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The Politics of Drama, Act Two

Theater once sought to be an agent of social change. Can that be possible today, when personal issues dominate? A panel of stage veterans tackles the issues.

August 13, 2000|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | Michael Phillips is The Times' theater critic

"Angels in America" seems like a long time ago.

Fueled by leftist outrage over Reagan-era social policies, Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play debuted at the Mark Taper Forum in 1992. Here was old-fashioned political engagement on a stage, light on its feet and ready to rumble. It felt fresh yet linked to our theatrical past--the Federal Theatre Project's Depression-era efforts (the inventive ones, anyway), as well as passionate work three decades later provoked by the war in Vietnam and its attendant wars at home.

Today, the winds are calmer. This year's Pulitzer winner for drama, "Dinner With Friends" by Donald Margulies (which opens the new Geffen Playhouse season), concerns itself with the vicissitudes of marriage and middle age. No one would claim that the year 2000 is a hot one for politically engaged drama, whatever the stripe.

Have audiences simply had it with politics? Have playwrights, producers and directors waylaid political concerns for personal ones? Can the two be separated?

On the brink of the Democratic National Convention, the one representing the party that hasn't attempted to rid the country of federal arts support, we talked to a group of L.A.-based theater artists.

Playwright, director and MacArthur grant recipient Luis Alfaro is co-director of the Taper's Latino Theatre Initiative. Alfaro's boss, Gordon Davidson, runs the Center Theatre Group, which includes the Taper. He made the Taper's national reputation largely on such projects as Daniel Berrigan and Saul Levitt's Vietnam War protest chronicle, "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine" (1971), and Luis Valdez's "Zoot Suit" (1978).

Amy Levinson serves as literary manager of the Geffen Playhouse. Laural Meade is co-head of Indecent Exposure Theatre Company. Her plays include "Harry Thaw Hates Everybody," a blend of vaudeville, music, the soapbox and the history books.

Richard Montoya is one-third of the Chicano theater troupe Culture Clash. The plays of Suzan-Lori Parks include mind- and language-benders such as "The America Play," as well as more straight-ahead works. One of the latter, "Topdog/Underdog," opens in New York in January. Parks is about to begin a three-year stint as head of a new playwriting program at California Institute of the Arts.

Michael Phillips: I think we can agree the phrase "political theater" is a very slippery one. It has come to mean everything and nothing. Too often it has meant the worst kind of finger-wagging. Suzan-Lori, in your introduction to "The America Play and Other Works," you took on what you called "Theater of Schmaltz"--writing intended to, as you put it, "produce some reaction of sorts, to discuss some issue: the play-as-wrapping-paper-version-of-hot-newspaper-headline, trying so hard to be so hip; so uninterested in the craft of writing. . . . Theater seems mired in the interest of staging some point, or tugging some heart string, or landing a laugh, or making a splash, or wagging a finger."

Richard Montoya: God, she just described Culture Clash.

Suzan-Lori Parks: Well, I wrote that a long time ago. [laughter] Political theater to me means things people say to me about my work. "Oh, your play is so political." I hear that a lot. And I just go, "Huh? Wha? What does that mean?" I ask the person, and they'll say, "Well, it's dealing with . . . issues."

The difficulty I have with that is people believe the writer enters into writing mode with an issue she wants to shove into a size 3 pair of jeans. Like we used to wear in the '70s.

Q: I've heard people more or less snort at the phrase "political theater" lately, as if it were dead and gone.

Montoya: Well, it certainly means something to us. Culture Clash has been doing a lot of site-specific work, going to different regions of the country, doing interview-based work, which doesn't sound too original or political. But in that journalistic approach, we're finding that race is still the No. 1 issue. And you can't get more political than race.

We use the work to dive into that area, whether it's the border here in California, or Cuban Americans in Miami, or police brutality in New York City. It's still viable to us. There's a lot of madness going on around us, and we're trying to record it as fast as we can and report it back to our audience. The Spanish classics will have to wait right now.

When we played D.C., the Arena Stage subscribers made Gordon's [Taper] subscribers look pretty hip and cool. These are not cool-looking white folks. These are "McLaughlin Group" white folks. . . . We take our political brand of theater to a crowd like that--and we're thanked for it.

Something's happening, something is allowing for us to keep going. There's a lot of bad political theater. But we're still at it, still champing at the bit.

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