The following is a student-written work, presented as part of the Institute for Theatre Journalism and Advocacy (ITJA) competition. The views and opinions expressed in this work are the author’s own.
Are You Ready for a Cabinet Meeting?
By Collette Simkins
Senior, Catawba College
In a world where Javier Munoz, a gay Latino actor, portrays Alexander Hamilton at the same time as Mike Pence, the Vice President of the United States, advocates for conversion therapy, a new question begs for an answer. How do artists fight a war which often feels like it has already been lost?
In recent months, launched by events like Mike Pence’s Hamilton visit, we have searched for solutions. The responses vary. At one end of the spectrum, Pence’s sympathizers and supporters believe art exists only to entertain. Politics hold no place in our work. At the other end, those who defended the cast’s words, think art exists to challenge no matter who it alienates. But when the creators often represent marginalized communities and the consumers tend to hold privilege, neither of these answers satisfies either party. The first not only diminishes an artist’s work, but might also endanger the artist’s well-being. The second ignores an entire half of the conversation instead preaching to a choir of the already converted. But if neither solution works, what do we do?
The participants of KCACTF Region 4 offer up an alternative. It is not cowardly complacency nor is it fiery self-righteousness; it is a subtle and rumbling call to action. The plays presented during the 49th Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival shared a similar theme: insidious social justice, well hidden in fantastical worlds and universal stories.
Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters, presented by Georgia Southern University, follows a young woman, Agnes, embracing Dungeons and Dragons in order to understand the mind of her dead younger sister, Tillie. On the surface, the audience witnesses a feel good sisterhood story full of references to the Power Rangers, Friends, and Sir Mix- A-Lot. But they also get a story in which the heroine’s love interest pales in comparison to her quest. They get a story in which a young woman learns to wield a weapon and fight for herself. They get a story in which Agnes discovers her own worth and lives beyond her label of “average.”
She Kills Monsters is a feminist play; it just doesn’t feel like one. While Agnes shames Tillie’s D&D companions for their revealing outfits, everyone else within this world accepts it. Tillie’s friends wear what they want- their body, their choice. The play espouses feminist ideals without bogging the audience down in a bucket of theory. Nguyen unites millennials, regardless of political leaning, through our love of the nineties which opens the floor to conversations about why a demon princess and female elven warrior were half dressed or what it means that Nicholas Newell cast two young black girls in the lead roles. Friends serves as an olive branch, now we have to extend it.
Women’s rights are not the only issue in need of defense, the plight of immigrants and refugees must be represented as well. Florida International University’s production of La Nona shares the woes of Italian immigrants living in Argentina with American audiences and performed in Spanish. Playwright Roberto Cossa wrote the play as a response to the Argentinian government’s irresponsibility and deviousness. Marina Pareja’s direction misses the mark of the playwright’s original intent; it does not quite move past the farcical, but she still stakes a claim in the battle for representation and equality. Pareja decided the story needed telling. Even if the production does not reach its allegorical potential, the play still focuses on the immigrant struggle. Pareja chose the Spanish-language version of the play and her actors perform in their native tongue, alerting the primarily English speaking audiences of position as outsiders.
Our laughter masks the subliminal messaging. As we delight in Nona’s incessant eating and grumble at Chicho’s scheming, we consume the message Pareja lays before us. Pareja says immigrants’ stories deserve to be told. If we take the time to delve just a bit deeper into the script, we find Cossa’s argument, which may inspire us but ostracize patrons who support an authoritarian government.
In a reimagining of A Doll’s House, ten-minute plays about deaf culture, and one-acts about the Holocaust and young black protestors, we could hear the message: Bring the horse to water. You cannot force him to drink, but the horse will see how refreshing the water looks and maybe he’ll drink of his own volition. Nora’s House, a contemporary re-telling of the third act of Ibsen’s famous play, presents its audience with a fast paced response to the early feminist piece. North Greenville used video and projection to contemporize the production and connect to a modern audience. Yet the theme remains the same, Nora is not a child or a doll; she deserves an intellectual and fulfilling life. Lacey Alexander’s ten-minute play Bits and Pieces explores the life of a partially deaf girl, Miley, and her struggle to communicate in a hearing-centered world. Bits and Pieces represents a new wave of plays noticeably absent in the theatre, those celebrating our differences in ability.
KCACTF’s solution to our problem recognizes the validity of artists’ desire to protect their own and acknowledges that at some level our craft does exist to entertain. We walk a fine line when we attempt to shut out patrons because they believe differently than us. Like bees to honey, easing our opponents into the conversation might yield a more productive outcome than throwing them on the offensive. Provocative, challenging theatre has its place; it prevents us from becoming complacent in our own do-gooding. If we can re-contextualize our war as a gathering, we might be more successful Though eventually we need to find a way for everyone else to get the party, right now we need to start with an invitation.