As we approach May, it becomes clear not only that there will be live theater this summer, but there is now clarity on how it will be offered.
It will be, as much as is possible, presented outdoors. Small cast shows will prevail and COVID protocols will be in effect. For audiences, that means masks, temperature taking, social distancing, contact tracing – and in some cases, proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours of a performance.
There will be smaller cast shows, few intermissions and theaters will operate with a limited seating capacity. Musicals will be replaced by concerts and revues. Overall, there will be fewer shows offered, but many will have longer runs so as to maximize attendance figures and revenue flow.
But once the how has been decided, the what becomes important. A challenge for artistic directors has been deciding the content of what is offered. What are audiences willing to pay to see?
If there is a consensus about anything in regard to programming, it is that audiences do not want plays having anything to do with COVID. People are not ready to see work about a situation from which they are seeking relief. A certain segment of theater producers will grant that wish and only offer froth and escapist fun.
However, not all theater artists are ready to give up the heart of a live theater experience – which is recreating honest life-experiences on the stage. A quick overview of the season planned for the summer of 2021, appears to be a compromise between offering the public the light-hearted entertainment it is seeking, and being true to the social conscience of the art form. Most summer seasons are a mixed bag between music, comedy and plays that address social issues.
On the social awareness front, the issue that has not been forgotten is the Black Lives Matter movement.
Almost every area company is scheduling at least one play about African-American social problems and are featuring more actors of color. Diversity seems to have finally found its rightful place in theater.
Williamstown Theatre Festival starts its season on July 6 with “Nine Solo Plays by Black Playwrights.” The works, which will be offered on the lawn outside ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, will be offered in three segments featuring three original 30-minute works in each section. All roles were written for actors of color.
The other two productions are an immersive theater experience that takes place at various sites in town and is based on a true story. The other, “Row” is about a woman attempting to row across the Atlantic Ocean. It takes place at the reflection pool of the Clark Museum in Williamstown.
Berkshire Theatre Group has a mostly light-hearted season with Oscar Wilde’s comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and the musical “The Wizard of Oz.”
However, in August, BTG presents “Nina Simone: 4 Women.” Played by four actresses it traces the journey of the popular African-American jazz singer to becoming a passionate activist for Civil Rights. All will be offered under tents at various locations in Stockbridge and Pittsfield.
Barrington Stage Company is producing small shows in its main theater space and larger shows under a tent on the grounds of the Pittsfield property. For those in a lighthearted mood the tent is for you. There, they include a musical revue focusing on the music of George Gershwin and “Boca,” a comedy about seniors living in Florida. Indoors, there is a one-woman show about Eleanor Roosevelt and a drama “Chester Bailey,” is about a medical crisis during World War II.
Another work “Sister Story” is about a crime confessed to on an anonymous hot line operated by a performance artist. However, August 3-8, they will offer a musical presentation titled “Celebrating Black Voices,” which will be offered free under a tent in the middle of downtown Pittsfield.
Chester Theatre Company is, this year, offering three plays under a tent at Hancock Shaker Village. “Niceties,” which plays July 14-25, is about a black female student studying at an elite liberal art college. One day she gets called into her white professor’s office to discuss her paper on how slavery affected the American Revolution. Soon, discussion turns to heated, hurtful debate. The company describes the work as being about “who gets to tell the story of America and how.”
Arguably, the best marriage between entertainment and social conscience is the Park Playhouse production of “Ain’t Misbehavin.’” It will be offered in Albany’s Washington Park in July.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a musical revue celebrating the music of black composer-musician Fats Waller, who starred in the club scene of the 1920s and 30s. He delighted audiences with his musical innovations that led to swing and jazz.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” is always a fun experience. However, by selecting Jean-Remy Monnay, the founder and artistic director of the Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate New York to direct the work, it is more-than-likely that the production will underscore the conditions of black musicians, like Waller, whose music was exploited by record producers during the era.
It is important to note, this scheduling is not tokenism. The issues are not only about how racism affects the African-American community. Actually, the works, many world premieres, are giving voice to artists are explaining how the problems of people of color are truly an American problem. If for no other reason, the summer of 2021 promises to be a meaningful season.
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.