Theater companies plan their seasons months, even years in advance. But on North Texas stages the past month and in coming months, drama after drama suddenly seems pointedly relevant, even provocative. Local All Things Considered host Justin Martin sat down with Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks to find out why audiences have been talking about these plays. Our extended conversation:
Jerome, you saw the play, The Christians, last month at the Dallas Theater Center. It was about the pastor of a megachurch having a change of heart – and splitting his congregation, splitting his marriage. You told me director Joel Ferrell had a terrific cast, especially Chamblee Ferguson in the lead role, but what surprised you was what happened after the play.
After a show, theaters often hold ‘talk back’ sessions with audience members, and having dropped in on some, I tend to skip them. The questions from theatergoers tend to be predictable but also, the actors have been trained to bounce the question back to the questioner, to encourage discussion — “That’s a great question. How do you feel about it?” — which means we’re not going to hear much that’s revelatory from the actors themselves.
But in this case, after this performance of The Christians, some thirty people stayed, all ages, men and women, white and black. That’s not the usual attendance at these things. And after the session got going, people even stopped asking the actors questions and started up their own little debates in the seats.
The Christians, as its title implies, is about faith, what it means to be a Christian, and that isn’t often explored in contemporary theater. So quite a few churchgoers seemed to be there, and they were really interested in the entire topic. But their discussions went well beyond quoting Scripture.
Theater Center artistic director Kevin Moriarty explains: “Our audience responded to The Christians as a post-Trump election play. It’s not what the writer meant, it’s not why we picked the play. And absolutely the conversation went there regularly in the post-show engagement and repeatedly in emails and letters: How does a family, how does a community, how does a nation hold together when we see fundamental beliefs in such incredibly opposite ways?”
So you’re saying local stage shows, plays like ‘The Christians’ that really have nothing do with President Trump’s election – now seem to be saying something about Trump?
Exactly. Now, that’s partly because President Trump and Republican leaders have targeted so many things for aggressive change: healthcare, education, immigration, deregulation, NATO, the environment. In our highly politicized atmosphere of Trump-all-the-time, some plays were bound to be newly relevant. In January, for instance, Second Thought Theatre presented Grounded, a drama about a female drone pilot, and although President Obama was severely criticized (by many liberals, for one) for pursuing al-Qaeda and ISIS leaders this way, the fact is our use of drone strikes had been dwindling the past year.
Within 48 hours of his inauguration, President Trump ordered his first drone strike in Yemen. And of course, he has declared his intention of seriously ramping up our military efforts against “radical Islamic terrorists.” So Grounded had this whole new impact onstage – this wasn’t the recent past, it wasn’t just happening now. It’s our immediate future.
But these supposed political reflections in these plays – you’ve said they weren’t really planned. All the seasons had been laid out well before November.
True. They weren’t planned. But I’ve come to see this as an accidental advantage of what you might call ‘slow art.’ So much of the media, the internet, the art world, we’re all in the same frenzy, keeping up with the latest scandal or tweet or innovation. What’s this mean? What are the ramifications? Art groups or news outlets, we’re terrified of losing people’s attention, losing those younger eyeballs, losing relevance without that now, now, now. Whatever the White House said last week is already forgotten.
But as the poet Ezra Pound put it, art is news that stays news. And art forms like theater, museum exhibitions, operas, they are all still handmade. They take shape on a long-term schedule that doesn’t usually gain news-cycle immediacy. Adrian Hall, the former artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center and an Artist Spotlight profile, has often said that the time it takes to write, rehearse, stage and perform a drama hasn’t changed in more than two thousand years.
But sometimes, by the time a season rolls around and a play gets up onstage, events have electro-charged it. Along comes an antique, a 60-year-old play, for instance, Inherit the Wind, which the Theater Center will present in May —
That’s the account of the famous Scopes ‘Monkey’ trial — right? The teaching of evolution vs. fundamentalism back in the 1920s?
Right. The big face-off between renowned defense attorney Clarence Darrow and former progressive presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan over the Book of Genesis. And of course, that evolution debate’s still going on, the terms have just morphed into creationism or intelligent design, but the push to get them back into public schools remains, especially in conservative Southern states like Texas.
But in today’s hothouse political atmosphere, the original play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee that debuted in Dallas in 1955 has gained an even wider resonance. It’s the entire idea of employing science in political frays, biased science in partisan arguments, like the entire, high-stakes war over global warming. Which facts do you believe?
