It wasn’t Trump.
It was December 2012, and the shooting at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School so shook Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith that she almost immediately got busy, accelerating her protest mind-set and organizing a rally.
“Suzanne and I were on the train coming from New York,” Smith says of her longtime companion, Suzanne Blue Star Boy (they married in 2014), “and this came out on my feed. It was a sock to my gut.”
A month later, Smith wrote an opinion piece for The Post and led a rally on the Mall for gun control. It put the most public face she could muster on her personal activism, which she said she did “as a private citizen.”
At the same time, Smith was steering her theater toward a political identity that has sharpened dramatically over the past few seasons. John Strand’s Antonin Scalia drama “The Originalist,” Lisa Loomer’s abortion law history “Roe,” and Jacqueline E. Lawton’s Valerie Plame scandal “Intelligence” are recent marquee attractions, and just weeks after the election Smith announced Arena’s 10-year “Power Plays” program to create 25 new topical-historical plays, one set in each decade of the country’s history.
“It shows an investigation of what it means to be an American,” Smith says of the series, which had been in the works but was announced earlier than planned because of November’s unexpected election results. “That’s the time we’re in. That’s how we answered it.”
The art-activism relationship has notably heated up since President Trump’s election was met with demonstrations and an ongoing “resist” position. Yet for artists like Smith, the imperative has been rising for years to blur or erase any barrier between personal conviction and professional creativity.
Directors, dancers and musicians have been motivated by such issues as Black Lives Matter, Occupy and the 2008 financial collapse to speak personally and to shape their creations. The most direct activists believe that the times call for art that’s as explicitly connected as possible: “I’m just not interested in doing ‘Julius Caesar’ as a way of talking about contemporary problems anymore,” says Michael Dove, artistic director of Forum Theatre. (Dove said this before the fracas over the Public Theater’s Trump-as-Caesar staging in Central Park.)
Incidental activists, on the other hand, like Washington National Opera artistic director Francesca Zambello or choreographer Kyle Abraham, contend that the connections are hard-wired as part of art’s traditional role. “It’s how Aristophanes talked to society,” says Zambello, whose recent selections have included “Champion” (about a gay boxer) and the capital punishment opera “Dead Man Walking.” And sometimes political readings are inescapable, given the social moment.
“‘Activist’ is such a loaded word in some ways, or label,” says the New York-based Abraham, whose works include the topically themed dances “Absent Matter” (around Black Lives Matter) and “Untitled America” (prisons). “I make work from my perspective. As a black, gay choreographer, the work is always going to be politicized in some way.”
Mosaic Theater Company’s founding artistic director, Ari Roth, actually lost his job at Theater J battling over artistic content dealing with Israel, yet even he puts the activist label in perspective. “If I was really committed, I’d be out there working harder for change, working more on the ground and less in the theater,” Roth says. “But we who have chosen the arts love the art more than the cause. Otherwise we’d rearrange our lives.”
By committing to the art, the performance scene’s political radar has been sharpening for years. And in the nation’s capital, where until very recently political work was regarded as a tough sell, few have been as personally and professionally aggressive as Smith.
“If I were to say that any time in my personal history is anything like this time,” Smith says, “I would hark back to the 1960s and 70s, when the whole country was on fire.”
For as long as stages have existed, performers have pondered power and metaphorically stormed the palace. From bald agit-prop plays to the subtleties of dance and chamber music, here is how a variety of artists locally and nationally integrate politics and art.
Artistic Director, Arena Stage
Full-on activist. Galvanizing issue: Sandy Hook
“The march on Washington for gun control was a galvanizing turning point for me,” Smith says. “And I’m just at another level now.”
Smith, 65, grew up in an activist household, plastering JFK bumper stickers on cars in Yakima, Wash. Smith’s mother was a social worker who took part in the Operation Pedro Pan movement that helped Cuban parents resettle their children in the United States.
“When there was a problem in the community, my mother would go out with big trays of food and conversation,” Smith says. “If somebody was in the hospital, we’d be at the hospital. My sister and I were trained very young that when something is happening in your community, be part of it.”
Smith was in college when Vietnam and the women’s movement were cresting, and the Perseverance Theatre troupe she created in Juneau, Alaska, often created work that reflected local citizens’ issues and concerns. But in 1998, when Smith became the third artistic director in Arena’s history, it took time to find her voice.
“When I arrived 19 years ago talking to people about how I think political plays would go well here, people said to me, you’re crazy,” Smith recalls. Until five years ago, her particular hallmark — the shows Smith directed, and that sold well — were revivals of classic musicals.
