How a Non-Political Play Can Create Political Theater

Two actors on stage
Jonathan Solari, left and Edwin Lee Gibson, right in The Death of Bessie Smith. 
Photo by Kristina Williamson.

Can Edward Albee save the Interfaith Medical Center in Bedford-Stuyvesant? Can theater change the world?

Those are the questions I asked after I attended an early performance of Albee’s The Death of Bessie Smith in its first New York production in 46 years. Albee gave permission to a two-year-old theater company called New Brooklyn, which wanted to put on the play in a room off the hospital’s first floor reception area in order to help save the hospital from closing. Albee agreed, as long as there were no reviews, and admission was free.

The press paid extraordinary attention, and so did the public. Performances sold out every night, with lively and intense post-play discussions. People as diverse as Harry Belafonte and Perez Hilton attended, along with hospital employees and nearby residents.

Two actors on stage
A production still from The Death of Bessie Smith. Photo by Kristina Williamson.

The fate of the hospital started to seem tied to that of the play, or at least vice-versa. Interfaith, which had filed for bankruptcy in 2011, was scheduled to shut down on January 19, 2014, which was when New Brooklyn Theater was planning to end its run of The Death of Bessie Smith But the date of the hospital’s closing was extended…and so was the play’s—several times. The play is now running through March 9. And the Brooklyn hospital, with more than 200 beds, will live on at least that long, although its eventual fate is still not completely clear. Supporters rallied in front of the hospital last week to urge Governor Andrew Cuomo to keep it a full-service hospital, using money the federal government gave the State of New York for health care.

A man talking
Jonathan Solari. 
Photo by Sarah Wolff

Meanwhile, Jonathan Solari, the 28-year-old artistic director of New Brooklyn, has been hired to produce a new adaptation of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People in Charleston, West Virginia, where a water crisis has emerged after a string of chemical spills there this year; and Harvard University has asked him to direct Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in a historically significant garden in Istanbul, Turkey that is being threatened by developers

These startling developments have prompted some new questions:

What is political theater?

Some claim that all theater is political.

Sarah Jones, the theater artist who created “Bridge and Tunnel,” has said:

 “I've never seen art for its own sake. Even Oklahoma!, as a piece of theater, is a statement that we don't want to challenge the pleasantness of America.”

But it is hard to argue that any of Albee’s plays are explicitly political. The Death of Bessie Smith was inspired by a story, which has since been established as apocryphal, that the blues singer Bessie Smith died when after a car crash she was denied admission to a whites-only hospital. But the title is something of a misdirection. The play takes place on the day in 1937 when Bessie Smith died, but she is only an offstage character, and much of the play focuses on an unnamed nurse, a mean, bitter but flirtatious woman who berates her bigoted father, bosses around a black orderly in the hospital, teases and taunts a medical intern who is her suitor, and bores an admittance nurse at another hospital. When it was produced on Broadway in 1968, a critic called it “elusive” (not political), but meant that as praise: “Here is what we have been praying for, folks: contemporary work of substance, mounted with care and offered for a reasonable price ($5.50 top).” The folks thought otherwise: It ran for just 12 performances.

Two actors on stage
Production still of The Death of Bessie Smith. Photo by Kristina Williamson.

What has made Albee’s play political is the context in which Brooklyn Theater Company has now put it. Indeed, “political theater” is one of those all-purpose phrases—like “community” – that have lost any agreed-upon definition, meaning different things to different people.

“The term ‘political theater’ is open to interpretation,” Jonathan Solari agrees. “I am interested in work that has the possibility of helping to create tangible, positive change.”

The first “political theater” in which Solari was involved was Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. He was in high school in Orlando, Florida more than a decade ago, when the Bard’s tragedy was canceled after the school fired the drama teacher. Solari led his classmates in producing the play off the school premises—a production that gained attention that eventually led to the teacher’s reinstatement. “I saw that theater had the power to make tangible change happen.”

