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THEATER FEATURE New York theater gets political
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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For the first time in two years, I was in New York City recently to see some theater. I chose three highly political hot-button shows: Slave Play on Broadway, and Soft Power and Heroes of the Fourth Turning Off-Broadway. All three are wonderfully staged and provocative, with two likely to receive future local Chicago productions ( vs. commercial tours ). One, however, may not have showbiz "legs."

Slave Play ( on Broadway, at the John Golden Theatre ) is by self-described Afro-Queer author Jeremy O. Harris, directed by Afro-Queer artist, Robert O'Hara ( whose plays Barbeque and Booty Candy were seen at Straw Dog Theatre and Windy City Playhouse respectively ). Harris briefly attended The Theatre School at DePaul University and appeared at Steppenwolf once before hitting the Yale School of Drama. Slave Play opens with three explicit scenes of sexual domination on an Ante-Bellum plantation: white male/black female slave, white mistress/black male slave and white indentured servant/black slave, both male. These titillating scenes have moments both comic and violent, but folks who've watched porn—gay or straight—won't find them shocking.

They soon yield to the play's main situation, a sex therapy program for contemporary mixed race couples, for whom Ante-Bellum antics were the Day Four exercise. Slave Play devotes the bulk of its two hours ( without intermission ) to a lively, extremely thoughtful, emotional and surprisingly frank discussion of the psycho-sexual nature of mixed race relationships, which Harris correctly maintains cannot be separated from America's history of slavery and race dominance ( by extension, all slave-based or colonial societies as indicated by one white character being British ). The subject is complex, fraught and layered and seeing Slave Play once is insufficient to extract full value from it.

Nonetheless, one would have to be in denial not to respond to specific, well made points. I reacted particularly when the black gay lover observed how one individual in a relationship often is regarded as "the prize." This resonated based on my own relationship histories, although it was unconscious and never verbalized. I found it a universal beyond gay or straight and even beyond sexual aspects. Consider the "Golden Child" of Chinese culture or the "My son, the doctor" stereotype of Jewish mothers.

For me, this confirmed the universality of Harris' play, even though his specifics are drawn from race-based situations. However, another theater critic attending Slave Play with me could not separate the concept of "the prize" from her own experiences as a black woman. I thought the play was broad, she found it specific. The play also resonated with me because I've been in an Asian/white relationship for 24 years, which is easier ( I think ) than a black/white mix. Still, Slave Play focuses only on the black/white mix, so in that respect the play is entirely specific where I might have wished it universal. Slave Play, quite obviously, offers a lot to chew over.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning ( off Broadway, at Playwrights Horizons through Nov. 17 ) is a controversial breakthrough for author Will Arbery, who intelligently presents conservative political views. Scarier than Slave Play, it reveals a community few of us know exists; one of conservative Catholics in semi-rural Wyoming, organized around a parochial college teaching survival skills along with academics and theology. Arbery grew up in such an environment before rejecting its views. His five characters represent views ranging from true Christian conservatism to extreme ideology which blends religiosity ( vs. true faith ), right wing paranoia and fringe socio-historical theories ( the "Fourth Turning" of the title; look it up ) predicting imminent chaos.

Late in the play we meet the newly inaugurated, middle aged college president who is the voice of reasonable conservatism. Earlier, we meet three former students, now 28, who've returned for the ceremony. One is the prexy's daughter, painfully ailing from an unspecified illness. Another is a lost soul—literally—binge drinking to dull his raging horniness and emotional isolation. The third student is the extremist, whom Arbery makes the most impassioned, prodigious orator of the bunch, and a looker. The final character, 38, is the post-inaugural party host; a former military assassin who teaches riding and survival at the college. Never without a gun or knife, he speaks least and threatens most.

Arbery presents the various shades of political black and white without comment. He does not discredit his characters' positions ( any more than they may discredit themselves ), which is why the play is difficult for some observers to accept. His characters exhibit various degrees of confidence, self-awareness, dissolution, questioning of faith and longing in realistic and believable ways, especially as performed by a powerful Playwrights Horizons' cast under director Danya Taymor.

The production boasts an oddly strong physical setting: the host's backyard, 11 p.m.-1 a.m., illuminated only by light spilling from the backdoor and window. We never see faces clearly in bright light. The characters comment on the brilliant stars, but the skyscape is black. Are these characters points of light surrounded by misguided American darkness? Or have their benighted views isolated them in a black universe? See Heroes of the Fourth Turning and decide.

I'm quite sure that Slave Play and Heroes of the Fourth Turning will receive Chicago productions some time, but probably not Soft Power ( off Broadway, at Public Theatre through Nov. 17 ). This musical has book and lyrics by David Henry Hwang ( M. Butterfly, Chinglish, Yellow Face ) and music and lyrics by Jeanine Tesori ( Fun Home, Caroline or Change ). It's a funny, clever, liberal, dynamic Off-Broadway hit; but it's also 80% political satire, which tends to have a short shelf life.

As in Yellow Face ( seen locally at Silk Road Rising ), Hwang himself is a character in Soft Power, puzzling out his Chinese identity vs. his American identity via an elaborate structure. Shortly before the 2016 election, a Shanghai entrepreneur commissions Hwang to write a Broadway musical for the Chinse market. When Hwang says the producer's storyline isn't suitable for Broadway treatment, the producer observes that America should be more Chinese, not the other way around. When Hillary loses in the Electoral College, Hwang calls it "The day that democracy broke my heart." Soon after, recovering from a street attack ( Hwang really was attacked in 2015 ), Hwang fantasizes the entire musical.

In Hwang's fantasy, the Shanghai producer becomes the hero and meets Hillary, who campaigns at McDonalds with servers on roller skates. When Hillary loses—the Act I finale is "Why Do I Cry for America?"—the USA is subsumed by China and becomes more Chinese with disastrous consequences for politics and musicals. The Hwang character finally declares in favor of his American identity, and Soft Power ends with a theatrical but genuine plea, "I Believe in Democracy."

Tesori's wonderful pastiche score is a respectful but playful homage to American popular music: R&B, hip-hop, big band ( the McDonalds number ), ballads, even Aaron Copeland's "Hoedown," with Sam Pinkleton's choreography following suit. The large orchestra ( 22 pieces ) delightfully features a full string section. As Hwang, the truly wonderful Francis Jue dazzles with his ever-alert energy, just as he did at the Goodman Theatre in King of the Yees two years ago. Leigh Silverman directed Soft Power, using an all-Asian cast who don blond wigs to play American characters and chorus.

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