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When Political Theater Ditches the Disguises of Fiction

Jesse Green of The New York Times

“How is it politicians and artists have switched jobs?”

When Kristina Wong asks that question in her one-woman show “Kristina Wong for Public Office,” streamable through Nov. 29 from the Center Theater Group, she isn’t just referring to the way she, a “self-obsessed, kind of naïve” West Coast performance artist, wound up on a ballot — and winning.

She’s also trying to understand what it means for performers to take public policy as their script at a time when policymakers seem to be taking public performance as theirs.

Granted, Wong’s perch is a small one: While high with a friend one night, she signs up to run for an unpaid position as a representative for subdistrict 5 on the Wilshire Center-Koreatown Neighborhood Council in Los Angeles. When she wins a seat with 72 votes, she discovers that the council’s annual budget is just $42,000, of which $27,000 is already allotted for overhead and $1,000 for fake snow.

But her apparently insignificant mandate, and the bubbly-then-moving 75-minute monologue she’s handcrafted around it, touch on very big issues about the value of art and the responsibilities of citizenship. When Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in Koreatown lead her to spearhead a drive to abolish, or at least censure, the agency, she begins to rethink the relative usefulness of a stage personality and a real person.

Nor is she alone. In the wake of Trumpism, Black Lives Matter and the coronavirus pandemic, many theatermakers, through readings and other nonfiction performances that recreate real-world events, are grappling with politics more directly than ever before.

You could argue, of course, that politics has always been the subtext of drama, the blood beneath its skin. The Greeks no less than Shakespeare wrote about how the peccadilloes of kings became their subjects’ disasters. If you expand the idea of politics to include social norms enforced by law and custom, the canonical American plays all fall under the rubric, too: Arthur Miller writing about the failures of capitalism, Tennessee Williams about the derangements of class, August Wilson about the scars of enslavement.

Like most mainstream drama, these works express the political through the mask of the personal; somewhere beneath both Blanche DuBois and Ma Rainey we sense the Civil War. But the newer work I mean, arising from noncommercial theaters and the former avant-garde, does the opposite, working inward from the state to the soul.

Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which opened at New York Theater Workshop in 2018, is already something of the grandmother of the genre, its success on Broadway and on Amazon Prime suggesting there is an appetite for plays that take the law in their own hands. “Constitution,” which some panned as a lecture, asks us to look critically at the foundational document of our democracy and decide whether it is now too compromised to save.

A much older political turning point is the subject of “What the Hell Is a Republic, Anyway?” — another New York Theater Workshop production, this one part of a pandemic-straitened season of exploratory work. “Republic,” written and performed by the actor Denis O’Hare and the director Lisa Peterson, looks at the 500-year experience of Rome in the centuries between its early monarchy and late empire. In four live episodes — the first on Sept. 22 and the last on Nov. 2, the day before the presidential election — it covered such topics as citizenship, governance, voting and the eventual collapse of the republican experiment.

But for all its dry patches, including bald readings from Roman texts and conversations with historians, “Republic,” like “Constitution,” is not a lecture — or if it is, it’s the cool kind your classmates tell you to sign up for. As you sit with it, you begin to realize that its formal and self-referential curlicues aren’t affectations but aspects of its inquiry. The problem of collaboration, for instance — as when O’Hare and Peterson bicker (or pretend to bicker; it’s all scripted) about going ahead with an iffy skit — stands in for the larger problem of consensus in a heterogeneous society.

Widening the scope of that metaphor further, “Republic” asks its audience, often visible on multiple Zoom screens, to participate in the playmaking and thus in a peculiar kind of democracy. We vote, we light candles, we contribute phrases to a poem.

Still, the highlight of the production’s six hours — which New York Theater Workshop plans to make available in its online archive — comes toward the end of the third episode, when O’Hare performs “Cicero’s Dream,” a “short play-within-a-digital-play” about the last moments in the life of the Roman senator who sided with Julius Caesar’s assassins. Though it is a stunning piece of traditional dramatic writing and acting, its power may be dependent on it’s being framed by a production that is at the same time questioning the efficacy of traditional dramatic writing and acting.

In the end, “Republic” forces us to consider whether our form of government is a given that can be taken away — and what, if anything, theater can do about it. “Lessons in Survival,” an ongoing series of historical re-enactments produced by the Vineyard Theater, begins with an even more basic question, one that “Constitution” also raises: If you don’t belong to the class or race or gender envisioned by the nation’s founders, is democracy worth having in the first place?

“Lessons in Survival” focuses on the American experience as interpreted by leading Black thinkers captured in interviews, conversations and speeches between 1964 and 2008. (The first eight episodes are available on the Vineyard’s website through Nov. 29.) Listening to the original recordings through earpieces, members of the Commissary collective, which conceived the series, channel the exact words, speech patterns, tics and pauses of James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni, Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, Maya Angelou, Fannie Lou Hamer and others.

Is it any surprise that their take on American democracy is often despairing? Even so, the acuity and clarity of their observations as well as the warmth of their engagement make the recreations thrilling. James Baldwin (portrayed by Nana Mensah) talking about Ray Charles with Nikki Giovanni (Kyle Beltran) is not just an education in the politics of culture, it’s also a priceless fly-on-the-wall experience.

But in another episode, when Baldwin (now played by Ricardy Fabre) appears on a 1969 episode of “The Dick Cavett Show” to debate the state of Black America, the atmosphere is cold and crackling. As Cavett (Chris Stack) attempts feebly to moderate, the exasperated Baldwin and the fatuous Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss (Dan Butler) enact a familiar, heartbreaking drama of Black frustration at white incomprehension. That their extemporaneous comments have now become dialogue suggests the way the American conversation about race has, over the course of 50 years, hardened into scripts.

The appropriation of political argument for theatrical dialogue is not new. David Hare’s 2004 play “Stuff Happens” mixes verbatim recreations with fictional scenes to paint a portrait of the American involvement in Iraq. But in its purity, “Lessons in Survival” reminded me more of “The Gonzales Cantata,” a 40-minute oratorio first performed in 2009 at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival that I caught in a new Zoom production from In Series. For the libretto, the composer Melissa Dunphy used a transcript of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales’s appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee in April 2007, as well as his resignation statement later that year.

Dunphy gets laughs from the contrast between bureaucratic blather and Handelian arioso, at one point giving Gonzales, played by a soprano, a coloratura showpiece in which “I don’t recall” is repeated, as it was in the hearing, 72 times. (All the roles, including Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s only woman, are gender-reversed.) By design, the comedy butts up uncomfortably against policies, including “enhanced” interrogation techniques that amount to torture, that Gonzales does recall and stands by.

That makes “Gonzales,” like “Lessons,” dramatic by proxy. But the appropriation of public argument in these works, and the discourse on statecraft in “Constitution,” “Republic” and “Kristina Wong,” work on another level, too. At a time when the theater is homeless and too often aimless, they suggest one way it might revitalize itself by using its voice to speak directly about democracy — even if the words are sometimes borrowed.

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