I’ve developed a theory, based on sorting through press releases for Chicago’s fall theater season. It’s this: That as more and more narrative entertainment and bigger and bigger audiences flow toward screens—from network and cable to Netflix—playwrights feel freer and freer to tackle social issues on live stages.
Why shouldn’t they? The circumstances certainly favor an unfashionable intensity. Costs are lower, time frames quicker, ensembles tighter, profit motives—well—not as strong, and audiences tend to skew toward folks who actually get a thrill from adjectives like “disturbing” and “challenging.” What’s more, much of American theater is created at not-for-profits, and the funders that give not-for-profits grants tend to see a play as a platform for earnest inquiry rather than pleasure. (The National Endowment for the Arts slogan isn’t “Art Delights”—it’s “Art Works.”) So writers with a cause can find refuge and a home in the theater. And then too, it paid off for Brecht.
Anyway, that’s one explanation for the many socially conscious productions we’ll be seeing here from now through November.
Race and gun violence will be especially prominent topics—appropriately, not only because this is Chicago, where the two touch everything, but also because the local theater community had its own quasi-racial incident this summer, when Porchlight Music Theatre announced that Jack DeCesare would be playing the Latino lead character in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights (9/9-10/16; reviewed here). Some said he didn’t belong in the role, inasmuch as he’s of Italian descent and therefore Latin only in the ancient sense. Many arguments but, thankfully, no violence ensued.
All that excitement may bode well for Aston Rep’s staging of The Black Slot (9/1-10/2; reviewed here), Warren Hoffman’s new theater-world satire about a regional company looking to fill the black programming niche in its upcoming season. Some other racially charged shows—all of them, interestingly, also world premieres—include Silk Road Rising’s Ultra-American: A Patriot Act (9/6-9/25; reviewed here), a one-man evening with comedian Azhar Usman, in which he considers the “double-consciousness of American Muslims”; 16th Street Theater’s Carroll Gardens (9/8-10/15; reviewed here), A. Zell Williams’s look at the strain between Ronny and Davis, cross-racial friends, when Davis joins the hipeoisie; and Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s Leavings (10/21-11/20; reviewed here), Gail Parrish’s tale of a 111-year old lady attempting to reconcile the privileged white and persecuted black halves of her heritage.
Firearms get a going-over in three other world premieres. Beth Kander’s The Bottle Tree (Stage Left Theatre, 10/15-11/20) and Caitlin Parrish’s The Burials (Steppenwolf for Young Adults, 10/5-10/22; reviewed here) both concern the surviving sisters of high school shooters, while Alex Lubischer’s Bobbie Clearly (Steep Theatre, 9/29-11/5; reviewed here) is a documentary-style depiction of a tiny Nebraska town revisiting a shooting.
Maybe just slightly refreshing after the gunplay is the nonlethal and thoroughly surreal kneecapping Nancy Kerrigan suffered at the instigation of her rival Tonya Harding during the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Not just one but two pieces will cover the crime. Underscore Theatre offers Tonya and Nancy: The Rock Opera! (11/25-12/30; reviewed here) by Elizabeth Searle and Michael Teoli. Then there’s T., Dan Aibel’s black-comic exploration of the pursuit of fame, presented by American Theater Company. You’ll have to wait till May 2017 for that one, though. v