For the first few weeks, I was ignorantly, arrogantly certain we’d all pick up more or less where we left off. Soon. The last live show I saw, J. Nicole Brooks’s Her Honor Jane Byrne at Lookingglass, would finish its run, and if the world was just, be extended. The sorrow of closing the show the same week it opened would become a do-you-remember-that-wild-time-when war story.
When Theater Wit’s Teenage Dick opened and closed the same night, cognitive dissonance smacked me like a fist full of nails, propelled by the realization that as far as theater was concerned, we were basically going to go through a historic catastrophe not seen since plague-era Shakespearean England. It was like learning James I was living next door. It was not possible.
“Everybody knows 2020 is over as far as live performances go. The real fear is what’s going to happen in 2021,” Ellen Placey Wadey, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation’s senior program director for arts and collections, told me during a June interview.
Roughly ten weeks into 2021, that fear remains, but it is now accompanied by the weight of all the trauma 2020 left in all the most vulnerable places. Yet the sheer indomitability of artists remains in plain sight, defiant, blazing, grieving, and helping us mourn and even sometimes rejoice. Every time we stare at a screen in hope of being taken somewhere else, artists are there to remind us that not all is lost.
Teenage Dick was an early case in point. The streamed version (from the single live performance) was as emotional and entertaining as the live version, albeit in a way that was achingly solitary. Artistic director Jeremy Wechsler and his team of designers and actors delivered a terrific show, and in doing so, gave everyone who saw it reason to breathe a massive sigh of relief. The art’s not going away yet, you motherfucking virus.
In November, Manual Cinema rolled out its version of A Christmas Carol. Like Teenage Dick, the show testified to the almighty power of art as much as it entertained. Instead of Jacob Marley, the dead ghost who arrives bearing the gift of redemption is a Black man killed by COVID-19. Ebenezer became his widow, Trudy.
Like Theater Wit, Manual Cinema created art with hope at the center, while also brutally acknowledging the losses that continue to pile up like cairns in a cursed forest. But while some things are beyond hope’s parameters, many things are not. Both Teenage Dick and A Christmas Carol nudged us to lean toward the latter, even when—especially when—we are overwhelmed by the former.
In Year Two of the plague, silver linings remain shrouded but not snuffed out. Right now, I’m thinking about a sequel to Her Honor Jane Byrne. His Honor Harold Washington, maybe. The legacy of COVID-19 is far from set. But one thing we can be certain of: theater endures.