The fall theater season is upon us in Boston, which is usually the time for companies to open with popular fare and get as many people under the tent as possible. By this time most years, the usual suspects are lined up — a musical by Stephen Sondheim, a revival of an Arthur Miller play, a New York play with plenty of buzz re-cast with Boston actors.
This year it’s different. Almost every play or musical that has opened in large or midsize theaters addresses the question of race in America — from stories of privilege in contemporary America to stories of unspeakable racism in our history. They also address the question of who gets to tell the stories in terms of writers, directors and actors.
Some of these plays take on today’s issues directly. “The Niceties” at the Huntington Theatre Company (through Oct. 6) positions a white liberal professor against a black activist student who insists on a reckoning with the founding fathers’ racism. “Straight White Men” at the New Repertory Theatre dealt with the question of privilege through a different perspective, that of white men questioning where they fit as the country shifts.
Another, the comedic “Between Riverside and Crazy” at SpeakEasy Stage Company (through Oct. 13) takes on racial issues more obliquely, as a former black policeman who claims he was shot by a racist white cop, holds court with a rainbow coalition of family and friends.
Even the musicals address issues of race head-on. The American Repertory Theatre began its season with the spectacular world premiere, “The Black Clown,” based on Langston Hughes’ poem and — through a marvelous combination of music, dance and spoken word — turned it into an indelible statement of triumph.
“Hamilton” at the Boston Opera House (through Nov. 18) famously recast the founding fathers with a multiracial cast singing mostly hip-hop lyrics. Although “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (through Oct. 7) is more concerned with gender bias than racial, it is cast almost entirely with non-white actors and singers. Actors’ Shakespeare Project just opened “Macbeth” (through Nov. 11), in a verse treatment translated by Nuyorican playwright Migdalia Cruz.
None of this comes out of the blue. Racism, obviously, is the preeminent culprit of inequality in America and the conversations surrounding it have become commonplace online and in the arts. But this theater season in Boston feels markedly different than others. For all the major companies to shift in this direction may signal something about the ecosystem. What exactly that is remains a bit amorphous.
What we do know for sure is that all of these companies — some more demonstrably committed than others — have been part of an ongoing effort to address racial and gender bias in the theater.
There are, of course, white playwrights and actors represented onstage, but it’s a season more memorable for Davóne Tines and Chanel DaSilva (“The Black Clown” at the American Repertory Theater; writer Stephen Adly Guirgis, director Tiffany Nichole Green and lead actor Tyrees Allen (“Between Riverside and Crazy”) at SpeakEasy Stage Company; writer Young Jean Lee (“Straight White Men” at New Repertory Theatre); actor Jordan Boatman (“The Niceties” at the Huntington Theatre Company); writer Karen Zacarías (“Native Gardens” at Merrimack Repertory Theatre; and music director Dan Rodriguez and performers Eddy Cavazos, Taavon Gamble and Lisa Yuen (“Kiss of the Spider Woman” at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston). Oh, and then there’s an artist named Lin-Manuel Miranda whose “Hamilton,” with its diverse cast, recently landed in town.
So what are we to make of this panoply of fall theater, besides noting a greater sensitivity to expanding the conversation, a conversation that involves everything from who writes history and how in “The Niceties” to how much empathy do straight white men deserve after enjoying centuries of privilege in the New Rep play.
Does the conversation continue beyond September? Does the quality match the quantity? Is it necessarily a good thing that the Albees and Pinters, the Arthur Millers and Tennessee Williamses of the theater world are keeping a very low profile in Boston these days, along with living playwrights like Martin McDonagh, Annie Baker and Jez Butterworth? These are obviously subjective questions that depend on what audiences are looking for and what theater companies are prepared to give them. (A small theater company, Praxis, is about to open Miller's "All My Sons," in Chelsea.)
Even the question of whether the expanded conversation about race is replicated throughout the season is subjective. How much is enough or is there such a thing as enough, particularly after playwrights of color were very rarely represented in the past?
There’s plenty of Shakespeare in the coming season and a Sondheim or two, but expanding the conversation about race and contemporary issues appears paramount in Boston as you look over company schedules. And we haven’t even mentioned three of the theaters that have been in the forefront of bringing issues of inclusivity to the forefront — ArtsEmerson, Company One Theatre and Zeitgeist Stage Company, which unfortunately will be departing the scene after this season.
As you can see from their recent season announcement, Company One continues to take the lead in pushing the conversation forward.
And what about quality vs. quantity? While theaters tend to open with plays they think will get people into the tent, it’s a rarity that every theater opens with a four-star presentation. Of the plays mentioned, I think A.R.T.’s “The Black Clown” the touring production of "Hamilton" and SpeakEasy’s "Between Riverside and Crazy” are sensational. Two are so-so – the Lyric’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and New Rep’s “Straight White Men.” And one is as much debate as play — the Huntington’s “The Niceties” — but it’s a debate that, like David Mamet’s “Oleanna” — is dramatic in itself. Those feelings are more or less shared by my colleagues in the Boston Theater Critics Assn. I haven’t been keeping score, but I’d bet that’s about the same ratio it is every year.
The lack of great white playwrights this season? It wasn’t that long ago that local theaters were slugging it out to get the latest Martin McDonagh or Conor McPherson, Tony Kushner or Annie Baker. Each has had a play in New York in the last eight years — Baker has had two — and we’re still waiting for a glimpse of any of them in Boston. While New York eagerly awaits Jez Butterworth’s “The Ferryman,” there’s still no sign of his widely-hailed “Jerusalem” in Boston. These days you have to go the Berkshires or Cape Cod to see any of the above-mentioned playwrights in Massachusetts, though ArtsEmerson imported two notable McDonagh revivals in seasons past.
And some of us would still like to see dead people. Other than William Shakespeare. I would echo in every way what Guardian critic Michael Billington recently said in a conversation with the New York Times’ Ben Brantley: “We’re plugged into the present in a very exciting way. But I think we’re losing sight not just of our past but of the theater’s past.”
Is this lament, to quote a recent production, a “death rattle” for white baby boomers like me? Maybe.
My guess is that theater, like much in life, is cyclical and that the ecology spreads upward more than downward. The late, lamented Súgán Theatre Company had a lot to do with larger local theaters wanting to do McDonagh and McPherson. Company One seems to be playing a similar role today with a different set of playwrights. That theater introduced Boston-area audiences, for example, to Young Jean Lee with “We’re Gonna Die.”
Perhaps we should, for the moment, pay more attention to the first part of Billington’s quote — that we’re plugged into the present in a very exciting way. We’re having a conversation that’s long overdue, not just about who gets to write history. But also who gets to make theater.