NEW YORK — We assembled in a large circle, 90 or so, in a small theater on Midtown Manhattan’s far west side. An actress assuming the role of group leader took us through a series of activities, culminating in an earsplitting interlude that shook me with its unexpected ferocity.
The audience on this Thursday in mid-December complied with uncommon vigor. The shrieks — high-pitched, anguished — felt as if they might bring the ceiling of the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre down upon us.
The context for this unleashing was supplied by the evening’s performance piece, “What to Send Up When It Goes Down,” Aleshea Harris’s bracingly potent memorial to black men and women killed by police. And it was apparent from the collective volume that the subject was striking a nerve with everyone — black, white, Asian, Latino — who passed into the theater from a lobby papered with photos of African American shooting victims.
I couldn’t bring myself to join the scream, as much as I might have wanted to: I remained roped off in my own mental space, as a professional observer. But the activity struck me as a vocalization of what I’ve been sensing in theaters all year: a potential for imminent explosion, wrought by the grappling with injustices that make many onlookers want to, well, scream.
The attendant anger and sorrow have been festering in topical pieces of all kinds, both plays and musicals, on Broadway and well beyond. “What to Send Up When it Goes Down” — produced by Movement Theatre Company, an activism-minded troupe showcasing artists of color — made one of the more direct appeals to audiences’ outrage: Just before we entered the theater, our actress-leader instructed us politely but firmly that what we were about to witness was chiefly for African American theatergoers. It was the sort of pre-show declaration I doubt my fellow attendees — the majority of them not black, as it happened — had heard before. It was certainly new in my experience. But it deterred no one from entering.
Other shows over the past several months have been transforming the troubled state of the world into both immersive and more conventional dramas, with opposition to intolerance of racial minorities, of gays and lesbians, of immigrants the unifying focus. Space always exists in a theater season for works of conscience, but this year feels different.
At St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, “The Jungle” is nightly dropping playgoers smack dab in the middle of a refugee camp — in this case, the tent city that rose in Calais, France, in 2015, as migrants from Africa and Asia desperately waited to cross the English Channel to safe haven in Britain.
Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play,” meantime, at the New York Theatre Workshop, is offering some of the most stunning — even enraging, to some — theatricality of the year.
The subject of this disruptive production, staged with sophisticated irreverence by Robert O’Hara, is revealed only by degree. But it ultimately uncovers the pain and dislocation of three black characters who have relinquished emotional control to their white lovers. Harris’s provocative construct has each of the couples participating in an outlandish, even grotesque, type of therapy requiring them to wear pre-Civil War costumes and perform sexualized, slave-master improvisations. The scathing ritual is both a satire of the limits of therapy and academic investigation and, ultimately, a dissection of an ancient ache buried far more deeply than modern psychology can reach.
Judging from some of the upset reactions on social media — many from people who have not seen it — “Slave Play” can be misinterpreted as wickedly disrespecting black history. Its real subject is how little comfortable space even the most welcoming corners of the white world create for people of color. Harris’s wonderfully outrageous theatrical style, though, may be more disturbing than some theatergoers can tolerate. And those ticket buyers might be better off at a safer play on the subject, such as Broadway’s earnest “American Son,” at the Booth Theatre, which ties up the delicate topic of race in the conventional bows of melodrama.
“American Son,” written by Christopher Demos-Brown and directed by Kenny Leon, is set in a police station on a rainy night, when Kendra (played by Kerry Washington) arrives, frantically seeking word about her missing teenage son. A white cop (Jeremy Jordan) isn’t particularly helpful until the teen’s white father, an ex-FBI agent (Steven Pasquale), shows up and demands answers. What follows is, essentially, a well-made episode of a type you’ve seen on any number of procedural crime programs, with a predictably tense climax and ripped-from-the-headlines awareness of the importance of Black Lives Matter.
Unlike a piece such as “What to Send Up When It Goes Down,” which actually confronts nonblack audience members with the features of a culture that has validated ignorance and has tacitly encouraged violence against blacks, “American Son” merely uses the “facts” of a horrific police act to trigger sympathetic responses. It’s not an unworthy impulse, as bringing to light the terrible events Kendra has to deal with is a matter this country needs to contemplate every day. It’s just that Demos-Brown’s approach feels worn out, just as hand-wringing on cable news these days is inadequate to the enormity and intractability of the country’s racial problems.
You don’t, of course, want to have to scream every time you’re faced with theater that asks you to open your heart to the plight of the oppressed, a belief borne out by another show currently on Broadway that attacks narrow-mindedness with sugar. “The Prom,” a sweet, razzmatazzy musical confection by Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar, and directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, follows the madcap exploits of a group of dizzy Broadway musical-theater types who come to the aid of a gay high school student in Indiana who’s being banned from her prom.
In this case, a throwback vehicle — with a cast led by the deliciously self-dramatizing Brooks Ashmanskas, Beth Leavel and Christopher Sieber — has been reformulated giddily for the political prescriptions of right now. And the affirmational aspects of New York City misfits coming to the rescue of a Midwestern lesbian spread a refreshingly joyous spirit over the proceedings.
“The Prom’s” commentary on the aftershocks of prejudice is on the opposite end of an emotional spectrum from “What to Send Up When It Comes Down.” For the most part these days, I do feel like screaming. But I also have to believe that I am still occasionally able to laugh.