But a different sort of ball got pushed down the hill in 2012 when Kathleen Turner starred in the solo “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” drawn from the writings of the late Texan columnist. That was followed in 2014 by “Camp David,” a dramatization of the 1978 Jimmy Carter-Anwar Sadat-Menachem Begin peace talks by reporter-turned-playwright Lawrence Wright.
If Arena seemed to be exploiting the celebrity value of politics, at least the bold-faced names pried open the door. John Strand’s 2015 “The Originalist,” about the contrarian Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, became a sensation — it returns in July as part of a Florida-California-Chicago tour — and the past two springs have been balanced political blitzes. Lynn Nottage’s working-class “Sweat” appeared in 2016 before winning the Pulitzer and triumphing in New York. And the announced 10-year flow of new “Power Plays” has begun with “Intelligence,” and with Mary Kathryn Nagle’s 1830s Cherokee Nation exploration “Sovereignty” premiering next year.
“Writers are eager to think about other time periods,” Smith says, “because people recognize that our system right now is broken in so many ways. People used to bemoan the fact that American writers weren’t writing plays about politics, yet the Brits were. For decades Americans were writing about the breakdown of the family. That’s quickly changing now.”
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions commissioning project of 37 new plays is plainly a model for Smith; begun in 2008, it can already count “Sweat,” “Roe,” “All the Way” and Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” as triumphs. But the accelerating momentum at Arena suggests that ticket buyers have responded.
“Absolutely,” Smith says. “When we started doing projects like ‘Camp David’ and ‘The Originalist’: big, raucous audiences.”
Smith quickly put her name out front after last fall’s “Hamilton” flap, when an actor in that intensely popular Broadway musical delivered a post-show speech from the stage to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who was in the audience. Trump criticized that action in a tweet — “The theater must always be a safe and special place” — which prompted a free speech essay from Smith that The Post published. Smith’s Facebook feed is almost pure activism, and she’s more than happy to lodge her own critiques of last year’s campaign coverage, unaddressed cultural misogyny and the power of January’s Women’s March.
She sees no conflict between publicly speaking her piece and conscientiously steering Washington’s busiest, most lauded theater. “I’m a citizen activist, and I’m artistic director of Arena Stage,” Smith says. “Now, do some of these areas sometimes talk to each other? Absolutely.”
Of course, there’s a school of thought that art and politics ought not mix.
“Yeah, well,” Smith laughs. “Whatever. Artists are thinking people. I also know that for some people, the arts are always on the side. We’re not. We’re right in the thick of the community. And if our job is to reflect what we see, the tenor of the times, that means we need to speak about the tenor of the times with our own authentic voices. And politics is going to be part of that.”
No You’re The Puppet Theater
Full-on activist – on the side. Galvanizing issue: climate change. “We now know we’re on some kind of self-destructive timeline. That’s the one thing that’s irreversible.”
O’Hearn, 58, has run the Pittsburgh street-theater outfit Squonk Opera for 20 years with composer Jackie Dempsey.
“She’s the Trump and I’m the Bannon of Squonk,” O’Hearn says. “She’s charismatic and I connive.”
He explains the work: “We do outdoor spectacles that are celebratory, meant to unify audiences. We’re funny, loud, flamboyant. We usually avoid storytelling, characters and plots. I’m visual and she’s a composer.” The works tend to be more abstract than literal: “It doesn’t come naturally to talk about politics. Or to talk at all.”
The election threw him for a loop, but Squonk didn’t seem the right way to respond. So O’Hearn, aided by Squonk confederates, created No You’re the Puppet, a street theater presence more than a company. Rather than putting on shows, O’Hearn’s shoulder-mounted puppet — a Trump figure that took six weeks to build — appears at rallies, like the “Tuesdays with Toomey” gatherings that began in November outside the Philadelphia office of Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey.
O’Hearn likes the speed and immediacy of responding in the street. “Our goal would be to be as non-preachy as possible as Squonk,” he says. “No You’re the Puppet is not trying to reach across the divide. We’re there to complain as much as to reach out.”
As for the company’s name, drawn from one of Trump’s debate lines with Clinton: “It was so funny,” O’Hearn says, “that somebody that old could be so puerile.”
Choreographer-dancer, Founder of Abraham.In.Motion
In January, New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella wrote a piece headlined “Kyle Abraham’s Political Choreography.” The dances by Abraham, who was 36 when he was awarded a 2013 MacArthur Foundation grant, feature what he has called a “postmodern gumbo,” and they’ve been notably topical. Yet he pushes back against that interpretation, even as he acknowledges it’s “fair to say” he’s an artist-activist.
