Lists9 Times 2016's Off-Broadway Shows Tackled Hot Button IssuesRacial tensions, political divides, queer culture, and technology were at the heart of these acclaimed productions.
December 23, 2016
Here are nine productions that illuminated the current events and matters impacting our society today.
1. The Royale at Lincoln Center Theatre
The beginning of the year was marked by controversies concerning the lack of diversity on major stages and movie screens. The “Oscars So White” debate received international attention and prompted many of us to question whether diverse artists and stories were adequately being recognized. This question was central to Marco Ramirez’s play The Royale, about the first African American heavyweight world champion. In 1905, Jay “The Sport” Johnson’s biggest fight was outside of the boxing ring; he wanted to show other young black men and women that a person of color could be in a position of power and triumph. “We’re still dealing with that today,” Khris Davis, who starred as Jackson, told Playbill in March. “Right now, in our society, we’re dealing with issues of diversity and diversifying what we see as beautiful or successful… The Royale is making a statement.”
In 2013 Chicago saw the largest school closure in the city’s history; the Board of Education voted to shut down 49 public schools in an attempt to combat a massive budget deficit, and an estimated 12,000 students were displaced. Thus was born, Exit Strategy, a play about a group of high school teachers and one student who attempt to fight an impending closure. In preparation, playwright Ike Holter spoke to local teachers and people who had been through, or were part of, the education system. “We just tried to put a human face on this very large kerfuffle that was spreading across the city,” Holter told Playbill back in April. The play, which debuted in Chicago in 2014 and was presented in New York this spring by Primary Stages, shined an important light on deficiencies in the public education system and the impact it had on students lives.
When James Graham and Josie Rourke’s production of Privacy arrived downtown this summer, audiences weren't sure what to expect. The show, which starred Daniel Radcliffe, had been billed as a “phone-friendly” play in which theatregoers would be encouraged to email, text, and take selfies during the performance. Privacy was as disconcerting as it was entertaining. The production uncovered some inconvenient truths about how our technological choices are being monitored and who’s keeping track of our data. It was undoubtedly a conversation starter, and a provocative exploration of our relationship with privacy today.
While many glass ceilings remained un-shattered in 2016, Off-Broadway was a fertile platform for female theatre artists. Directors like Leigh Silverman, Anne Kauffman, Rachel Chavkin, Lila Neugebauer, Liesl Tommy, Kate Whoriskey, and Kimberly Senior are just a few of the women who were at the helm of great work on New York stages this year. This fall, Neugebauer teamed up with young playwright Sarah DeLappe for a play that was not only exclusively focused on female perspectives, it also featured an all-female cast. The Wolves, which garnered critical acclaim and has returned for a second engagement Off-Broadway, tells the story of an all-girls soccer team and offers a candid snapshot of female adolescence that is rarely seen in the theatre. The success of the production indicates that audiences are eager to see a wider range of female stories depicted on the stage.
5. Party People at the Public Theater
Like Tony-nominated director Liesl Tommy’s earlier productions, Party People was a political piece. The show, which debuted at the Public this fall, explored the complicated legacies of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Organization, and how their struggles have evolved and continue to be relevant today. “It’s hard not to engage if you say you’re a political, progressive artist or artistic leader,” Tommy told Playbill, of her desire to make political work. “There can’t be a disconnection from what you produce to what’s happening around you. I feel like it’s my job to be on the front line of providing those stories.” Just days after the 2016 Presidential election, Tommy tweaked the show to include a reference to President-Elect Donald Trump, prompting loud, visceral reactions from the audience.
The country’s divided politics were also at the heart of Lynn Nottage’s Blackburn Prize winner, Sweat. Set in a Pennsylvania town at the turn of the millennium, the characters in Sweat have to fight hard to keep their jobs, make a decent wage, and retain a sense of dignity following the nation’s industrial decline. Their personal struggles illuminated the frustrations and aggression expressed by many Americans during previous election cycle. The new play by the Pulitzer Prize winner debuted at the Public Theater to critical acclaim and soon announced a Broadway transfer for spring 2017.
7. Notes from the Field at Second Stage
Over the last decade, criminal justice reform has received increased attention from the media and academics, and has been at forefront of President Obama’s administration. It became even more of a hot-button topic in 2016 with the snowballing of the Black Lives Matter movement, and a growing awareness of what has become known as the school-to-prison pipeline—a system rife with racial tensions by which youth of color are essentially funneled into correctional facilities and prisons. This is at the center of Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes from the Field, a solo show developed and performed by the award-winning playwright, actor, and educator. Smith had originally planned to perform the piece in local communities, but following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, decided to return to the professional stage with the show’s timely message. Notes made its New York debut at Second Stage Theatre this fall, where it received critical acclaim and quickly sold out its extended run.
8.Street Children by Vertigo Theater Company
Street Children, Pia Scala-Zankel’s play about New York City’s transgender and queer community in the 1980s, felt eerily relevant for a story that was set 30 years ago. The show served as an important reminder that many LGBTQ people are still marginalized today, are the victims of violence and abuse, and remain without adequate support networks. According to the Advocate, 2016 was the deadliest year on record for transgender Americans, with the number of deaths reaching an all-time high. “It’s interesting how history is repeating itself, or it feels like it is, when we’re in the middle of [doing] this play,” Eve Lindley, one of the principal cast members, told Playbill last month. “There has been a lot of change, I’m not belittling the strides we’ve made…but truthfully, not a whole lot feels that different as I’m stepping into this world.” Street Children was also a testament to the fact that human nature is capable of embodying love in the most adverse circumstances.
Mental illness is not an easy thing to talk about. As Chris Gethard points out in his new solo show, Career Suicide, suicidal thoughts and debilitating anxiety are extremely taboo. They are not seen as symptoms of an illness, but rather, weakness, and this is something that needs to change. “We need to start laughing about this stuff, so maybe we can finally be comfortable talking about it afterwards,” the comedian says on his website. “I just try to make sure my jokes come from an honest place, and unfortunately for me being honest means copping to the fact that I once crashed a car on purpose.” Career Suicide is a raw, honest, and at-times confronting exploration of what it means to live with depression.
The King and I, Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic musical currently receiving a revival production by Lincoln Center, has been subject to several casting controversies over the years that ultimately led to an evolution in the way the piece is produced.