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At a time of angry uproar, theater can still show us the way forward

Events like the striking down of the right to abortion change the way we see history and drama unfold on America’s stages

Sara Porkalob as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, in American Repertory Theater's “1776.” (Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made)
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One of the uniquely compelling properties of theater is that while a production is essentially the same from one performance to the next, its meaning can change overnight. Events in a turbulent world have a way of doing that to a living, breathing art form.

This idea was brought home to me once again this past week, as art and life intermingled in ways that freshly illuminated both. The convergence carried a stinging irony, because a time-honored work for the stage that had been radically transformed seemed suddenly in bitter conversation with the radical act of a time-honored institution.

The act was the U.S. Supreme Court’s stunning abrogation of a woman’s right to choose, a right considered constitutionally guaranteed by generations of women, many of whom have known no other reality. And the theater piece was an exhilarating new take on a musical that is as American as, well, the Supreme Court. The production, a revival of the Tony-winning “1776,” was not just another musical retread. As staged by the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., the inspired, Broadway-bound revival has as its pivotal conceit a roster of male figures from history played entirely by female, nonbinary and transgender actors.

It struck me now that the performance I attended, on June 9, took place on a different planet. At the time, the tale of the haggling over and adoption of the Declaration of Independence felt like other savvy coups de théâtre. As with “Hamilton,” here was a diverse ensemble embracing a chapter of American history — and in this case, a 1969 musical — that had all but written them out. How thrilling it was to watch them, in this supposedly more enlightened age, finally take their crack at it.

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In the aftermath of the striking down of Roe v. Wade, I was forced to rethink. Were the words that the cast spoke and sung hollower than they’d been 2½ weeks ago?

“I hear the bells ringing out. I hear the cannons’ roar. I see Americans — all Americans — free forevermore!” sings Crystal Lucas-Perry, the actress portraying John Adams, in her climactic Act 2 solo. The lyric had been ringing out in Cambridge with heartening intensity, as the delegates to the Continental Congress — several played by Black performers — argued over the fundamental moral issues of nation-building, such as whether the Declaration should contain a denunciation of slavery.

Now, in retrospect, the more despairing passages of the song, by composer-lyricist Sherman Edwards, seemed to be what drove home its point:

“Is anybody there?” Lucas-Perry sings. “Does anybody care?”

Theater is inherently an art form about freedom. Its mission has always been to challenge us to reflect in novel ways on the state of the world — as a vehicle not just for the loudest voices, but also for society’s most contrarian, oppressed, marginalized. Its championing of inclusiveness is not, as some would have it, a mere demonstration of virtue signaling or wokeness. As A.R.T.’s “1776” and other such productions reveal, theater is just dialing more acutely into the times. It is opening floodgates of opportunity, seeking to fill our imaginative reservoirs with the creativity of — as Adams declares — all Americans.

In this regard, it also struck me anew how ardently theater has been trying to tell us where we stand as a country — a responsibility that has gained momentum at the very time when forces are at work driving the country apart. It’s a niche art form, for sure: Theater can’t touch the influence of a streaming service or a TV network. But it often has a finger on the pulse of the nation more cannily than any other type of art.

Take, for example, Tracy Letts’s power-packed new Broadway comedy-drama, “The Minutes,” about the city council in a small American municipality in an unnamed state. The mythology of its founding is exploded in captivating fashion, as a council member lays out the details of the atrocity against Native Americans in its real origin story. (Revealing the truth is always an act of patriotism.) A foundational aspect of our national identity is also at the core of Heidi Schreck’s wildly successful “What the Constitution Means to Me,” a first-person account of the protections we celebrate as a legal birthright, but that haven’t always provided an equitable safety net for women.

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Then there was the recent “Suffs,” a new musical by Shaina Taub at off-Broadway’s Public Theater, that recounted the history of the suffragists’ fight for the right to vote through a cast, again, consisting entirely of women and nonbinary performers. The show itself could have used some additional sharpening, but its symbolism alone imbued it with outsize emotional impact. I have friends who wept as much over the way the cast was able to seize on the story as their own, as over the story itself. It ended its run last month, but how galvanizing might the performances have been, after the opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization came down?

Are audiences really so attuned to topical nuances? Of course they are: We toggle instinctively in a playhouse between the world as it’s being represented and the one we experience. During the performance I attended last Wednesday at the Kennedy Center of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for instance, the ugly realities of right now collided with the brutal truths of 1934. The news that a theatergoer could not put out of mind as the play unfolded was being generated only a few miles away, in the House hearings on the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

I’ve always loved the observation by the story’s Link Deas, a White man consigned to outcast status by his Maycomb, Ala., neighbors for marrying a Black woman: “When horror comes to supper,” he says, “it comes dressed exactly like a Christian.” The audience greeted the line from Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel with loud murmurs of approval. It understood the connection between the underpinnings of Jim Crow bigotry and White grievance-fueled contemporary sedition.

That communal sense of affirmation — whose absence was felt so profoundly during the long pandemic shutdown — is a narcotic I revel in. In this convulsive moment, I think about other evenings in the theater that might bolster and inform us as a community, other examples of how theater sheds light on who and where we are. One seems especially apt, a play from 2017 by Lisa Loomer that was performed at Arena Stage: “Roe,” the story of the 1973 decision Roe v. Wade, which granted the right that the court just eviscerated.

Loomer had the prescience to include a scene late in the play and set decades after that ruling, in which an anguished, pregnant young woman professes to being overwhelmed by the rollout of new barriers to abortion. “Just tell me this: Is it a baby?” she asks, unconsolably — a voice that today echoes hauntingly, from coast to coast.

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