“There are times I’m maybe wanting to work on abstract side, but people will always find political agenda,” Abraham says by phone from L.A. as his company tours. “As a black, gay American man, it’s one of those things where I’m very well aware of the advantages and disadvantages that go with those labels.”
He describes his “Dearest Home” as about love, longing and loss, but notes that a solo he made for a white male company member elicited interpretations of white guilt and gentrification — themes he hadn’t intended. “There’s no lead-up in the choreography for that,” Abraham says. “But often you’re coming to the theater with your own history and whatever perspective you’re walking in with today.”
Working with jazz composer Robert Glasper to adapt the 1960 record “We Insist! Max Roach’s ‘Freedom Now Suite,’ ” certain themes were inevitable: civil rights, the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The same goes for the 2012 “Pavement,” drawn from John Singleton’s 1991 movie “Boyz n the Hood.” Abraham describes it: “Looking at a 1991-92 urban time capsule as it relates to black culture, and bringing up conversations about what has and hasn’t changed when we have a black president.”
Events, though, cast the piece in a harsher light. “ ‘Pavement’ was made, then Trayvon Martin happened,” Abraham says, referring to the 2012 shooting by George Zimmerman that inspired Black Lives Matter. “But it’s about hundreds of thousands, millions of Trayvon Martins.”
“People will always see race in what we do,” he adds. “If I want to make a love story with two men of color, that’s going to be politicized. It shouldn’t be. It just is. But I should be able to make a love story.”
Executive Director and Founding Member, Fifth House Ensemble
Full-on activist. Driving issue: Community connections
“We wanted to engage our curiosity and the collaborative nature of chamber music to tell stories,” the 36-year-old flutist says of the 11-member Chicago ensemble that’s in its 11th season. But what began as a standard attempt to bring art into communities backfired when the group realized that simply carting concerts toward communities “absolutely didn’t work.”
By working with communities, Fifth House has learned how to meld music with pressing matters. Fifth House helped bridge gaps between Indiana’s DePauw University and its surrounding rural county with a year-long residency culminating in the concert “Harvest.” For the 2014 “Broken Text,” Fifth House partnered with Chicago’s Raven Theatre, Great Books Foundation (a literacy and social justice organization) and St. Leonard’s Ministries, which helps released prisoners transition back to freedom. The reaction, says Snoza: “More people in positions to make decisions need to see this.”
Speaking by phone from Calgary as the ensemble tours, Snoza is fervent and fluent as she speaks on a range of issues, from where minors are held in the Illinois prison system to the chronic risk of wage theft suffered by undocumented workers. “Spending time with people, learning what’s important, finding ways to tell stories to people who wouldn’t otherwise hear them,” Snoza says, “it gives us purpose.”
“There’s an upward surge,” she adds of this kind of social connectivity in classical music. “We may have been outliers at beginning. It was weird to be engaging in projects with partners who are not in the arts. We’re seeing way more of that now.”
Footnote: Snoza’s father escaped the horror of Pol Pot’s Cambodia in the 1970s, though others in his family were not as fortunate. He prefers to keep quiet about politics, while his daughter draws the opposite lesson: It’s important to speak. The clamor around immigration policy now “is a real moment for me,” Snoza says. And gratitude for this country’s freedoms, she says, “is why it’s important to be active.”
Artistic Director, Forum Theatre
Full-on activist. Galvanizing issue: Sandy Hook
When “All the Way” dramatist Robert Schenkkan swiftly finished his dystopian “Building the Wall” after Trump’s election, the D.C.-based National New Play Network organized a let’s-do-it-now “rolling world premiere” in several theaters across the country. Tall order: Theaters typically can’t alter plans mid-season.
But lately the Silver Spring troupe has been leaving a slot open precisely to be more responsive. Dove, 35, said yes right away.
Forum’s current season featured plays the company judged would still matter more than a year ago as they listened to early campaign themes. The paranoia of an Arab man in a U.S. city under terrorist attack was captured in the fall opener, “I Call My Brothers.” Spring brought two plays by and about women, “Dry Land” and “What Every Girl Should Know,” which became known as the “Nasty Women Rep.”
Dove had already decided on Steve Yockey’s “Pluto” for the 2013-14 season when the Sandy Hook shootings happened. Taking the season’s selections to his board, someone suggested that even a year later might be too soon for Yockey’s school shooting drama. Dove blew up.
“That did something to me,” says Dove, whose small troupe is as hard-charging as any in the city. After the Sandy Hook shootings, he says, “I wanted to be more pointed in the current-events focus of the work.”
Public dialogue takes center stage with Forum’s (Re)Acts series, a combination of artistic responses and audience discussion. Last summer Forum programmed an evening on the shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. The Monday after November’s election, Forum had a (Re)Acts night to process the results and look ahead.
