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View From the Edge of a Cliff 

The pertinence of theater and identity politics in perilous times

Thursday, Feb 5 2004
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Illustration by Jeremy Traum

While regional theaters like South Coast Rep and the Taper deserve credit for all the resources they have marshaled on behalf of American theater, they must be called to account for the ways they now work at cross-purposes with the progressive stance they claim as their own, and in unsettling concordance with values they oppose.

Through its narrow focus on issues of diversity and identity politics, the progressive wing of the American theater has forged a new kind of play — the anti-bias play. In the anti-bias play, which has been endlessly developed and produced over the past two decades, the pre–civil rights mantra “I’m different, so I must be bad” is replaced by its opposite, “I’m different, so I must be good,” and a postscript is typically added: “Those who disagree are evil.”

While this kind of heavy-handed self-righteousness may have been necessary to slice through the thickets of overt prejudice that darkened American history up through the ’70s, it looks unwieldy and simplistic, post 9/11. Furthermore, it’s exactly the kind of rhetorical overkill committed by the right in its own efforts to undercut the social gains of the last 50 years.

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Tony Kushner is probably America’s favorite anti-bias playwright. Line for line, Kushner’s plays seem always impatient for theater to be doing something. Rather than respect what theater already does, Kushner piles on important agendas. As a result, his plays don’t age well. Reviewing the HBO production of Angels in America in the December 29 issue of The New Republic, for example, Lee Siegel makes the case that the play “was already dated when its first curtain rose.” Its initial impact during the AIDS crisis, Siegel believes, had more to do with sociology than art.

“The play was so affirmative, so much more broadly appealing than, say, Larry Kramer’s polemics,” Siegel writes. “For many people, it was not so much a piece for theater as proof that theater still existed. It really didn’t matter that Kushner’s play had almost no artistic merit. The play did not produce a catharsis through art. It was a catharsis, and thus could dispense with the complicated business of trying to make art.”

Siegel’s critique may or may not represent a crack in the Hoover Dam of Kushner’s reputation. It seems clear, however, that two decades of the superficial advocacy Siegel decries have worked against, rather than in furtherance of, a progressive social and political agenda. By now, the deceptively clear delineations of identity politics have been encoded into the organizational charts of leading development theaters, including the Taper and South Coast Rep. While workshops set up along ethnic lines make sense as affirmative action, the danger is that the reductive dramaturgy of the anti-bias play will seep into new work as it forms. Once the Us-vs.-Them psychological categories of the anti-bias model have been accepted, a playwright can proclaim progressive themes all he or she wants, but the results will generally lend their weight to a conservative agenda.

This is because, if we look beneath the surface, we begin to encounter a disturbing concurrence between the worldview of the anti-bias play and the ego-driven, Us-vs.-Them world of George W. Bush. Yes, the anti-bias plays repeat, there is evil in the world. And we know where it is (over there) and where it isn’t (in here).

By contrast, the plays of Caryl Churchill and Wallace Shawn, not to mention the recent work of Harold Pinter or Edward Albee, are rooted in a postwar European aesthetic that migrated to American stages in the off-off-Broadway movement. Having arisen in direct response to the horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, this mode of making theater is fueled by a recognition that evil is not out there in some hateful Other, but here, interwoven into each of us in such a way that we share responsibility for its expression in the world. The self, in other words, is viewed not as something nobly separate from a hostile world but as a possible cause of whatever is amiss. And this has implications for the forms art may take, as well as for its content. Now that we Americans have given birth to our own proto-fascists, this aesthetic shows new relevance to our lives.

 

Ghosts of the 1960s haunt both sides of the political divide in America today. The clique of conservatives in control in Washington is exacting revenge for the humiliations dished out to them as the uncool crowd circa 1969. Brazenly expropriating the favorite symbols of the counterculture, they search for Vietnam Wars we can actually win (this time as “liberators”). They dismantle the social safety net in the name of individual choice. They oppose abortion by defending the “rights” of the unborn. Karl Rove talks openly about resurrecting the highly stratified America of the McKinley era, a society few Americans would even recognize, let alone choose. And still, at least until recently, the left has been in a quiescent mood, the better to savor, in perpetuity, the great moral victories of 1969.

Yet theater remains full of subversive potential. The simple act of speaking before an audience from a different place or time never fails to raise unsettling questions about the received nature of reality. Theater artists as diverse as Susan-Lori Parks and Caryl Churchill understand and respect this inherently subversive quality, and their plays exist to frame it, like the setting of a jewel. Consequently, there’s never a sense, while watching Parks or Churchill, that the identities they put front and center exist for them as territory to exploit.

Churchill’s Far Away, for example (currently playing at the Odyssey Theater), opens with a sleepless child asking her mother a series of progressively more disturbing questions about what she has just witnessed in the yard outside. With poetic economy, Churchill lets a darkness from offstage fill each of the pauses between the child’s questions, and it’s shocking for us to recognize that this darkness has a familiar feel. Watching Far Away, we find ourselves fervently wishing the world it describes were more different from our own. Poetic techniques like Churchill’s are what make theater a nontrivial activity, allowing for expressions of authentic vulnerability onstage.

In the age of the Patriot Act, the rhetorical conveniences of the battle against bias have devolved into serious encumbrances. By adopting a set of superficial artistic values, we cede the rhetorical high ground to the Tom DeLays and Newt Gingriches of our world. Today, while the left struggles for rhetorical traction, the GOP is deftly maneuvering the American middle class toward the edge of a very high cliff. When the middle class finally emerges from its stupor and sees clearly what has taken place, protest may no longer be welcome. If the right is successful, we will already be living in a world in which anyone can be labeled a terrorist, and on the strength of that labeling be stripped of basic rights previously thought inalienable. It will be unpleasant to discover how many of us will play along, despite how often we have wondered what could have possessed those good Germans.

Guy Zimmerman is a playwright and artistic director of Padua Playwrights.

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