Arts Review

Questions of Identity: The Fall Theater Season

For the last half decade, identity politics has been the soil from which most serious New York theater has grown. No surprise: the constantly redrawn boundaries of race, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, physical ability, religion, as well as the ensuing intersectional overlaps, are rich in character and narrative potential. As our society undergoes productive disruptions in how we categorize (or refuse to categorize) individuals, we turn to culture to help us under­stand where we’ve come from, why we’re here, and how we can move forward. And sure, television long ago usurped theater’s place as the primary forum for national cultural dialogue around these kinds of issues. But theater still has a role to play—especially at the cutting edges of the conversation. Theater is where artists can test the limits of acceptable expression, giving voice to people and ideas that mass culture is not yet ready to address.

John Zdrojeski and Julia McDermott in Heroes of the Fourth Turning. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

In fact, one of the most discussed plays of the New York fall theater season, Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning, mounted by Playwrights Horizons, focused on a sociopolitical group that has otherwise been almost invisible in art of any kind, namely young Catholic conservatives. The play utilized a familiar scenario—a group of college friends reunite several years into post-graduate life to dissect their real-world epiphanies and disappointments—in a way that felt bracingly unfamiliar to its audience. The characters were intelligent, hyper-educated, humorous, and also anti-abortion, anti-feminist, anti-LGBTQ, not to mention anti-identity-politics. Arbery (who grew up the child of teachers at a conservative Catholic college much like the one depicted in his play) does not endorse his characters’ views, but neither does he depict them as craven or buffoonish—the defaults for most theatrical depictions of conservative characters.

I loved the daring concept of Heroes of the Fourth Turning and especially loved director Danya Taymor’s razor-sharp production, with a Rembrandt-dark lighting palette by Isabella Byrd and brilliant sound design by Justin Ellington. The cast, for the most part, met the play’s wordy requirements with skill, with special kudos to Zoë Winters as a prolix Ann Coulter-in-training. Yet, Heroes of the Fourth Turning ultimately lost me, not because of its characters’ politics, but because of the play’s belief that we would find their crises of conscience as fascinating as they do. The trap in the drunken-night-of-self-examination genre is the possibility of overwrought narcissism—and Arbery falls headfirst into it. Ultimately, as his young idealists become increasingly anguished, literally howling and thrashing with psychic pain, the play becomes tiresome, succumbing to its own sense of self-importance.

Joshua Henry (center) and company in The Wrong Man. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

At least Arbery is attempting to examine the intersection of socio-politics and human character in a nuanced way. Some works get so mired in their message that they forget to create vital, dimensional characters (or, at least, vividly theatrical avatars and situations). Such was the case with The Wrong Man, a new musical that arrived with an impressive pedigree: direction by Thomas Kail and music supervision and arrangements by Alex Lacamoire, both of Hamilton fame. A theatricalization of the concept album by composer and lyricist Ross Golan, this work played at the new, impressive MCC Theater Space and starred Joshua Henry, a brilliantly charismatic performer with a sensational voice. The show follows an African American man wrongly accused of a crime, its scenario an updated and politicized take on the classic Hitchcock trope. And yet, The Wrong Man was dead on arrival—undone by a generalized approach. Golan’s songs, like most pop songs, were open-ended expressions of universalized emotions, not specific utterances of precise characters at a particular moment. Kail’s patented swirling staging did not help to create a sense of actual experience, essential in a work that wants to feel ripped from the headlines.

The company of Soft Power. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

A very different musical, Soft Power from composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist David Henry Hwang, was much more watchable than The Wrong Man but could not be characterized as anything other than a hot mess. The work, seen at the Public Theater, places Hwang himself directly into the narrative. An Asian-American playwright, referred to as DHH, is approached by Xue Xíng, a Chinese official, and asked to adapt a popular Chinese film for the country’s government-sponsored theater industry. DHH and Xue attend a Hillary Clinton fundraiser, and sparks fly between the official and Clinton. When DHH is stabbed on the street (an event that actually happened to Hwang), he enters a fever dream in which he imagines Xue and Clinton in a surreal musical, constructed as a gender- and ethnic-inverted version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. Their pedagogic, quasi-romantic relationship plays out in pastiche numbers: a Gilbert & Sullivan take on the Electoral College, a “Rain in Spain” parody on pronouncing Chinese words, and so forth.

