So. We're just about a month into this new presidential administration, and it already feels like we've all aged 10,000 years. Every day brings us some new, horrifying way that our government is trying to roll back civil liberties, gut social programs, kill the earth, and prevent school children from using the bathroom. I think it's time to go to the theatre. Here are a few vital plays to read or watch in the next four years.
"Why plays?" you might ask. And it's true that there are many books you can read to stay educated and fight back. But plays are also a deeply political art form. From the McCarthy Era to the AIDS crisis to good old fashioned dictators, theatre has dealt with many difficult, politically fraught topics over the years. These are just a few of the plays that can make you think, laugh, smile, and stay engaged.
Now, of course, these are all plays that you should watch if you have the chance, because theatre is meant to happen in a large darkened room while you try to suppress a cough. But if you can't watch them, pick up the scripts, listen to the soundtracks, and give yourself the courage you'll need to make it through these next four years.
1'Come From Away' by David Hein and Irene Carl Sankoff
It feels bizarre to say that a musical set on 9/11 made me smile. But Come From Away is that rare blend of heartbreaking and utterly, transcendentally uplifting. When American airspace was closed on September 11th, 2001, over 7,000 airline passengers (and two chimpanzees) were stranded in a small town in Newfoundland, Canada. Come From Away adapts their true stories into this breathtaking musical. The music alone is a force of nature. This show sends a powerful message against hate, and it's a timely reminder that we are all global citizens, no matter where we come from. (Plus, this is one that you can see right now if you're in New York City!)
2'Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes' by Tony Kushner
Angels in America is actually two full length plays, and almost no description can do them justice. A Mormon leaves his wife for a man. The man leaves his lover, who has AIDS, for the Mormon. The lover with AIDS encounters an angel in the midst of Reagan-era America. But this play is much more than the sum of its parts, and it's a vital read as we struggle to keep living and loving each other under another oppressive American regime.
3'Topdog/Underdog' by Suzan-Lori Parks
Topdog/Underdog is not quite as overt with its national themes (although there is one character who dresses up as Honest Abe). But it is a stunning, intimate play about two brothers named Lincoln and Booth. Both are haunted by their own past, as well as the specter of American history. Suzan-Lori Parks is masterful when it comes to creating stomach-churning tension... though if you know your history, you probably know where she's going with these characters.
4'Hamilton: The Revolution' by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter
Yeah, I want to see Hamilton, too. But if you're a sap like me who can't afford a ticket, Hamilton: The Revolution is the next best thing. As the annotated libretto of the musical, this book includes all the lyrics from the show plus some behind the scene insights. Hamilton is a diverse, hip-hop inspired retelling of the American Revolution (remember how America was founded on the basis on civil disobedience?). And, as we all know already, Hamilton is a love letter to young, scrappy, and hungry revolutionaries everywhere.
5'Party Time' and 'The New World Order' by Harold Pinter
This is a short one. You can read it in one sitting. But after that, you'll probably want to take a shower. Political activist Harold Pinter can write a scene of breezy small talk at a cocktail party, and actually make it about the totalitarian regime that has taken over the government. Both Party Time and New World Order are strange, short, dystopian plays, and both are distressingly relevant right now.
6'The Crucible' by Arthur Miller
The Crucible is about the Salem witch trials. But it's also about the McCarthy hearings, when Americans were put on trial for being alleged communists in the 1950s. And really, it's the sort of brilliant, bone-chilling play that's relevant to any era in which the government is ruled by fear, suspicion, and bigotry rather than fact.
7'Ruined' by Lynn Nottage
Ruined is not a play for the faint of heart. Set in a brothel in the middle of the Congo's civil war, Ruined brings us into the lives of those refugee women who have been brutally "ruined" by sexual violence. There are moments of humor and moments of beauty, but the heart of Ruined lies in exposing the ugly truth behind patriarchy, war, and colonialism.
8'The Frogs' by Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove
On a much lighter note... The Frogs! Stephen Sondheim is one of the musical theatre greats, but The Frogs is one of his lesser-known works. It's a very, very "free" adaptation of Aristophanes' The Frogs, the plot involves the Greek god Dionysus and a sing-off between William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, and it's a fairly silly play. But, despite being a comedy, the unshakable message of The Frogs is to pay attention, stand up, and get angry about your political beliefs. Don't just sit on a lily pad waiting for someone else to fix things.
9'Disgraced' by Ayad Akhtar
Amir Kapoor is a Pakistani-American lawyer. He's wildly successful, and not especially interested in reconnecting with his roots. His wife, Emily, is a white artist fascinated by Islam. And then they host a dinner party. Disgraced is a tense, often funny, often shocking play exploring identity and Islamophobia in liberal America. It also doubles as manual for what not to do at a dinner party.
10'Richard III' by William Shakespeare
It's hard to pick just one Shakespeare play to read during this administration. Our president's relationship with his kids certainly brings King Lear to mind. Macbeth has the right tone. But Richard III is often called Shakespeare's "most powerful study of evil." Readers disagree on whether Richard himself is irredeemably evil, or the inevitable product of a toxic ruling class... so I'll let you decide that for yourself. I'm just going to say that Richard's vicious rise to power is feeling awfully relevant right about now.