“We talk about politics in the office a lot,” Dove says. “Social media is very helpful: We can tap into a ‘trending topic,’ not for marketing but to say this is what people actually want to talk about. If our side mission is to find new relevance in theater, I think that’s pretty key, especially in developing new audiences. They can have conversations on Facebook and Twitter, but there are few forums for physically bringing people together.”
Artistic Director, Washington National Opera
“It makes boards nervous,” Zambello, 60, says of political works. That’s a problem, she notes, because social comment on stage “is more stated now.”
In 2007, as Zambello was directing “The Little Mermaid” on Broadway for Disney, the New Yorker magazine described her as “best known for psychologically probing interpretations of the operatic repertoire.” Yet it seems that political titles have been on the uptick, with “The Dictator’s Wife” on the WNO slate earlier this season and the new “hip-hopera” “Stomping Grounds” (by Victor Simonson and D.C.’s up-and-coming Paige Hernandez) this summer at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y., which Zambello has run since 2010.
All that was programmed some time ago, Zambello notes. She contends that her political radar has always been attuned and that even the classics (“The Marriage of Figaro,” “Nabucco” and “Madame Butterfly” are her ready examples) frequently ripple with renewable social issues.
If the balance recently tipped toward more contemporary matters, Zambello believes it happened in 2008 — not with the election of Barack Obama but with the nation’s financial meltdown. The crisis torpedoed some arts organizations and left others shaken. Everyone’s goal, she says, was “to figure out how to survive.” Programming like an archivist felt like a route to irrelevance.
Making the repertoire topical is difficult when signing contracts three or four years into the future, so Zambello champions timeless virtues. Great pieces find new ways to speak to us, social dilemmas don’t change, and “music gives you a way to speak to profound subjects in a primal way.”
Yet Zambello does not tiptoe around the political climate, nor does she wave off material composed with a fresh eye on turbulent times. These days, she says, “We all are just thinking more about content.”
Full-on activist. Galvanizing issue: Identity
“I feel like every generation has a cause they have to fight,” says Ijames (pronounced I-yams). Police shootings of black men, along with the 2015 shooting by a white man of nine black people in a Charleston church, helped clarify the 36-year-old performer’s transition to playwriting. His response, “Kill Move Paradise,” premiered in June at Manhattan’s National Black Theatre and was greeted as a “bleak and beautiful new drama” by the New York Times.
To Ijames, theater has always felt politically saturated. He was a student at Morehouse College during the contested 2000 presidential election and 9/11 – “Boom, boom, boom, as I was discovering Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides,” he says of the arresting news. He was in the Wilma Theatre’s 2012 staging of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” earning one of his two Barrymore Awards for acting, as he wrote “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington,” a dark historical comedy that just had its D.C. premiere with the new Ally Theatre Company.
“The actual news feed of the world, whether presidential politics or Black Lives Matter or ‘whitewashing’ — all those things get under my skin and make me continue to want to write,” says Ijames, who is also now teaching at Villanova University.
His comedy “White” just opened at Philadelphia’s Theatre Horizon; it’s about a gay, white artist who hires a black woman to pretend she painted his work so a prestigious museum will be interested. “Ijames has created a piece in which every expectation (internal and external) and stereotype gets turned inside out,” wrote critic Wendy Rosenfield. “Also, it’s hilarious.”
“My approach to current events of things we don’t want to talk about is find a way to elevate it to something more heightened, using theatricality — write something that must happen in a theater. I find it opens people up, and primes them to have a productive dialogue,”Ijames says.
Joe Horowitz, Executive Director, and Angel Gil-Ordóñez, Music Director, PostClassical Ensemble
Full-on activists. Galvanizing issue: Diplomacy
“We’ve never practiced art for art’s sake,” Horowitz, 70, says of the cross-disciplinary organization created in 2003. “Our premise is that music is an instrument for human betterment.”
Both men are international-minded: This spring, Gil-Ordóñez, 59, led an exchange that took his Georgetown University students to Cuba, and that brought visiting Cuban musicians to the Washington campus. “Instead of building walls, building bridges,” Gil-Ordóñez told Washingtonian magazine this spring.
In February, Horowitz was on the country’s southern border with “Copland and Mexico,” a project for the National Endowment of the Humanities’ Music Unwound initiative. The much-traveled program examines the fertile 1930s Mexican culture that attracted international artists, including American composer Aaron Copland. Horowitz organized performances of music by Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas in El Paso and Juarez.
