates for how to do so in the coming years.

I could honestly keep harping on this forever, but I’ve probably sufficiently introduced most of my politics-inspired thoughts on the progress of art, and the world, in the seasons ahead. It’s actually fitting that this piece won’t come to any sort of tidy resolution, because such resolutions have no place in socially-conscious art. If art is to reflect the world, and since there are no real endings in life except death, then art – and critical evaluations of it – should not be expected to tie all of the disparate strands together. Life has never been about where people go but how we get there, and America is currently in the throes of a mighty transition. Yet as always, the more things change, the more they stay the same: artists may believe now is the time for polemical dramatic action, but human understanding has always been, and will always be the key to true artistic success. Write All Nite will be committed to exploring such successful understanding in whatever form it may take in the days ahead. I hope you join us on this quest…

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