A few years later, in 2006, Solari was an assistant director in a theater festival organized in New York by the Untitled Theater Company #61 devoted to the plays of Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and dissident who had become the president of his country. (The same company is currently presenting Havel’s The Pig. “It came from the political situation in 1987 Czechoslovakia,” says Untitled’s artistic director Edward Einhorn, “but it is applicable to places like the Ukraine and Venezuela today.”) Solari was shocked to discover Havel himself attending a performance of his play Protest.

Solari engaged him in an hour-long conversation. 

“We spoke about the power the theater had in expressing the frustrations and desires of those who would eventually lead Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution,” Solari recalls. “He assured me that there is a long line of artists who have shifted their society through their work. He then suggested I contact the Belarus Free Theatre, which he called the most important theater happening in Europe. Three years later, I was in Minsk.”

The Belarus Free Theatre, which I saw when they performed at LaMama, performs secretly in private homes in Belarus, a country often called the last dictatorship of Europe.

Solari founded New Brooklyn in June, 2012 with the aim of rescuing the old crumbling Slave Theater, at 1215 Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the neighborhood where he now lives, and turning the old building into a new performing arts center.

What theater has ever directly made a difference?

Solari does not claim that New Brooklyn’s production directly saved the hospital, but, he says, “over the course of our run, we've brought nearly 2000 people to Interfaith Medical Center. Most of our audiences were able to directly engage with the elected officials that represent them. We've sparked conversations internationally about our neighborhood hospital. But that doesn't necessarily mean a change comes. That is up to our audiences, the citizens who go and act on whatever passion we inspire in them and the information we were able to provide.”

 

We've sparked conversations internationally about our neighborhood hospital. But that doesn't necessarily mean a change comes. That is up to our audiences

 

Ask theater people what plays have made a concrete, measurable difference in the world – as I have asked several times over the past few months – and the answers are plentiful enough to create an impressive list just of American plays. In no particular order:

Waiting For Lefty, the Depression-era play about a taxi driver strike, by Group Theatre playwright Clifford Odets, was performed all over the country in support of labor unions. 

Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1967) by John Herbert led to the creation of The Fortune Society, which helps ex-convicts find jobs—a success story written up in a recent memoir by its producer, David Rothenberg, entitled Fortune In My Eyes.

The Exonerated by Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank, based on transcripts of wrongfully convicted prisoners on Death Row, is said to have influenced Illinois Governor Ryan’s blanket commutations of the state’s death penalties.

The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler inspired a global movement known as V-Day that fights to end violence against women.

The Laramie Project by the Tectonic Theater is said to have helped lead to the signing of the Matthew Shepherd Hate Crimes bill; the theater company was invited to the signing of the legislation at the White House.

The Normal Heart, when produced in 1985, led mainstream newspapers such as The Christian Science Monitor to mention HIV/AIDS for the first time anywhere in their pages.

The Justice Cycle, six plays including Los Illegals by Michael John Garces, the artistic director of Cornerstone Theater Company, led to a theater troupe of day laborers, Teatro Jornalero Sin Fronteras (Day Laborer Theater Without Borders), that educates day laborers about their rights.

8 the Play, based on transcripts of the trial that overturned the ban on same-sex marriage in California, helped move the conversation forward, arguably helping to change the American public’s attitude.

Here’s a rude question about these shows. How many are satisfying as works of art? Must politics in the theater be at the expense of art?

“When I direct a play with political implications, it is rare that conversations of politics emerge in the rehearsal room,” Solari says. “Our job, first and foremost, is to tell a story with truth, grace, and integrity. A production can have the most commendable political intentions but it will fail, or even be counterproductive, if it doesn't engage.”

But if it does engage, he believes, it will change the world. “It's difficult to point to a specific instance where a performance made a direct impact,” Solari says, and he’s being sly, for he adds: “It's difficult because it happens every day. We just don't always see the results immediately.

“We come to the theater to learn how to live better; to sit together and engage with truths about our humanity. That doesn't always lead to a hospital’s being saved, or the revolution of a country's entire political system. Most times it leads to a new perspective, a moment of empathy for someone whose complexities an audience member hadn't considered before.”

***

Photographs of the New Brooklyn production of The Death of Bessie Smith by Kristina Williamson

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What a great company! Happy to hear of this work, and that there is appreciation for it. I cannot wait to tell Judith about this when I see her next.