The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For ‘1776,’ the casting of Founding Fathers is kind of revolutionary

History marches energetically onto Boston stages with a reimagining of the 1969 musical and a second play, ‘Common Ground Revisited,’ that examines the city’s past racial strife.

From left: Sushma Saha (Judge James Wilson), Sara Porkalob (Edward Rutledge), Mehry Eslaminia (Secretary Charles Thomson), Gisela Adisa (Robert Livingston), Crystal Lucas-Perry (John Adams), Elizabeth A. Davis (Thomas Jefferson), Becca Ayers (Col. Thomas McKean), Brooke Simpson (Roger Sherman) and Oneika Phillips (Joseph Hewes) in “1776.” (Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A moment arrives in the deeply moving, Broadway-bound revival of “1776” when one’s conscience and senses are assaulted with the blunt force of a prizefighter’s upper cut. It happens during Sara Porkalob’s crackling delivery of “Molasses to Rum,” the Act 2 song scathingly denouncing the Continental Congress’s Northern delegates for their hypocrisy over slavery.

“Who sails the ships out of Boston, laden with Bibles and rum?” Porkalob’s Edward Rutledge sings with a defiant sneer, as a curtain on the Loeb Drama Center stage parts to reveal rum barrels stacked four high. “Who drinks a toast to the Ivory Coast? Hail Africa, the slavers have come! New England with Bibles — and rum!”

It’s not only Sherman Edwards’s lyrics that unsettle with newfound verve, especially in a New England locale such as Cambridge, Boston’s next-door neighbor. The players in this musical about the colonists who bickered and haggled over the creation of the Declaration of Independence are now all women, nonbinary or trans. As reconceived by directors Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus, the story is claimed freshly and thrillingly by 22 actors — many of them performers of color — whose rights were essentially left out of America’s foundational document.

Again and again, the words first uttered on a Broadway stage in 1969 resound in this 2022 version with a more buoyantly inclusive spirit. “The eagle inside belongs to us!” sing John Adams (Crystal Lucas-Perry), Ben Franklin (Patrena Murray) and Thomas Jefferson (Elizabeth A. Davis) in “The Egg,” a number testifying metaphorically to the hatching of a new country. Page and Paulus manage in this production by American Repertory Theater — which Paulus leads — to chart America’s baby steps even more idealistically than did the framers (or for that matter, the show’s writers, Edwards and Peter Stone).

A Tony-winning director finds a rewarding way to build an innovative new '1776' during a pandemic

That A.R.T. is the launchpad for this reimagined “1776” feels altogether on-point, given the city’s historic importance — and its abiding interest in its own history. That fascination is playing out at the moment not only on a stage in Cambridge, but in Boston proper, too. While 18th-century figures such as Adams, Abilgail Adams (Allyson Kaye Daniel) and John Hancock (Liz Mikel) appear at A.R.T., Bostonians in a more recent struggle materialize across the Charles River, in a play at Huntington Theater Company.

That world-premiere work, “Common Ground Revisited,” brings to the stage an anguishing chapter in the city’s story, the pitched battle over the court-ordered integration of the Boston public school system in the mid-1970s. Conceived by Melia Bensussen and Kirsten Greenidge, and directed by Bensussen, the 2½-hour production adapts characters from author J. Anthony Lukas’s definitive chronicle “Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families.”

One of a theater’s most meaningful missions can be holding a performative mirror up to the community in which it exists. “Common Ground Revisited” is that sort of play, one that draws sustenance from the collective memory and emotion of its audience. I attended a preview performance, before the production was officially unveiled for the media, so I’ll refrain from rendering a verdict. But the civic contribution the play makes — asking playgoers in the Calderwood/BCA complex to reflect on the legacy of that explosive era — confers on the proceedings a welcome urgency.

The social relevance was underlined by the introductory remarks that evening by no less a personage than the mayor of Boston, Michelle Wu. Fancy that: the leader of a major city finding the launch of a play significant enough to merit her presence! “We need to do all we can for our art and culture scene because they’re a key to our recovery and healing,” Wu declared from the stage. “This is amazing for Boston, to see this on our stage.”

Healing is central to the interlaced stories of “Common Ground Revisited.” It follows three families — a Black family from the projects; a White working-class family from an insular Irish American neighborhood; and an affluent White couple, arriving during a gentrification wave — as they become enmeshed in a bruising fight. The mandatory busing of schoolchildren, ordered to achieve racial balance in the schools, convulsed and polarized the city.

A cast of 12 plays the myriad characters, as well as themselves, examiners of the impact of the past and Lukas’s account of it. One learns about the roots of an American tribalism that still afflicts the city — and indeed, continues to inflame the country. The hopeful core of the play, however, resides in the suggestion that a relentless quest to understand what divides us may be the means of some day bringing us together.

Seemingly unconquerable divisions, and the courageous effort to breach them, drive “1776” as well. It’s not a perfect musical — the first act is extremely talky, and the attempts to enliven the characters lead to some facile, shorthand caricature: The tipsy Rhode Island delegate (Allison Briner Dardenne) waits only for adjournment to a tavern; Jefferson suffers from sex-deprived writer’s block; the supposedly unbearable Adams, we learn by overemphasis, is universally “obnoxious and disliked.”

But the show’s assets — notably, Edwards’s wonderful score — outnumber any shortcomings, and the production percolates courtesy of some lively performances. Lucas-Perry and Murray, as Adams and Franklin, form an entertainingly prickly pair of grudging allies; Joanna Glushak, playing the obstinately pro-English Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson, commandingly rallies the conservatives in “Cool, Cool Considerate Men”; Shawna Hamic hits the right note of operatic self-regard in Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee and her solo, “The Lees of Old Virginia.” As the wives of Adams and Jefferson, Allyson Kaye Daniel and Eryn LeCroy provide soulful renditions of Edwards’s tender, romantic ballads.

There are in fact too many enjoyable performers to list here. Page, also the show’s choreographer, applies fine, stylized flourishes to the movement in the ensemble numbers. In unison, the actors’ transformations occur as they step smartly into buckled shoes and slip from modern dress into the waistcoats designed by Emilio Sosa. A special shout-out is in order for hair and wig designer Mia Neal, who instead of powdered wigs gives each actor a vibrantly unique hair style. Still, the one design element I did miss had to do with the flatness of Scott Pask’s bare-bones sets. A more satisfying depiction of the room where it happened is needed.

In the end, the inspirational casting is what provides this “1776” with its special revolutionary relish. That the talented ensemble takes an unorthodox approach to historical orthodoxy does not feel like an attempt to rewrite the past. Rather, it is an exhilarating and touching embrace of the possibilities of the future.

1776, music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, book by Peter Stone. Directed by Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus. With Gisela Adisa, Becca Ayers, Nancy Anderson, Tiffani Barbour, Oneika Phillips, Lulu Picart, Sushma Saha, Brooke Simpson, Salome B. Smith. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through July 24 at Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, Mass.

Common Ground Revisited, conceived by Melia Bensussen and Kirsten Greenidge, adapted by Greenidge, directed by Bensussen. Through July 17 at Calderwood/BCA, 527 Tremont St., Boston.