Hwang and Tesori are trying to accomplish a lot here: caustic takes on the well-meaning liberalism of 1950s theater, on the musical as a genre, on America’s deeply flawed political system, on Western depictions of both Asian and Asian-American culture, on cultural appropriation, and especially on the “white savior” narrative formula—this last subject of course lying at the very problematic center of The King and I. The characters directly discuss all of these topics, at times making the work feel more like a seminar than a play. In fact, the opening of the second act takes us completely out of the narrative and into a faux academic conference, 50 years into the future, which purports to analyze the musical we are seeing. The meta-layers become unproductively dense at this point.

Tesori (the composer of the wonderful Fun Home among many other works), is immensely skilled, and many numbers are successful on an individual basis, but they don’t add up to a coherent score. The cast is also variable, with good work by Francis Jue as DHH but a miscast turn by Alyse Alan Louis as Clinton. Director Leigh Silverman does the best she can with the material, but ultimately blame must fall on Hwang, who never finds a coherent thrust to what he wants to say. The show spends a great deal of time exploring the limits of Western democracy—particularly in relation to the Chinese system which, Xue points out, would never allow for the rise of someone as disastrous as Trump—and then, in its penultimate number, reverts to a baldly jingoistic celebration of American greatness (in a ghastly ballad sung by Clinton). Attempts to figure out what is actually going on in Soft Power are fruitless: the authors have not delineated the rules for how to interpret what we see on stage—what is real/what is dream, what is narrative/what is commentary, what is exegesis/what is question. This is not a function of postmodern slipperiness but rather old-fashioned sloppiness.
Significantly more successful is Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play, which premiered at the New York Theatre Workshop late last year and, surprisingly, transferred to Broadway last fall. The surprise is wholly due to the provocative subject matter and complicated theatrics of the play, not to its quality. This brilliant, messy, riveting work by a writer fresh out of graduate school examines the lingering effects of centuries of physical and psychic violence inflicted upon African Americans—dating back to slavery but of course continuing today. Just as importantly, it is about the fundamental inability of white people to understand in any deep way what those effects feel like.

Slave Play is the first incursion onto Broadway of what has become the most important theatrical phenomenon of the last decade, namely the bounty of plays that deal with African American identity in a way that upturns conventional social and dramatic pieties. This loosely organized movement includes, among many others, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon, Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue and Bootycandy, Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard’s Underground Railroad Game, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, Suzan-Lori Parks’s White Noise, and Michael R. Jackson’s musical, A Strange Loop. All share a fascination with the confluence of race and sexuality. All use transgressive devices such as blackface, minstrelsy, depictions of sexual violence, exploitive nudity—deliberately discomforting the audience, especially a supposedly liberal audience. All utilize meta-theatrical flourishes, often employing big semantic twists midway through the show that reorient the audience’s entire perspective. And all abjure those classic liberal plays which serve a majoritarian audience’s desire for clearly delineated examples of racism to which they can feel superior (the To Kill a Mockingbird paradigm). These new plays are not inspirational, other than the fact of their existence.

Slave Play begins with a series of vignettes showcasing three erotic, interracial scenarios set in the pre-Civil War South: a white master and his female slave; a white mistress and her male slave; and a white male servant and black male overseer. This first third of the play is knowingly shocking: fetishistic plantation porn as practiced by countless Harle­quin Romances, not to mention Hollywood films. As the heated scenarios come to a boil, the rug is suddenly pulled out from under us as one of the participants yells out “Starbucks!,” which we come to understand is a “safe” word. In a dazzling twist, it is revealed that the play so far has actually been the modern-day enactment of role-play fantasies by three interracial couples engaged in a radical therapeutic endeavor called “antebellum sexual performance therapy.” In each couple, the person of color is experiencing what the therapists label Racialized Inhibiting Disorder (or “RID”)—a socially induced inability to experience pleasure. Or, as Phillip, one of the African American participants, asks: “The reason I can’t get it up is . . . racism?”

The long second section of the play is a riotous study of group therapy dynamics in a stereotypically woke environment. Two facilitators, Teá (played by Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio), work with the three couples: Kaneisha and Jim (Joaquina Kalukango and Paul Alexander Nolan), Phillip and Alana (Sullivan Jones and Annie McNamara), and Gary and Dustin (Ato Blankson-Wood and James Cusati-Moyer). This segment digs deep into the complications of identity politics vis-à-vis sexual politics at the current moment. Issues of dominance and submissiveness, of the essential power dynamics at the heart of every erotic relationship, of the inescapable reverberations of history and heritage, all play out in a framework that both embraces and satirizes contemporary political correctness. (The arch overplaying of the two therapists, who are reduced to caricatures, is one of the work’s weaknesses; the occasional sacrifice of character logic for a laugh is another.)

