THE YEAR IN ARTS 2017
Try though you might to tune it out, the braying voice of Donald J. Trump was inescapable this year.
In response, some theater companies found ways to talk back to, or about, the president. New York’s Public Theater stirred a fierce controversy with its production of “Julius Caesar,’’ featuring a Trump-like Caesar. As part of a season pointedly themed “Downfall of Despots,’’ Somerville-based Actors’ Shakespeare Project staged Eugene Ionesco’s “Exit the King,’’ about an egomaniacal ruler clinging to power amid chaos.
But another, subtler category was evident onstage this year: Namely, plays and musicals that made it their business to amplify long-disenfranchised voices. Taken in aggregate, these productions illustrated the kind of social change that is inexorably taking shape beyond the blast radius of the latest presidential Twitter tantrum.
Consider, for example, “Fun Home,’’ the very rare Broadway musical to feature a lesbian protagonist.
Presented in October by Broadway In Boston at the Boston Opera House, “Fun Home’’ delves into the complexities of gay identity while exploring a mystery embedded within its coming-of-age tale. Self-described “lesbian cartoonist’’ Alison Bechdel is depicted by three different actresses at three stages of her life: as a middle-aged woman trying to puzzle out the long-ago suicide of her closeted gay father; as a college student experiencing love for the first time with a female classmate; and as a 9-year old girl who senses that she is different in a way she can’t quite articulate.
Until she can. There were few scenes more deeply stirring this year than when the young actress Carly Gold, portraying Bechdel at age 9, stepped forward on the Opera House stage to perform “Ring of Keys.’’ The song is about the lightning bolt of self-recognition that hits Alison when she sees a butch delivery woman at a diner, and suddenly realizes she is not alone, and begins to get an inkling of who she is. Though she would not fully express it for another decade, Alison found her voice in that moment.
The power you gain when you learn to speak as your authentic self was also a theme running through “American Moor,’’ written and performed by Keith Hamilton Cobb at the Plaza Theatre in July. Cobb brought to life his experiences as an African-American actor: trying to build a career in theater while navigating through a minefield of stereotypes; steered by directors toward minor Shakespearean characters when what he wanted was to play Hamlet or Richard II; expected to gravitate toward Othello when he was deeply ambivalent about Shakespeare’s depiction of the Moorish general driven to murder by misplaced jealousy.
In one searing passage, prompted by a white director’s suggestion that he add an element of “obeisance’’ to one of Othello’s speeches, Cobb’s Actor delivers a defiant internal monologue in which he refuses to “acquiesce to [the director’s] energy’’ and denounces “all the hovering forces . . . in the world that have made you you, as they are all the same forces that have never allowed me to be me.’’ At such moments, “American Moor’’ registered as more than an account of the career challenges faced by a single actor, illuminating the web of invidious racial assumptions African-Americans must battle day to day.
Members of the transgender community, long relegated to the margins and seen primarily as tragic figures, saw a more genuine representation of their lives take center stage in “Trans Scripts, Part I: The Women,’’ a verbatim play by Paul Lucas, distilled from scores of interviews conducted around the world, that received its US premiere in January at the American Repertory Theater.
What made the play so effective was the sheer variety of its sharply individualized portraits of seven trans women who ranged in age from late 20s to 70s. Their backgrounds, personalities, and life experiences were as distinctive as they were diverse. (Though all were more down-to-earth than the transgender glam rocker from East Germany in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,’’ which roared into the Shubert Theatre in May, presented by the Boch Center.)
Beyond the specific truth of the stories the characters in “Trans Scripts’’ told about living their authentic gender identity was the larger truth that nobody fits neatly into a generic category — and nobody, the play’s title notwithstanding, follows a script.
Also determined to break free of the expectations scripted by others was Zarina, the daughter of a Pakistani immigrant, in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who and the What.’’ Under pressure from her deeply devout Muslim father, Afzal, she had previously broken off a relationship with a non-Muslim man. But then Zarina writes a book critical of what she sees as efforts within Islamic culture to “hide’’ women and stifle their voices. Zarina’s refusal to stifle her own voice triggers a showdown between her and Afzal that registers as not just familial but generational.
Members of the much-analyzed millennial generation are starting to speak for themselves, turning the experiences of their demographic cohort into the stuff of drama. The shrewdly observant “Chill,’’ written by Brookline native Eleanor Burgess and presented at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, focuses on a group of friends whom we first see during their senior year in high school and then, a decade later, adrift in uncertainty and disappointment. “I just miss the feeling that anything is possible,’’ one of them says wistfully.
Sometimes, a production acquires added layers of impact and meaning because it happens to coincide with a seismic cultural moment. That is occurring now with the all-female production of “Julius Caesar’’ by Actors’ Shakespeare Project, which ends Sunday. Directed by Bryn Boice, this “Julius Caesar’’ imagines a world in which women matter-of-factly control their own destinies — just as a torrent of daily news stories about male misbehavior make it clear how much that kind of world is needed.
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