From Silly Titles to Serious Issues
A white police officer orders a black student onto the sidewalk. When the student reaches for a sandwich in the front pocket of his hoodie, the cop shoots him. If this is the kind of scenario we’ve been seeing in the news, it seems unusual for the New York International Fringe Festival. About to enter its nineteenth year, the Fringe is best known among long-time festival-goers for shows with silly titles, and such campy, quirky parodies as Devil Boys From Beyond, Dixie’s Tupperware Party and, above all, Urinetown, the 1999 Fringe show that is still the only one to transfer to Broadway.
Yet something seems to have happened this year. In The Broken Record, playwright Jonathan Louis Dent does a Groundhog Day-like riff on that police shooting, with the characters trying to relive the moment again and again so that it doesn’t end in tragedy. Dent’s play is one of more than one hundred in the Fringe this year self-categorized as drama. That’s more than half of the festival. A surprising number of them tilt towards the serious, and explore timely social and political issues.
Look up ‘fringe’ in the dictionary, and it means decorative, marginal, or extreme. Many of the shows at the 19th New York International Fringe Festival seem to be giving it a new definition—serious and socially engaged.
“I think we are experiencing a cultural shift, in which social media is encouraging bold stands on social and political issues, and artists are reflecting that,” says Dent, who graduated in May from NYU’s graduate acting program and had never seen a Fringe show before submitting The Broken Record for consideration. Jessica Carmona agrees. “We are witnessing some of the same issues that people in the 1960s and 1970s faced. It is horrible to see the violence, and at the same time it is refreshing to see a new generation of fighters emerging. And artists are part of that.” Carmona, another acting graduate out of NYU, is the author of Elvira: The Immigration Play, another offering at the Fringe.
In my preview of last year’s New York International Fringe Festival, I listed the primary genres that have been associated with the Fringe, including solo shows and campy parodies, frequently featuring performers in drag. While there have always been some serious dramas, they largely seemed a weird fit for the festival, and the least likely to result in satisfying theatre.
There is still no guarantee that any specific show will be watchable in the Fringe, which runs August 14 to August 30. But it’s intriguing that even shows with silly names are not immune from this shift towards the serious. One show this year is entitled An Inconvenient Poop. For all its scatological humor, the show, like the documentary whose title it satirizes, looks at threats to health and the environment. I Want to Kill Lena Dunham is actually a dark play about race and privilege. The most prominent show this year featuring a drag queen is Divine/Intervention, about the John Waters actor Glenn Milstead, who went by the stage name Divine. Although the producers list the show as both a drama and a comedy, here is the description in the Fringe guide: “Alone, on the night of his untimely death, the quiet man behind the mascara struggles with his inner demons and his larger-than-life creation.”
Our Current Social Climate
Stockholm Savings retells the true story about desperate bank robber John Wojtowicz who wanted money for his lover’s sex change operation; the same tale that inspired the 1975 Al Pacino movie Dog Day Afternoon. Writer Michael DeMeo, who has adapted the film’s screenplay by Frank Pierson, says that the story is “remarkably prophetic to our current social climate—our tenuous relationship with police, LGBT rights, the absurdity of the media circus/reality show/spectacle machine. It’s all there.” DeMeo feels the Fringe is the right place for his play. “I needed an adventurous, playful audience for this fully immersive show, with actors sprinkled throughout the theatre.”
Christine Howey also sees the Fringe as the ideal place for her own solo show, because of the festival’s “open and welcoming environment.” Exact Change tells the story of Cleveland-based masculine actor Dick Howey’s transition to Christine Howey, a middle-aged, Midwestern, suburban transgendered journalist and critic, “with a lot of humor and some poignant moments. I decided to perform it myself after not being on the stage for thirty years.”
Here are some other shows that tackle issues in the news:
Uniform Justice, like The Broken Record, looks at police-community relations. It focuses on three childhood friends and what happens when one of them becomes a cop. Commissioned by the Mayor’s office of Memphis, Tennessee, the play offers differing views on effective policing and systemic racism.
Elvira: The Immigration Play is inspired by the true story of Elvira Arellano, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who has become a symbol and advocate for immigrant rights, the founder of La Familia Latina Unida - Sin Fronteras (Latina Family United - Without Borders). “I had been participating in marches and rallies to defend immigrant rights,” Carmona says. “When her story came out, I was inspired by her refusal to obey an unjust law, just like Rosa Parks. I did a ton of research about her, and I called her up one day in Mexico after I friended her on Facebook.”
Pedro Pan is another show about immigration inspired by true events, in this case Operation Peter Pan, when thousands of Cuban children arrived alone in the United States. The musical tells the story of one such child as he learns to adapt to New York City.
Princess Cut looks at sex trafficking, Running Interference debates the entertainment value of violence in sports, Th’ Burning is set against a background of 1960s racist violence. The God Gaffe, about a popular conservative talk show host who inadvertently insults a young homosexual guest on air, is “inspired by Elisabeth Hasselbeck's departure from The View.”
The Hamilton Effect?
Whether Hamilton has influenced the Fringe, or they are both tapping into the same zeitgeist, there are a number of Fringe shows this year that dramatize historical events and historical figures. The love life of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is explored in HICK: A LOVE STORY, The Romance of Lorena Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt. There are biographical dramas about artist Lee Krasner (Jackson Pollock’s wife), writers Dorothy Parker and Sylvia Plath, baseball pitcher Rube Waddell, and an obscure construction worker named Phineas Gage who entered history because he improbably survived an accidental impaling through his brain that changed his personality and “led to powerful new theories about our minds and our personalities.” The Curious Case of Phineas Gage sounds very far from a straightforward bio-drama, promising “a hysterical journey reminiscent of Monty Python.”
Whether Hamilton has influenced the Fringe, or they are both tapping into the same zeitgeist, there are a number of Fringe shows this year that dramatize historical events and historical figures.
Lincoln’s Blood looks at the presidential assassination. Other Fringe shows highlight far more obscure moments in history. The Report dramatizes the cover-up of “the deadliest civilian tragedy of World War II,” (a bit of hyperbole there; doesn’t The Holocaust count?). In 1943, 173 people, mostly women and children, who were in a bomb shelter in a London tube station, died—not from a bomb (none were dropped), but from an appalling failure of crowd control.
Look up “fringe” in the dictionary, and it means decorative, marginal, or extreme. Many of the shows at the 19th New York International Fringe Festival seem to be giving it a new definition—serious and socially engaged.
All photos courtesy of New York International Fringe Festival.
Jonathan Mandell’s NewCrit piece usually appears the first Thursday of every month. Find his previous pieces here.