Not long after COVID-19 forced the closure of theaters in March, playwright Melinda Lopez and other members of Huntington Theatre Company’s artistic staff came up with the idea of commissioning local writers to create short audio plays that would unfold in the post-pandemic Boston of the future.
To be set at the writers’ favorite historical landmarks and presented as a series titled “Dream Boston,” the plays were envisioned as “a hopeful expression of what was awaiting us on the other side of quarantine,” Lopez said in a telephone interview.
The post-pandemic return to normality, albeit with emotional complications, remains a core theme in the first four plays in the series, which are currently available at huntingtontheatre.org/dream-boston as well as on various podcast platforms. But “Dream Boston” was also partly reshaped along the way by the nationwide protests against racial injustice that followed the police killing of George Floyd, and by the debate over which historical statues should no longer remain in public spaces.
“Suddenly, the pieces needed to reflect that reality as well,” said Lopez, the Huntington’s artist-in-residence. “We understood that we could not talk about the future without talking about the present.”
So Lopez changed the ending to her play, “By the Rude Bridge,” which is set on Patriots Day in 2025 near Concord’s North Bridge and narrated by a Revolutionary War reenactor (Lonnie Farmer). The revised version of “By the Rude Bridge” ends with a question about what monuments will be built, and to whom, in the future, as well as, in the narrator’s words, “What will we tell our children about what we fought for?”
Lopez said fellow playwright Kirsten Greenidge also made revisions to her drama, “The 54th in ’22,” which unfolds in May 2022 at the Boston Common memorial to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the Black Civil War soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment.
In “The 54th in ’22,” a blind date between two people (Brandon G. Green and Lyndsay Allyn Cox) subtly expands into an exploration of racial identity, the power of protest, and the obligation to remember history in full, while also touching upon the lingering impact of COVID-19.
In “McKim,‘' by Brenda Withers, set at the Boston Public Library in January 2023, a woman (Krystal Hernandez) finally picks up a book from a librarian (Nael Nacer) that she had reserved 34 months earlier. The reason for her delay in getting the book slowly becomes clear. In Kate Snodgrass’s moving “Overture,” a custodian (Richard Snee) and a deceased professor’s daughter (Elle Borders) meet on top of MIT’s Great Dome during the Boston Pops Fourth of July concert in 2024. Again, the reason for their meeting eventually becomes clear.
Each of the “Dream Boston” plays is introduced in a voice-over by Lopez, an actress as well as a playwright and educator. She starred in her solo play “Mala,” inspired by her relationship with her mother in the last years of her life. The Boston Theater Critics Association named “Mala” the Outstanding New Script in 2017, and last year, the BTCA awarded Lopez its highest honor, the Elliot Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence.
Lopez said the Huntington has commissioned another half-dozen “Dream Boston” plays, which will be available by Labor Day. The series is among many online initiatives theater-makers have essayed during the pandemic, from audio dramas like the Public Theater’s “Richard II” to the Needham-based Arlekin Players Theatre’s Zoom presentation of “State vs. Natasha Banina” to Richard Nelson’s new Apple Family plays, “What Do We Need to Talk About? Conversations on Zoom” and “And So We Come Forth: A Dinner on Zoom.”
Asked for her view of the Zoom-ification of theater, Lopez made clear she favors such platforms only as a short-term, partial solution.
“The American theater has been terribly inaccessible: It’s been too expensive, white, and unwelcoming,” she said. “Zoom has made theater so much more accessible to many more people. That’s a huge benefit.”
“The downside is that Zoom is exhausting, not replenishing,” she went on. “It doesn’t fill you up the way live performance does. Audio is closer to that, because we know how to listen. I can be more easily transported through a story told to me than through watching a Zoom event.”
The bottom line as far as Lopez is concerned? “I would rather meet in people’s backyards 10 at a time than move to all-Zoom-all-the-time,” she said. “Theater is about your immediate community. It’s about the people who show up.”