Tradition of Social Change is Alive, Well in Theater

Tradition of social change is alive, well in theater
Words of Choice, which comes to Orlando tonight, is only one among many politically motivated plays found on U.S. stages.

By Elizabeth Maupin
Sentinel Theater Critic

When three actors take the stage in downtown Orlando tonight, there will be little doubt where their sympathies lie.

With their stories about a father whose daughter has been raped, a pregnant teenager who wishes she could be adopted and a woman who shares a birthday toast with Roe v. Wade, the trio of actors will be delivering an abortion-rights message. You don’t have to know that the local sponsor is Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando to figure it out.

Words of Choice, which is touring Florida and five other swing states before the Nov. 2 election, is just one of a deluge of politically motivated plays on stages across the United States this fall. Those plays are part of a long tradition of using drama to work for social change — a tradition that began almost as long ago as theater itself.

“We try to get you to think about it — and to think about it in a different way,” says Cindy Cooper, a playwright and journalist who adapted Words of Choice (with director Suzanne Bennett) from writers as varied as comic Kathy Najimy and the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun.

“There’s just so much rhetoric,” Cooper says. “It’s become a slugfest of terminology. But it’s a real issue that’s going to become important for so many people. We’re just trying to help people connect with that.”

This election season has brought out the rhetoric, to be sure, and a lot of it has wound up onstage. In New York, Archbishop Desmond Tutu made a cameo appearance in a critically acclaimed drama called Guantánamo: “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom,” based on the testimony of Guantánamo detainees. In Coral Gables, New Theatre will hold readings this week of a play called Dear George: Letters to the President as a fund-raiser for the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way.

On the West Coast, Sacred Fools Theater Company in Hollywood, Calif., is presenting Dubya 2000, a “political horror tragedy,” while a little company called Human Nature, based in rural northern California, is working on a piece called Global Warming: The Musical.

Actor-playwright Tim Robbins’ satirical comedy Embedded has been playing in London. And Susan Sarandon will play Laura Bush Monday night in New Haven, Conn., in a reading of Tony Kushner’s Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, in which the first lady reads Dostoevsky — said to be her favorite author — to the pajama-clad souls of Iraqi children.

Meanwhile, reclusive playwright-actor Sam Shepard has rushed his comedy The God of Hell — opening Friday at New York’s New School Theater — into production largely because he hopes to influence the election. The show, which Shepard has called “a takeoff on Republican fascism, in a way,” tells the story of a quiet farm couple whose lives are roiled by a corrupt government official.

“I think a more vigorous debate needs to happen to prove that we have a vigorous democracy,” Shepard told the San Francisco Chronicle.

‘All theater is political’

Those who don’t go to the theater may wonder, why all the political action onstage.

“All theater is political,” says Judith Malina, who co-founded avant-garde troupe the Living Theatre in 1948.

Lucy Komisar, a freelance theater critic, tries to explain why.

“Free from advertising, the theater is the best place to express political views,” she told an audience at a forum sponsored by the Drama Desk, a New York theater organization, this year.

That kind of theater can work, says David Charles, an assistant professor of theater at Rollins College, who is creating a course on theater for social change.

“I pray and hope that theater can change things,” Charles says. “But it tends to be change on the individual level, moving to the global level.”

Charles mentions the work of Brazilian director Augusto Boal, whose improvisational company, called Theatre of the Oppressed, led to grass-roots activism and to actual legislation.

Lean to the left

What do all of those plays have in common? It doesn’t take a TV pundit to recognize that all of them — like most political theater through the ages — lean left.

Not all audiences are crazy about that idea. When the Florida Theatrical Association brought the anti-death-penalty play The Exonerated to Orlando last spring, executive director Ron Legler says he got 15 to 20 letters of protest.

“We actually had people who said they’d never come to our theater again,” he says. “They said it wasn’t entertainment.

“People either love it or they hate it. There’s no middle ground.”

At the Drama Desk, the audience laughed heartily when someone asked if there was any political theater on the right. The fact is that, except for plays produced by evangelical Christian groups, political theater tends to be theater for social change — and social change tends to be a liberal preoccupation.

That’s been true since the days of Aristophanes, a playwright in Athens during the fifth century B.C., whose anti-war comedy Lysistrata is the best-known of a string of satires that protested the politics of his time. Lysistrata is still widely performed in the 21st century, and a musical adaptation of Aristophanes’ comedy The Frogs — adapted by actor Nathan Lane as a comment on the current U.S. presidential administration — played on Broadway this summer and fall.

Shakespeare was as political as the next guy: His history plays were recastings of real-life events to curry favor with current rulers, and the tragicomedy Measure for Measure (onstage at the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival through Nov. 21) is a response to Puritan morality and government hypocrisy.

Three centuries later, a kind of theater called agit-prop — named for the Soviet Union’s Department of Agitation and Propaganda — toured Europe in the 1930s with a pro-Communist message.

Eventually, agit-prop theater came to mean any kind of political propaganda, and it influenced Depression-era workers’ theaters in the United States.

Carrying on a tradition

The 1930s Federal Theatre Project, the still-active Living Theatre and the Tony Award-winning San Francisco Mime Troupe (a group devoted not to mime but to political comedy) all are inheritors of the tradition of drama for social change.

So is Cindy Cooper, who started her theater career with the well-regarded Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis and has written 10 full-length and 15 or 20 shorter plays. Cooper, who is also a journalist, was working for the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York when she began looking for ways to present the group’s message through the arts.

“I couldn’t find anything that represented the full range of experiences men and women have,” she says. “I wanted to present a diversity of voices and stories.”

So Cooper collected about two dozen stories from various sources — journalism, poetry, drama and comedy — and adapted them to create Words of Choice. The play was performed first in 2000, but it gathered steam about a year and a half ago when it was done as a benefit for Planned Parenthood in New York.

“They were galvanized,” she says. “People were really anxious to talk about it.”

The plan is formed

Eventually a plan came together to tour the play during the election season, with one cast taking the Eastern states and another the Midwest. Sally Blackmun, the Orlando lawyer who is the daughter of the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, saw the play in September in New York.

“It was pretty powerful,” she says.

Blackmun went to law school with Cooper, and she chairs the Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando board. Some of her father’s writings on his Roe v. Wade decision wound up in the play.

Words of Choice is especially important now, she says, because the next president could appoint several new justices to the Supreme Court. A new court could back off from its longstanding support for abortion rights.

“The purpose is awareness, and the fact that the choice issue is in serious jeopardy,” Blackmun says.

As for Cooper, she’s happy about the reactions Words of Choice has received, especially from people who came to it uninformed.

A college student who approached her after one performance turned out to be the audience this play seeks.

“I’m just at the age where I realize I don’t have to agree with my parents,” the student said to Cooper.

“I can form my own opinions,” she said, “and you’re helping me decide.”

October 24, 2004

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