Theater & dance

Critic’s Notebook | Theater

What’s the role of theater in this time of Trump?

Ryan Huddle for The Boston Globe

For the hosts and writers of late-night TV comedy shows as well as the anchors and producers of hyperkinetic cable-news programs, President Trump is the gift that keeps on giving.

But what about theater? What is the role of playwrights when confronted with an unprecedented figure like Trump and the overheated political environment he has generated?

Last weekend brought the premiere in Los Angeles of “Building the Wall,’’ a drama by Robert Schenkkan inspired by Trump’s immigration policies. Schenkkan — who won a Tony Award for “All the Way,’’ about an earlier US president, Lyndon B. Johnson — has said he wrote the new play in a “white-hot fury,’’ in only one week.


That represents an unusually speedy turnaround in the world of theater, which typically is a slow-gestating art form, its seasons mapped out well in advance. Should theater now shift into a higher gear to bring more new works to audiences at a time when there is an urgent need to hear the voices of playwrights?

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When I posed that question to several dramatists, the answer was, perhaps surprisingly, no. (They were considering the issue broadly, so their answers shouldn’t be seen as referring to “Building the Wall.’’) In their view, theater’s job at this fraught moment is to help us figure out who we are as a nation, and that doesn’t necessarily mean churning out plays that respond quickly and directly to Trump. Instead, playwrights should carefully and methodically construct a counter-narrative that rebuts the story Trump tells about America. Alternative facts, if you will.

“Right now, satire and comedy are having a ball, but there are people who are going to suffer,’’ playwright-performer Anna Deavere Smith said in a telephone interview. “No matter how many things are done on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ no matter how many op-ed pieces are written, not many of us feel that we understand this. A play has a chance to bring more sense to us, and to help us in a deeper way.’’

Smith said that theater can play a vital role in the present-tense conversation about Trump, but she maintained that there is also “some value to hindsight,’’ adding that dramas fully explaining this political-cultural moment “could be 10 years out, 20 years out.’’

Or perhaps they were written 10 or 20 years ago. “I don’t think it’s the job of theater to respond to current events,” Boston playwright-actress Melinda Lopez (“Mala,’’ “Becoming Cuba’’) said by e-mail. “Of course it is the job of theater artists to be awake and responsive, but it’s not about what’s ‘ripped from the headlines.’ There are half a dozen plays that speak to where we are right now but they were written last year or centuries ago. They seem prescient, but the writers are simply looking around them, writing what they see in every age.’’


Lopez points to Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,’’ a drama currently on Broadway about blue-collar workers in a fading Pennsylvania factory town, and “Miss You Like Hell,’’ a musical (with a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, author of the Pulitzer-winning “Water by the Spoonful’’) about a Mexican immigrant who struggles to reconcile with her daughter and gain US citizenship while facing the threat of deportation. Those two new works, noted Lopez, “seem like ‘responses to Trump’ but are in fact about far more worthy (and universal) topics.’’

Similarly, Smith cites her own documentary drama “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education,’’ an examination of the civil rights issues arising from the “school-to-prison pipeline’’ in poor communities that was presented at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater last year. Though she was working on it well before the 2016 election, it now resonates, Smith said, as “a call to action’’ because it puts distinctive faces on “the people who will suffer in a Trump administration.’’

In general, theater is unable to match the rapid-response capability of television: “Saturday Night Live,’’ Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers. Even sitcoms like ABC’s “black-ish’’ and dramas like CBS All Access’s “The Good Fight’’ have moved quickly to incorporate Trump’s election into story lines. A wide range of musical artists have already had something to say, including Snoop Dogg, who created an uproar with a music video that shows him firing a fake pistol at a clown dressed like Trump (a flag with the word “Bang’’ comes out of the gun, and the Trump character is later seen in chains).

