It has never been easy to bring a play that takes on real social issues center stage in the US.
Real plays are powerful. They are dangerous. They gore sacred cows and upend the apple cart. They change you. They do not reassure the audience – they scare the pants off them. They engage and provoke the public as nothing else can. Because right up there on stage is a real topic with real stakes.
A lot of contemporary US playwriting, nurtured as it is in a mainstream corporate-funded system, is institutionally incapable of taking on the big issues we need to hear about. It just ain’t gonna happen. This isn’t all the fault of theatres. The audience is also involved. But institutions need to lead, and instead of breaking new ground, many of them are trudging the well worn path of standard franchise properties from the national circuit.
Instead of the important new plays, we get bouncy, non-threatening frivolities and nonsensical wackiness on a lot of our big stages. In this magical realist world of sex and whimsy and violence (But play violence – not real violence! It’s ok everyone – this is fun violence! And it’s funny!), the main goal seems to be, entertain ’em – and by god don’t scare ’em away. A lot of these plays are in the neighborhood of real issues, but they address them through a fun house mirror that feels designed to avoid giving offense.
Whether they realize it or not, these disposable plays are social documents from a culture of affluence, and the silence of everything they don’t address is deafening. As the lights go down and yet another genius kid character comes on stage and starts cracking wise with more IQ than Einstein, the audience tries to figure out why they are being subjected to this while out there, mere yards away on the street, society is in serious trouble. Why don’t we hear more about that? So much for the real world.
Well, if it were easy to write good plays about the big topics, everyone would be doing it.
Almost no social topic in contemporary America is more important than gun violence. And if you are an ambitious playwright, all you need to do to make your name is write a great play that takes on this subject.
And lo – here comes something that sounds a lot like that at the Public Theater, with Steven Soderbergh directing.