January- a month of theatrical diversity
Not that long ago, February was declared Black History Month. Many African-Americans in the theater community felt it was not a coincidence that the shortest month of the year concentrated on Black history. The same people felt the works offered were, essentially, plays about minority problems as seen through the lens of white writers.
The Black Lives Matter movement changed that. It challenged the arts to offer more diverse programming Today works about the issue of the African-American community are available through the year. There are more actors of color on stage in works created and directed by black artists.
Perhaps the most important question is whether or not the material being offered in insightful to the black experience. The second most important question is - will it last? Even local community theater depends on box office dollars and if the work doesn’t please the older, economically comfortable audiences who attend theater, will the move to diversity fade away?
As an older, economically comfortable, white audience member I am optimistic that most white artistic directors are trying to do a good job producing dramas that are enlightening to all races while focusing on issues that are black in orientation.
As proof, over the next few weeks there are three plays being offered by three different local theater companies that can be viewed as a synopsis of Black history in the United States over the past century.
“Fireflies” at Curtain Call, which runs at the Latham theater company through January 30, is about a married couple who in 1963, are leaders in the Civil Rights Movement. The husband is a Martin Luthor King-type figure whose soaring oratory sparks action from the African-American people in an unnamed southern state. What few people know is his words are not his own. His speeches and manner of delivery are created by his seemingly devoted wife.
Clearly the issues of females taking a secondary role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is in the play, but making the work even more daring is the secrets the two respected figures keep from the public and each other. This is a very complex and emotional play that says all leaders are private individuals as much as they are public figures.
On Thursday, the Sand Lake Center for the Arts in Averill Park, opens a two weekend run of “Admissions.” It is a play that examines the white privilege of sincere liberals.
A woman, who is the head of admissions at New England Prep school, takes great pride in the fact that during her tenure she has raised the enrollment rate at the school to include 18% minorities over the previous 4%. Her husband is the headmaster and enthusiastically supports the diversity his wife has achieved.
However when their son loses his bid to enter Yale, because his slot was given to another student with comparable academic achievements they are upset.
The only difference is the accepted student has a Black father, and race likely was the reason the young man was accepted over their child. Their liberal ideals are altered by what they perceive as an unfair policy. Policies they have advocated and boasted about over the years.
“Admissions” is insightful satire that is very funny as the parent’s fumble with the hypocrisy of their beliefs when tested. It is also an articulate work that genuinely examines how high-minded abstract liberal attitudes change when those individuals are denied their privilege.
The final offering of the trilogy is “Fly,” which opens at Capital Repertory on January 28 and plays through February 20. It takes place during World War II in the early 1940s, when the military was still segregated. It tells the story of how four young airmen are determined to risk their lives and fight for their country. They became known as the famed African-American flight team the Tuskegee Airmen.
The Tuskegee Airmen website describes “Fly” being about men fighting two wars. One against an overseas military force; the other against racism at home and abroad.
It seems the three socially significant plays offered locally do the same thing. Using humor, drama and in the case of the Fly, even tap dance to symbolize frustrated emotions, it finds individual ways to make an audience look at an enduring national problem in new and personal ways.
It’s an asset that the plays were written by individuals invested in the topics they wrote about. “Fly is written by Trey Ellis, a Black man and Ricardo Khan a man of African and Indian descent. “Fireflies” is by Donja R. Love who identifies as “an Afro-Queer, HIV positive playwright.” “Admission” was written by Joshua Harmon, a 39-year old white playwright, who got his MFA from elite schools like Carnegie Mellon and the Julliard School in NYC.
More important, taken as a whole the three plays that trace race relations over the last century look at various sides of the same issue. One deals with segregation, another the complexities of individuals involved in the Civil Rights Movement and finally a serious comedy about white privilege.
Taken together, it’s an examination of racism in America, without offering lectures or history lessons. It’s a hopeful sign of progress in the arts and in life.
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.