11 Politically Charged Plays To Read Right Now, Because Theater Has Always Been Political

by Charlotte Ahlin

If you can recall the far-away past of last summer (we were so much younger then) you might remember there being a bit of a hubbub about a certain production of Julius Caesar. The Caesar was not-so-subtly styled after America's current president. Some people found this shocking, especially because (spoiler alert) Julius gets pretty badly murdered about halfway through Shakespeare's classic history play. Even more shocking to some, though, was the news that a play — especially an old play with no singing in it — was making political waves. A lot of people seem to believe that theatre is the exclusive domain of acne-ridden high school kids and cuddly, big budget Disney musicals. But theatre has always been political. From ancient Greece to Shakespeare to your cousin's devised site-specific movement piece, every play engages with the politics of its time. Here are a few politically charged plays to read right now, even if you don't have the time or budget for a trip to Broadway.

I'm sure I'm biased, having grown up in the New York theatre world, but I think that reading plays is hideously underrated. It's the next best thing to seeing a play—you might even find that you can pick up more of the nuanced language when you have time to peruse each page at your leisure. So take a break from obsessively checking Twitter for the latest signs of the apocalypse and do some resistance reading with these excellent scripts:

'Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes' by Tony Kushner

A two-part behemoth of a play, Angels in America might just be one of the greatest pieces of political art ever created. The plot revolves around a handful of inter-connected people trying to survive the AIDS crisis in 1980's New York City. At the center of all of them is Prior Walter, a young man dying of AIDS, who is selected as the prophet of the Angel of America. Surreal and impossible to sum up in a few mere sentences, Angels in America is still a beautifully, horrifically relevant story of struggling for progress in the hypocritical mess that is the United States.

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'Party Time' and 'The New World Order' by Harold Pinter

These short plays, often printed together, can be read in a single sitting. But Pinter's dark, biting humor will stay with you for a long time after. Party Time is set in a fancy apartment, at a lovely party, where everyone chats politely about tennis and spas while revolutionaries are gunned down in the streets below. The New World Order is a bit more direct: two torturers prepare their newest victim while they discuss the ins and outs of linguistics.

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'Disgraced' by Ayad Akhtar

Successful lawyer Amir Kapoor and his wife, Emily, are throwing a dinner party. He's ambitious and secular, utterly uninterested in exploring his cultural roots. She's a white artist who draws an awful lot of influence from Islamic imagery. Disgraced seamlessly takes us from an evening of fine dining and small talk to an intense exploration of identity, privilege, and violence. It's a brilliant, all too relevant tour de force.

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'Inherit the Wind' by Jerome Lawrence, Robert E. Lee

For a second there, it really seemed like maybe Inherit the Wind was going to fade out of political relevance. But alas, this classic play about defending scientific truths from state-sponsored religious propaganda still resonates with our garbage society in the year 2018. The play is a fictionalized account of the "Scopes Monkey Trial," which saw a teacher put on trial for daring to teach evolution in the classroom.

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'Sweat' by Lynn Nottage

In Reading, Pennsylvania, between the years 2000 and 2008, a group of factory workers struggle to stay afloat. They can't see the financial devastation that lies in their near future—but as tensions grow, longstanding friendships will be put to the test. Lynn Nottage's play is already a modern classic, and more or less required reading for anyone who wants to understand the toll that America's economic decline has had on former factory towns.

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'Richard III' by William Shakespeare

Yeah, yeah, Julius Caesar and all that, but if you want a Shakespeare play that engages with the 2016 election, Richard III is probably the more relevant choice. Shakespeare's Richard is most likely more of a despicable tyrant than the historical Richard was, but the story of his rise to power is very much the story of a dangerous, charismatic man seizing power from people who refuse to take him seriously.

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'M. Butterfly' by David Henry Hwang

A French diplomat is living in China, where he falls madly in love with a beautiful Chinese opera singer. Of course, he doesn't realize that his shy, adoring mistress is A) a man and B) a spy. David Henry Hwang dives into the complexities of gender and Orientalism with this bizarre, heartbreaking play about imaginary love (and very real spies).

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'The Crucible' by Arthur Miller

Written as a response to anti-communist "witch hunts" of the McCarthy era, Arthur Miller's The Crucible goes literal with the whole witch hunting thing. His play is set during the Salem Witch Trials, exploring the dangers of mass hysteria. Don't expect a lot of actual witchcraft, but do expect paranoia, subterfuge, and mistreated teenage girls out for revenge.

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'Straight White Men' by Young Jean Lee

Finally, a play about straight white men! Young Jean Lee's Straight White Men is about to be the first ever play by an Asian American Woman to be staged on Broadway, and boy is it one doozy of a dramedy. Set at Christmastime, this darkly hilarious play follows four (you guessed it) straight white men as they attempt to understand their own privilege and its pressure (poor babies).

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'Venus' by Suzan-Lori Parks

Suzan-Lori Parks' Venus is based on an upsettingly true story: Sarah Baartman was a South African Khoikhoi women who was exhibited in freak shows throughout England in the early 1800's. She was put on trial for indecency during her career, and the play Venus captures the complexities of Sarah's life and the hypocritical politics of desirability that surrounded her.

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'Mr. Burns, a post-electric play' by Anne Washburn

Mr. Burns is set in the near future, after a cataclysmic apocalypse. A ragtag group of survivors remind each other of a Simpsons episode around a campfire to pass the time. The second act is set 7 years after that, with a new retelling of a story of the same Simpsons episode. The third act is set 75 years after that. Each iteration of the story reveals something new about this future world, and the power of stories to sustain humanity even in the bleakest of circumstances.

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