A counterpoint to Trumpist border-shoring? Yes, and no. The “Copland in Mexico” project has been circulating for several years, so it’s hardly a direct reaction. It’s also in synch with PostClassical’s habit of exploring history and blurring boundaries.
In March, Horowitz fashioned a script from “Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich” by Solomon Volkov for PostClassical’s “Music Under Stalin” concert, with Washington actor Edward Gero as Shostakovich. April’s concert at the Indonesian Embassy celebrated American composer Lou Harrison and his Javanese-Indonesian influences.
“Classical music is an irrelevance, more or less, and orchestras have become marginal in American life,” Horowitz says, explaining the need for the kind of creative partnering that Fifth House practices, too. He adds, “This is a moment when cultural diplomacy should be re-emphasized.”
Mosaic Theater Company founding artistic director
Full-on activist, with an asterisk. Galvanizing issue: “Coexistence,” says Roth, 56, “with all the various icons of religions comingling.”
“In this political town, where people know the difference,” Roth says, “if you’re really hard at work on your art, you’re not an activist. And I know this from the Arab-Israeli peace movement. We have wonderful colleagues that we partner with, and I spend 80 to 90 percent of my time making the art. I’m a partner to them. But I’m useful hitching my cart to their work.”
Roth, a playwright-turned-producer, led Theater J for nearly 20 years until his 2014 firing by the troupe’s umbrella organization, the D.C. Jewish Community Center. Friction had been building over programming that some saw as critical of Israel, a flap that earned an entire chapter in former New York Times reporter David K. Shipler’s 2015 book “Freedom of Speech.”
“The freedom of speech issue was thrust on me in my last years at the J,” Roth says. “I didn’t necessarily think I was going in that direction.”
The programming at Mosaic, now concluding its second busy season at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, has broadened Roth’s approach. Material has focused on Rwanda, South Africa and race in the United States and has continued the Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival Roth created at Theater J. Perhaps most demonstrably among producers in Washington theater, Roth has always embraced tough content.
“I don’t know that that makes me abjectly more political than others,” Roth says. “I’ve learned from really good theater makers that there is pay dirt in terms of dramatic truth when you take risks and expose certain wounds that want to be examined. That’s not activism. That is being an artist.”
Yet legitimate agit-prop can change hearts and minds. (“Sometimes we have an allergy to those kinds of plays,” Roth muses.) He points to Mosaic’s current “The Return,” by Palestinian American actor-writer Hanna Eady and U.S. writer Edward Mast. The two-character drama deals with an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man and an old romance they can barely talk about.
“What gets exposed,” Roth says, “is the pain of Palestinian self-erasure, and what you would call the psychic toll that living under Israeli occupation breeds in this man.” He pauses, and adds, “One doesn’t consider oneself an activist to show that.”
Genuinely political art: by definition, does it takes sides?
“Activism implies an action,” Roth says. “There is a lot of activist art that pushes you to mobilize, to say never again, to say the only righteous thing to do is to take a stand. When you talk about the overabundance of guns, you can ruminate deeply on the issue. But ultimately the play or the conversation pushes you to say, Don’t just appreciate the complexity. What do you want to stand for?”
Full-on activist. Galvanizing issue: Black Lives/Black Women Matter
“The acquittal of George Zimmerman was a turn for me,” says Abadoo, 33. “That was the first time I joined a march. It wasn’t clear I needed to make a dance about it, but it was clear I needed to do something, and do it within community.”
It was 2013, marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights March on Washington and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation; Abadoo used these markers to organize her thinking through a graduate program she completed this spring. She learned community-based practices with the experimental troupes Urban Bush Women and Dance Exchange, and she just returned from eight months in Ghana as a Fulbright fellow.
The power of artists to include and exclude was the subject of Abadoo’s “Gatekeepers/All That You Touch, You Change.” Her latest project engages science fiction. “Octavia’s Brood: Riding the Ox Home,” which premiered at Dance Place in June, is inspired by Harriet Tubman and a 2015 science fiction story collection on social justice movements, a tribute to writer Octavia Butler. At one point, three dancers (including Abadoo) wore brown vests firmly tethered to the side walls by roughly 10 feet of fabric; racing forward to the strains of Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” the dancers snapped back as if leashed.
Abadoo, a Butler fan, was intrigued by “Octavia’s Brood” editor Adrienne Maree-Brown’s notion that “all organizing is science fiction.” Dance-devising as organization seemed like a fruitful exploration.
“This is my commitment to centering the perspective of black women,” Abadoo says. “I decided in the space of Octavia Butler, how is that the world that we black women imagine it to be? How are we crafting this environment to support us to dance with abandon, to tell our stories in ways that make sense to us?”