Ronee Penoi, the director of artistic programming at ArtsEmerson, understands the impulse by some arts organizations to offer shows that cater to the desire of pandemic-weary audiences for “nostalgia and escapism.”
Understands, but does not share. Consequently, issues of social justice will continue to be a driving force in the 2022-2023 season announced Monday night by ArtsEmerson, a presenting and producing organization based at Emerson College.
“We really feel in this moment, given that our democracy is at stake, given so many things in the world that feel like they’re on a precipice, that this is not a time to step down from the most pressing challenges that we have,” Penoi said in an interview.
The season she mapped out with executive director David C. Howse is designed to appeal to theatergoers who are, in Penoi’s words, “looking to really have a conversation on how do we make the world a different place than the one we have now.”
Offering a mix of seven in-person shows and two virtual productions, ArtsEmerson’s season will kick off Oct. 5-16 at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre with “Drumfolk,” by the troupe Step Afrika!
Inspired by the Stono Rebellion of enslaved people in South Carolina in 1739 and the Negro Act of 1740 — which prohibited enslaved Africans from assembling in groups — “Drumfolk’' dramatizes “the moments where the drums were taken away from the enslaved Africans, where the beat moved from the drums into the body,’’ Penoi said.
Next up, Oct. 26-30 at the Emerson Paramount Center, will be acclaimed clown and actor Bill Irwin in “Bill Irwin On Beckett,” which examines a performer’s relationship to Beckett’s plays. The work incorporates excerpts from “Waiting for Godot” (in which Irwin played Vladimir on Broadway in 2009), the novel “Watt,” and the prose pieces “Texts for Nothing.”
“Bill highlights the social-justice nature of Beckett’s work, which is something that is not often talked about,” said Penoi. “He’s really bringing a different kind of lens to an artist that many of us think we know well.”
Nov. 4-6 and Nov. 17-20, ArtsEmerson will present “Theatre for One: We Are Here,” a virtual production of six short solo plays written and performed by theater artists from Nairobi, Kenya.
“Made in China 2.0,” to be staged in the Paramount Center Feb. 1-12, straddles “the line between a pop-culture lecture and dramatic performance,” according to press materials. The solo show features experimental director Wang Chong, who chronicles his experiences creating theater in China and worldwide while underscoring that stories, not just products, are “made in China.”
Manual Cinema, the innovative, Chicago-based performance collective behind such earlier ArtsEmerson offerings as “Ada/Ava” and “The End of TV,” offers its take on “Frankenstein” Feb. 22-26 at the Paramount Center. Using more than 500 puppets as well as live actors and film, this version of Mary Shelley’s classic gothic tale “leans into questions of otherness and belonging and a focus on Mary Shelley herself,” according to Penoi.
March 8-12, ArtsEmerson will present a virtual production titled “Cointelshow: A Patriot Act.” Built on documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, it’s a political satire of an FBI-run domestic counterintelligence program that was deployed against the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King Jr., and the American Indian Movement.
French director-choreographer Raphaëlle Boitel, the force behind the darkly entrancing “When Angels Fall,” has teamed up with Julien Couzy for “Shadows Cast.” Slated to be at the Paramount Center March 30-April 2, the work combines circus, cinema, and dance (”It has a Lynchian, Hitchcock vibe,” Penoi said) as it examines intergenerational trauma through the prism of the family unit.
When Penoi was appointed last year to her post at ArtsEmerson, she told the Globe that her Laguna Pueblo and Cherokee heritage has and would inform her approach to theater and the stories she seeks to tell. “And So We Walked,” on which Penoi previously worked as tour producer, will be the first ArtsEmerson production to have the experience of Indigenous people as its primary focus.
Scheduled for April 26-30 at the Paramount Center, “And So We Walked’' is a narrative re-creation by Cherokee actress-activist-writer DeLanna Studi of the six-week, 900-mile journey she and her father took along the Trail of Tears, retracing the path traveled by her great-great-grandparents during the forced relocation of Cherokee from their homelands in the 1830s.
“It will be a wonderful introduction to the ways in which Indigenous history is relevant to every Bostonian,” said Penoi. “It brings the past into the present, and challenges us to think about who writes our stories, and, really, the question of what do we owe each other.”
Closing out the season May 17-23 at the Paramount Center will be nora chipaumire’s “Nehanda.” It’s a musical performance that seeks to illuminate Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle by exploring the legend of Nehanda, a powerful ancestral spirit who is revered by the Shona people and is believed to speak only through female mediums.
“Everything about this piece, while it is rooted in Zimbabwe’s history and nora’s personal history, couldn’t feel more relevant to today’s moment,” said Penoi.