Alana and Phillip, for example, assume they have transcended race. He barely thinks of himself as black; he is instead just “Phillip”: a physically fit, educated, successful man. Alana is passionately mindful, intensely aware of her privilege and constantly in touch with her partner’s lack thereof. And yet she is the most thin-skinned character on stage, the most resistant to any questioning of her motives. Hilarious and insufferable, she is, when push comes to shove, most comfortable in the role of victim. In fact, her entire relationship with Phillip is predicated on self-congratulation for her tolerance. Phillip’s eventual realization and embrace of his blackness and of the narcissistic root of her love leaves her purposeless.

Dustin and Gary’s relationship is even more fraught, the latter often speechless with anguished rage over his partner’s inability to understand and accept his pain. Harris mines a massive amount of humor over Dustin’s refusal to accept the racial categorization of “white.” But just exactly what Dustin is remains deliberately vague. Is he Latinx? Italian American? Much recent academic work has examined the construction of whiteness and the recategorization of formerly marginalized ethnic groups, such as Italians, into this classification. Dustin’s refusal to acknowledge his race could be read as an attempt to undo this consolidation of whiteness—but is more likely a desire to “other” himself and to deny a realistic acknowledgment of his privilege.

Joaquina Kalukango and Paul Alexander Nolan in Slave Play. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

The quietest couple in the second section of Slave Play is ultimately at the heart of the drama. Kaneisha sits in numbed shock, and Jim seethes in fury, seeing the therapeutic process as ludicrous. It becomes clear that the plantation master/slave role-play rape scenario we saw in the first scene was Kaneisha’s idea, an attempt to re-engage her alienated sexual desires. Jim is understandably reluctant, horrified at the idea of racially and sexually demeaning his wife, whom he calls “my queen” to her eye-rolling scorn. But this revulsion is essentially selfish. Although he frames his position as one of empathy, he is actually concerned with how he will feel. His squeamishness is just one more expression of privilege. It’s telling that Harris makes Jim British: he is technically thereby one step removed from American slavery, yet he is as complicit in, and as rewarded by, white supremacy as any other person of his race.

As the second part of the play comes to a close, the farcical tone and structure begin to unravel. Kaneisha explodes with the cathartic revelation that her husband is, in her words, a “virus”—and this direct acknowledgment of the inescapable toxicity of the legacy of white culture in the eyes of many African Americans leads to a rupture of the play’s framework and a transition to a final brief scene between Kaneisha and Jim in which she goads him into the long-desired role-playing scenario. Jim mock-rapes Kaneisha with increasing ferocity— eventually leading to her screaming out the safe word used to end the fantasy scenarios. He is shattered, aghast at his own ability to commit such a revolting act with such fervor, and he retches. She thanks him. She has been seen and heard—and has been allowed to own her desires, even though they are ultimately not what she wants.

And yet the interpretation of the ending I have proffered is by no means clear in the text or in the performances; in fact, I could easily be convinced that something quite different is happening. Harris and his excellent actors, and the superb direction by aforementioned playwright Robert O’Hara, leave more questions than answers—appropriately so for a work that digs deeply into the underlying psychology of race relations in this country. To what extent does Jim find himself aroused by enacting a white supremacist scenario, and to what extent does Kaneisha find herself aroused by the abasement? Who is controlling the fantasy—and is that even a question that can be answered? Is there a future for this relationship—and, by extension, is there a possibility for healthy race relations in this country? Is there life after PTSD? On that score, I’m afraid Slave Play is anything but optimistic.

Why does Kaneisha want to partake in a debasing erotic role-play game? The question is of course not ours to ask. And the answers are multitudinous—probably even to Kaneisha herself. True connection to the past sometimes requires painful self-examination. She tells a story about going on school trips to plantations as a child, conscious of being seen by her ancestors. Is this ultimately a play about being seen, about being acknowledged? That most elusive of human needs is partly a matter of situating oneself in relation to the expectations of the past, both social and familial. Slave Play’s set, designed by Clint Ramos, consists mainly of a series of mirrors on the back of the stage, an invitation to find ourselves in the world of the play and to challenge our own sense of being seen and acknowledged.

