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Some Dramatic Insight . . .

Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page B02

Okay. It's 3 a.m. Lying on the sofa, you've drifted off into some flighty dream listening to the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air . . . only to be jolted awake by the static scream of the television set. If you remember nights like that, chances are you also remember losing your patience while trying to make an urgent call on a rotary phone.

From UHF to satellite, VHF to Direct TV, the technological advances have been phenomenal, but they have accompanied a disturbing trend -- the evolution of the media as purveyors of entertainment rather than news, as investigators into celebrity lives rather than into current events.

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These changes leave me guessing what we will encounter in the next decades. Perhaps we will have put aside those 3-D glasses in favor of personal LCDs that will allow us to view news clips (indistinguishable from fiction) just centimeters from our eyes while riding the subway; or maybe we'll catch "click-a-flicks" in which one click of a ballpoint pen will project the latest blockbuster hit (with real politicians and celebrities morphed into the leading roles) onto any surface. Or should we look beyond PlayStation and Xbox and see that our obsession with gang violence, carjackings, presidential assassinations and sex is just the vulgar precursor to affective computer games that will make us feel as if we really are invading malls and churches or attacking public transportation systems as suicide bombers?

As the media that once assumed the responsibility for educating and informing us devolve into mere entertainment, we shall, ironically, find ourselves looking to one of the oldest forms of entertainment -- theater -- to educate and inform us. What will be essential then will be to develop theater that does not yield to special effects in an effort merely to amuse but takes us places where we often do not want to go, the places of our most intimate personal fears and not just fear-fueled fantasies.

It is in the political and social arena that the theater will thrive, tackling 2020's versions of the Columbine massacre, 9/11 and the Iraq war and compensating for the failings of our sources of news and information. We've seen this trend already, beginning with the works of playwrights Adrienne Kennedy and Ed Bullins in the 1960s and '70s and more recently with August Wilson, Kia Corthorn, David Hare and Tony Kushner.

How will theater compete with the technologically driven media? Hip-hop moguls like Russell Simmons have already brought that genre as far as Broadway, expanding theater's boundaries. That's promising. At any rate, let's hope the stage can resist the cravings to pry into individuals' personal lives by creating reality theater. Let's hope we won't be inviting audiences to "go backstage and witness the uncensored drama" where the greenroom, the egos and the insecurities would all be put on display.

Most likely, I think, is that, in a world where the news media will have been given over entirely to shock programming, theater will provide an essential forum for tackling the affairs of our nation. And there's no denying that current affairs are as dramatic as ever before. Theater may draw back the curtain to focus on the essential issues.

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By Javon Johnson, the author of 11 plays, including "Breathe" and "Hambone."

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