Stephanie Sandberg is an assistant professor of theater and film studies at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. Her most recent work is Stories in Blue: A Pilgrimage to Heal Human Trafficking, which follows the stories of six survivors of sex trafficking.
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When Women Write the Script
LAST YEAR WILL GO DOWN in history for many reasons. For women, it was the year we came together from all walks of life, said #MeToo—and were finally acknowledged and believed by many. There was and still is hope that this grassroots call for women’s rights and dignity will flow into all areas of life and become more than a symbolic action.
A glimpse of that future is taking form off-Broadway. This season three woman-written and -directed plays, performed by entirely female casts, opened to critical acclaim. It’s an exceedingly rare occurrence, as New York theater has endured a century of male dominance in all the related professions except costume design and stage management. In 2015, the League of Professional Theatre Women, as part of a project called Women Count, tracked the number of women working in all aspects of theater in 22 off-Broadway theaters from 2010 to 2015. Only 30 percent of plays premiering in these venues were written by women, with 33 percent being directed by women. So these multiple women-driven plays offer hope for gender equity in the theater world.
School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play , by Jocelyn Bioh, is a dizzying romp through nasty coming-of-age teen dramedy that pays homage to Tina Fey’s classic Mean Girls. Taking place in a Ghanaian girl’s boarding school during the 1980s, Bioh’s first full-length play addresses cruel, clique-ish competition among adolescents using the template of the American genre, yet something fresh emerges. The story follows the queen of the school, Paulina (MaameYaa Boafo), as she vies to be named Miss Ghana and participate in the Miss Universe pageant.
While the comedic ending is not significantly surprising, there is a poignant and timely theme that emerges through the exploration of African beauty.
Stages of Dissent
JUST AFTER DONALD TRUMP WAS ELECTED, Vice President Mike Pence went to see the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” prompting the cast to read a statement from the stage at curtain call stating that they were “alarmed and anxious” that the new administration would not protect the planet or a diverse citizenry.
This set off a Twitter war between Trump and opponents and posed the American theater community as an entity with a strong voice of dissent against Trump’s administration. POTUS-elect tweeted in reply to the cast’s statement that “the theater must always be a safe and special place” and then demanded that the cast apologize.
The Birth of Trump's America?
LYNN NOTTAGE wrote her sizzling new play Sweat three years ago on a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. There are moments when artists such as Nottage write at the height of their powers and seem to prophesy about the life of humanity. Certainly Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or Tony Kushner’s Angels in America accomplished such prophetic feats, and it’s not a stretch to say that Nottage’s Sweat could do the same. Set in the Rust Belt of the United States, with the decline of manufacturing jobs reeling out of control, Sweat may be the timeliest play of this New York theater season, opening March 4 on Broadway, at Studio 54.
Nottage got the idea to write the play after hearing that Reading, Pa., is one of the most impoverished towns in the U.S. We witness on stage the birth of Trump’s America, rife with economic hardship in a community that is doing all it can to hang on to its identity, and losing it at every turn.
This pressing drama is set between the years 2000 and 2008, shifting back and forth in time to reveal just how the devastating economic hardships of the 21st century were taking hold. Most of the scenes are set in the town’s local watering hole, where we witness the local culture, friendships breaking down, and a serious hate crime that lands two of the characters in jail. We follow these two directionless young men who are seeking a life that yields more than just another job. We also follow a trio of female friends who have supported one another through it all on the factory floor and in the intimacies of life.
Hell and the Modern Pastor
“Make us one,
Make us one body,
Because when we are one body,
We see something we cannot see
By ourselves ...
In the name and in the blood of Jesus,
SO OPENS LUCAS HNATH’S PLAY The Christians, which premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2014 and at Playwrights Horizons Off-Broadway in 2015. The play is described as a “kind of sermon,” sometimes literal, sometimes figurative. The Christians marks a distinct turning point in the history of American theater, in that its evangelical main character’s struggle with ideas is treated as a serious subject that reflects on a nation’s moral dilemma.
Religious themes are hardly a new topic for U.S. theater, but most often they’ve been treated negatively. Arthur Miller’s plays, such as The Crucible and After the Fall, treat religion as an institution of animosity, even a kind of antagonist. Tennessee Williams uses religion as a quaint and antiquated emblem of Southern culture—such as in The Glass Menagerie, where the character Amanda says, with exaggerated sympathy, “You’re a Christian martyr.” Then there’s Inherit the Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, a dramatic treatment of the Scopes Monkey Trial that depicts Christians as hostile and uneducated. If the American theater were an accurate mimesis of American truth, Christians would be lying, narcissistic, two-faced, McCarthyist bigots.
The Christians is a completely different story, in which the dramatic action depicts a loving, thoughtful pastor as the protagonist up against the institution of the church. Each character is treated with due reverence and given a fair argument, so that there are no easy answers, and the audience is left grappling with the central struggle. The play is reminiscent of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (a quote from this play is The Christians epigraph), where a citizen who tells the truth faces the wrath of a village that turns on him. Both plays explore deep ethical issues as the central characters risk their reputations and their livelihoods through standing by their principles.
The first scene of Hnath’s powerful drama is a contemporary church service, highlighted by PowerPoint slides, with a sermon based on Isaiah 30:12-13: “Because you have rejected this word and relied on oppression and depended on deceit, this sin will become for you like a high wall, cracked and bulging, whose collapse comes suddenly in an instant.”
The sermon is delivered by the energetic and youthful Pastor Paul at an evangelical megachurch that could be anywhere in the United States. He goes on to describe what he views as the crack in his church’s foundation, delivered with the smooth tones of a master orator who has always won the favor of the congregation. He tells a story he heard at a pastor’s conference about a boy, in a country ravaged by violence, who rushes into a burning building to save a little girl and dies from his burns. Pastor Paul is tortured by this story, told to him by a missionary who mourns for the boy saying, “What a shame, I didn’t save this boy for Christ ... what a shame I didn’t save this boy from hell.”
Devils We Know
In Broadway's Hand to God, a sock pupet unleashes church-basement demons.