DC Theatre Week Presents Important Stories for Right Now
Theater has been a vehicle for social and political change since the Greeks donned togas and took to the theater to perform political ideologies. Fast forward 2,000 years, and dialectical stories exploring politically and culturally fraught times are still hot tickets. Just look at the Broadway marquees. This season saw Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me,” a feminist manifesto that explored our country’s founding document. And then there’s the Broadway-bound “Slave Play,” by Jeremy O. Harris, which explores master-slave relations and BDSM in the Antebellum South. Both works have activated conversation and propelled lively debates.
Plays and musicals that discuss hot-button issues are at the forefront of DC Theater Week (Sept. 10-29). Washington, DC is a nexus of civic life and culture — so it’s no surprise that the theater offerings in the nation’s capital entertain and pack a political punch. They deal with the wielding of power, explore the oppressive forces of life in America, and showcase issues facing women and underrepresented groups. So go to the theater — it’s kind of your civic duty.
Who’s Got the Power?
Shakespeare is one of the OG purveyors of dramatizing social issues. His oeuvre explores the waged wars, countless battles, and brutal murders executed in pursuit of power. His plays examine the role of religion in politics and the potential of democracy. In other words, the Bard’s works are apropos to the upcoming election year.
“Hamlet” begins with the political unrest of Denmark — King Hamlet is dead and the country is left in the hands of an untrustworthy ruler, whose motives are suspect. It kind of all goes downhill from there. Annapolis Shakespeare Company presents the tragedy ().
“Henry IV, Part 1” is about another struggle for power — this time between King Henry IV and a rousing group of rebels who duke it out for the crown, a conflict that leads to the Battle of Shrewsbury. Part 1 of this tetralogy (yes, there are three plays about the succession of English rulers!) will bow at Folger Theatre Sept. 3-Oct.13.
So who is in charge here? Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” ponders this question too, just with a touch of magic. When a brutal sea storm hits an island, the inhabitants get locked in a power struggle, as Prospero wrestles with ushering in a new generation to his kingdom while trying to protect his daughter. Synetic Theater’s mounting, running Sept. 25- Oct. 20, sets this tussle on a water-filled stage.
In early modern Spain, playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca (who is almost a contemporary of Shakespeare!) also explored kingship in his works. “La vida es sueño (Life Is a Dream)” is about a prince locked in a tower by his father, the King of Poland, after a prophecy reveals he is a threat to the country. Nando J. López’s adaptation, at GALA Hispanic Theater Sept.12-Oct.13, explores the universal truths, and allegorical and oneiric elements of the play. Could it all have been a dream?
To Dream the American Dream
America is a country filled with folks pulling themselves up by the bootstraps in pursuit of the American dream. But there are a lot of oppressive forces that make the path to self-sufficiency and success a long, arduous journey, as many people are still struggling with today. The notion of the American Dream seems to move further and further away, while people come up with new — and sometimes dire — methods to pursue it.
In a sardonic way, “Assassins” is a story about pursuing the American dream. The musical, which bows at Signature Theatre Aug. 11-Sept. 29, features music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by John Weidman. It’s a darkly comic portrayal of the people who assassinated Presidents of the United States — and those who tried. As the opening number goes: “Everybody just hold tight to your dreams…Everybody’s got the right to their dreams.”
August Wilson’s “Fences” also explores the hard-won pathway to success in America, particularly for African-American families. The play follows a family living in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. The head of household, a former Negro League baseball player, struggles to provide for his family after spending time in jail. Catch this drama at Ford’s Theatre Sept. 27-Oct. 27.
“Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine” by Lynn Nottage is about one black woman’s fall down the socio-economic ladder — a de-escalation of the American dream, if you will. Once a high-powered Manhattanite, Undine is forced to return to her working-class roots after her husband steals her fortune. This satirical story takes the stage at Mosaic Theater Company of DC Aug. 21-Sept. 22.
Are you sensing a theme here? Endemic racism is often the roadblock on the path to the American dream. This year’s Pulitzer-Prize winning drama “Fairview,” penned by Jackie Sibblies Drury, puts the conversation of racism centerstage. The play examines the effects of the white gaze as an African-American family prepares for a celebratory dinner for their grandmother. The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company will mount the drama Sept. 9-Oct. 6.
Sometimes you just need a positive story about overcoming adversity that features a character who actually does achieve their dreams. Marco Ramirez’s “The Royale,” which bows at Olney Theatre Center Sept. 25-Oct. 27, tells the true story of Jack Johnson, the world’s first African-American heavyweight champion.
We All Need a Little Perspective
Values and opinions can be divisive, and cultural and class differences can spew hate. Convictions held too tightly can be threatening. The power of theater is its ability to create a community onstage and off, even if just for a night, and spark debates and discussions among everyone. So many of these shows during DC Theatre Week welcome the beginnings and continuation of these talks, and we hope these shows illuminate the importance of crossing the aisle and gaining some perspective.
Brandon McCoy’s new play “West By God,” at The Keegan Theatre Sept. 27-Oct.20, explores classism and the deep divide of urban and rural America with the story of two families in a small West Virginia town in Appalachia.
Step inside the Kit Kat Club where the harrowing fear of Hitler’s rise to power is temporarily mitigated by song and dance. The musical “Cabaret,” penned by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Joe Masteroff, is set in 1920s Berlin. The classic musical, at Olney Theatre Center Aug. 28-Oct. 6., delivers a potent message about the dangers of totalitarianism and mass intolerance.
“Doubt: A Parable” by John Patrick Shanley follows Sister Aloysius, the president of a parochial school, who begins a crusade against a priest she believes is having an inappropriate relationship with the school’s only black student. Without evidence, she puts her trust in faith. The drama will be presented at Studio Theatre Sept.4-Oct. 6.
Reproductive health care, pay equity, and child care are among the pressing topics that will be top notes on the ballot. A number of the DC Theater Week offerings put leading ladies and women’s issues centerstage.
Orfa Daniel and Lior Ben-Hur’s “Love Sick,” which bows at Theater J Sept. 4-29, is based on the ancient story Song of Solomon. The new musical features Middle-Eastern harmonics and follows a young woman in a loveless marriage who is catapulted into a sexual awakening when she discovers that she has a secret admirer.
“School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play” by Jocelyn Bioh is about a group of girls at a boarding school in Ghana whose social hierarchy is thwarted when a new, light-skinned girl arrives to school. Her arrival threatens other girls’ chance at being selected to compete in the Miss Ghana beauty pageant. The play explores internalized racism, colorism, and the dangers of beauty standards — but it’s also about self-love and acceptance. Catch the play at Round House Theatre Sept. 18-Oct. 13.
Is there anything more empowering than a woman singing a power ballad? “Beehive: The 60s Musical” salutes the ladies who defined the 1960s with their inspiring music. From Tina Turner to the Shirelles, Aretha Franklin to Janis Joplin, this tribute musical features favorites such as “Proud Mary” and “Natural Woman,” and celebrates the legacies of the songstresses who shaped a whole generation. Dance along at NextStop Theater Company Aug. 22-Sept. 22.