False equivalencies are constantly exploited in such politicized science — if there’s any sliver of doubt, isn’t that a good thing, isn’t doubt what science is all about? Which, ironically, is much the same argument Drummond, the Darrow figure in ‘Inherit the Wind,’ employs against the ‘inerrancy’ of the Bible: If a crack of doubt exists, then the fundamentalist argument comes apart because it has to defend itself on science’s terms.
Something of the same holds with Galileo – the 70-year-old play by Bertolt Brecht currently being given a very handsomely-designed production at the Undermain Theatre.
Another battle over science vs. religion!
Right, but actually, it’s not that simple, although that’s the way many people want to see it. In the 16th century, Galileo used the new invention of the telescope and saw that other planets had their own moons, the heavens weren’t perfect, the earth revolved around the sun. All of which defied traditional teachings.
Here’s Bruce Dubose as Galileo defending himself before Church authorities: “For 2000 years, we’ve been looking at the sky, we didn’t see the four moons of Jupiter, and there they were, all the time! Why defend shaken teachings? You should be doing the shaking!”
So we in the audience congratulate ourselves for being post-Enlightenment, for siding with this heroic, defiant man of science speaking out against blinkered minds and entrenched superstitions. But typical of Brecht’s re-writing habits, he actually changed his ideas about Galileo several times over the course of writing Galileo, and the play reflects that. I’ve never seen a production – including this one directed by Katherine Owens – that truly manages to get a handle on the man.
Brecht re-wrote and co-wrote this version in 1947, not only with the great actor Charles Laughton but – because Laughton didn’t know German and Brecht’s English wasn’t great – with the help of two young writers Laughton hired from MGM, Brainerd Duffield and Emerson Crocker. And all of this happened soon after America dropped the atomic bomb. Brecht considered Hiroshima and Nagasaki monstrosities. Upholding science as a greater good got a serious case of radiation poisoning.
So that’s why, towards the end of the play, the aging, beaten-down Galileo suddenly delivers this odd speech – it seems to come out of nowhere – about his deep fears that science may eventually unleash horrors. But this is the same science we’ve just seen him defend over his entire intellectual life. What, in the play, would suddenly cause him to fear such consequences? Nothing is ever mentioned.
What’s more, Galileo himself originally appears as a classic Brechtian survivor – like Mother Courage, like Mack the Knife. He’s not entirely heroic and noble but admirable in his tenacity and wiliness. He eludes the Catholic Church’s Inquisition, defies it, tries to work around it to continue his experiments and writings. But then he caves in and recants. He is this almost Falstaffian life force of eating and drinking and thinking and testing and doubting, yet he comes to berate himself as a coward. What are we to make of such a character?
The Inquisition. That’s right. This is also a play about a man facing torture – which is also kind of relevant these days.
Tragically, yes. During his campaign, Donald Trump boasted of bringing back waterboarding – “and worse things.” He supposedly changed his mind after General James Mattis convinced him torture didn’t produce reliable results. But that change of mind has been seriously disputed.
In her pre-show curtain speech at the Undermain, director Owens expressly pointed to Brecht’s relevance today in terms of immigration and the international refugee crisis. Brecht fled Nazi Germany in 1933, eventually making his way to America. We took him in, Owens said. A point of pride, an anti-Trumpian openness. But she could have added yet another ironic, relevant wrinkle to our current immigration crackdown: Brecht also fled America.
Five weeks before Charles Laughton’s debut on Broadway in Galileo in 1947, Brecht was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, along with a host of other Hollywood writers. Before the committee, he dissembled, joked and mumbled, pretending not to understand what was being said – not unlike Galileo before the Inquisition. In fact, Brecht later also berated himself for being a coward.
And the day after his appearance, the playwright took a train to New York, checked on the Broadway production and promptly flew Air France to Paris, never to return to the U.S.
History keeps catching up with us, no matter how fast our modern world spins. Consider Jubilee Theatre’s current show, Thurgood. It’s about the great black civil rights attorney and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Without having to spell out a single thing, the play, just by its subject, reminds us of what a difference a choice for the Supreme Court can mean. But when I talked with Bill Ray, Jubilee’s artistic director, he also said he longs for the day when Thurgood really is history, really is in the past.
Because an issue like denying black Americans the right to vote? That’s still current. That still stings.