Slave Play is not an easy play to watch, let alone think and write about. And it’s a play that feels very different upon repeat viewings. The first time I saw the show, I was astonished by the twist at the end of the first part. On my second viewing, the signaling of this twist seemed blindingly obvious—as if the characters were deliberately letting us know that the revelation of the play’s contemporary therapy group setting was so clear as to be beside the point; we were supposed to recognize this from the start. The tonal shifts from section to section (historical potboiler to modern social farce to traumatic relationship drama) make the play dizzying—and this is surely deliberate if sometimes frustrating. These shifts unmoor the audience and its sense of what the play is saying. They act as Brechtian distanciation devices, ensuring a focus on the political themes instead of the seductions of narrative. And they put the most harrowing moments of the play in high relief, doubling down on their impact. The tonal irregularity is in fact evident in the double meaning in the play’s title: a serious play about slavery, and a cheeky examination of erotic “slave play.”

The most galvanizing theatrical event of the season turned identity politics on its head in some ways: History of Violence was a visiting production at the indispensable St. Ann’s Warehouse from Berlin’s famed Schaubühne, directed by the great Thomas Ostermeier. Adapted from a novel by Édouard Louis, by Ostermeier, Florian Borchmeyer, and Louis himself, the work is directly autobiographical, recounting the author’s assault and rape by a man he had picked up and brought back to his apartment. In a riveting, uninterrupted two hours, four brilliant actors enact the series of events before and after this moment of violence, examining the repercussions in ways both deeply personal and abstractly political. Louis, a precociously intellectual, radical writer (he is still only 27, and his novel was written three years ago), grew up in a homophobic, working-class family in rural France, and his natural sympathies lean to the marginalized. His assaulter, Reda (Renato Schuch), is North African. Édouard (Laurenz Laufenberg) filters his story through dialogues with his sister and her husband, and with the police, attempting to make sense of it within his highly charged political worldview.

Director Ostermeier employs many of the tools of modern Euro-theater, including live video projection onto the walls of the stage; stylized, choreographed movement; hot microphones allowing for whispered internal monologues; glimpses of backstage preparation; cross-gender casting; live percussive accompaniment; and of course a fracturing of narrative coherence. We’ve seen all this before, but in the hands of a master like Ostermeier, you understand why these devices are ubiquitous: they work in an organic way to build a breathtaking sense of tension and momentum. The play circles the violent encounter at its core for most of its length, taking a rather cool approach to what happened, as if the social construct surrounding the event held greater weight than the event itself. So, when Louis and Ostermeier finally stage what has begun to seem unstageable, the effect is doubly shattering.

The cast of A History of Violence. Photo credit: Arno Declair

Brilliant theatrics aside, what makes History of Violence so unforgettable is its clear-eyed look at the central concerns of identity politics. What separates us, and what pulls us together? Can we ever understand a group to which we do not belong? Édouard refuses to press charges against Reda, even though the man stole from, viciously assaulted and violated him, sending him to the hospital. Reda is, in Édouard’s view, a victim as well—the product of a brutally racist society, as manifested in the attitude of the French police who assume him guilty based on his ethnicity. As the product of a repressive, impoverished upbringing, Édouard knows how close he himself came to a life of dissipation and crime. He might easily have ended up just like Reda. Édouard’s sister is horrified by his attitude, which is not quite to forgive but rather to acknowledge and let go. It’s natural for the audience to join her in feeling ambivalent about his response, but the existence of this work, and its intellectually rigorous and emotionally overpowering effect, force us to turn these ideas over in our minds and hearts. We may not agree with Louis’s conclusion, but we can’t ignore the rigor of his reasoning.

Why do some works that urgently grapple with identity succeed and others do not? Craft is certainly a factor: the lack of specificity in The Wrong Man, the maudlin excesses of Heroes of the Fourth Turning, and the thematic and narrative incoherence of Soft Power hold these plays back despite much to admire in all three productions. But it’s more than craft: there is something about the transgression of previously allowable, or at least conventional, means of expression that pushes Slave Play and History of Violence to higher levels of achievement. The former play is not perfect, but its audacity and vibrant theatricality transcend its flaws; the latter play is brilliantly written, acted, and directed, but it is its boldness of thought that makes it so memorable. These plays make traditional theatrical expressions of identity seem hopelessly naïve. There are no easy answers in History of Violence or in Slave Play, and thank goodness these works of theater are not letting us off the hook.