Playwrights who want to create work of lasting value could write dramas that tell the stories — in all their complex individuality — of those whom Trump has disparaged or who may bear the brunt of his policies: immigrants, Muslims, women, racial minorities, the disabled, the poor. According to a review in The Hollywood Reporter, Schenkkan’s “Building the Wall’’ is set in 2019 and explores the deadly consequences for immigrant detainees in a private prison system after martial law was declared following a terrorist attack in Times Square.

Playwrights could also create dramas that are rooted in the lives of the alienated white working-class voters who formed a major part of Trump’s base, and attempt to understand the forces that animate them. Whatever stories dramatists choose to tell, they can leverage theater’s singular status as a narrative art form that makes a direct connection to live audiences, offering a kind of two-way conversation that neither TV nor film can match.


Strikingly, none of the four playwrights and one theater executive I spoke with said that targeting Trump directly with satire or polemical dramas would be a good use of time for contemporary playwrights. Taking the long view, they suggested, will ultimately result in work that is more penetrating, insightful, and enduring.

‘A play has a chance to bring more sense to us, and to help us in a deeper way.’

“I don’t want every theater in America to suddenly start producing anti-Trump screeds,’’ said playwright Walt McGough, author of “The Farm,’’ who lives in Waltham. “The danger is that you wind up giving a lecture instead of having a conversation. Very rarely is theater able to be that immediate catalyst for change in an audience. But it is very capable of being the stone in the shoe for an audience member: They keep thinking it over and eventually it changes the way they’re walking through the world.’’

However, the election result did prompt McGough to revise his new play, “False Flag,’’ and include references to Trump. Inspired by the far-right radio host Alex Jones, “False Flag’’ is about conspiracy theorists and the “alt-right.’’ Remarked McGough: “I had been writing about this fringe aspect of society, and all of a sudden I was writing about people who were in power in the administration.’’

Patrick Gabridge, whose plays include “Blood on the Snow,’’ which is set in the aftermath of the Boston Massacre (and will run June 1-Aug. 20 at the Old State House), acknowledged the validity of a play written purely out of an angry need to respond to injustice, but said he is “avoiding writing a Trump play right now.’’

“I’m interested in trying to take a step back, and trying to get as broad an understanding of what’s going on as possible,’’ said Gabridge, who lives in Medford. “Our role as dramatists is to get beyond the knee-jerk reaction and understand the deeper humanity of what’s making these things happen. If you write a piece of agitprop, it has value, but it also has a short lifespan, especially now, because the news cycle seems to be turning so fast. How do you write something that doesn’t seem dated?’’

He’s got a point. Nothing dates so quickly as a play written in a spirit of rage or scorn against a sitting president. When’s the last time you saw a revival of Barbara Garson’s 1967 satire “MacBird!,’’ a reworking of “Macbeth’’ in which the title character, representing Lyndon B. Johnson, engineers the murder of John Ken O’Dunc, representing John F. Kennedy? Or Gore Vidal’s 1972 “An Evening With Richard Nixon and . . .’’?

The passage of time proved beneficial to playwright Schenkkan when it came to “All the Way,’’ which dramatized LBJ’s efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After being presented at the ART four years ago, “All the Way’’ moved to Broadway and then to HBO. Will Schenkkan enjoy similar success with “Building the Wall,’’ written in the anti-Trump heat of the moment? We’ll see.

As playwrights ponder how to respond to Trump, it’s worth considering that the very existence of theater can be seen as a kind of rebuff to the new president, who clashed with the theater world even before he was sworn in (the “Hamilton’’-Mike Pence episode).

“I know there are people who will use the theater as a vehicle for mobilization, but I feel it is more like a church for the soul, for the mind,’’ said Jeff Zinn, managing director of Gloucester Stage Company. “You come out of it feeling that culture is alive, that maybe we’re renewed to fight and protest. It keeps us toned for the struggle. The struggle is one of ideas — and really engaging in ideas on a deep and complicated level, and not allowing things to be oversimplified, because that’s what Trump does.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at