7 Shows About American Democracy to Keep You Occupied on Election Day (and the Days After)
Here are our theatrical recommendations for the political junkies and neophytes among us (and those who just want to feel optimistic about the future).
This election cycle has been exhausting, I know. With the ceaseless distractions that currently fill our lives, it can feel impossible to find the time to sit and think, let alone consider the complexities of American democracy for longer than the text of a Twitter thread.
Hear me out, though. Theater was made for a moment like this. Theater allows us the time and space to work through complicated subjects without distraction – no tweetstorms, no breaking news. Theater can even inspire us to be hopeful about the future of democracy — and our ability to affect it!
So once you've cast your ballot — if you haven't yet, what are you waiting for? — consider this: instead of wringing your hands as polling results roll in, or tracking the next political scandal with one eye on your phone and the other on your laptop, take a few hours off and allow yourself to enjoy some theater. Maybe even put your phone in another room. We'll get you started with these categories and suggestions based on the range of emotions you're probably feeling today.
"Honestly, I just need to feel hopeful about America for one single minute."
Here are a few plays guaranteed to inspire:
1. What the Constitution Means to Me
Where do American rights come from? How does the Constitution work as a legal document to protect its citizens — and how has it failed? Heidi Schreck's What the Constitution Means to Me — both a Tony Award nominee and a Pulitzer finalist — dives into these questions head-first. Schreck's (mostly) solo play is supremely witty and bittersweet, giving voice to the complex people and stories behind the most impactful lines of legislation in American government. Deftly directed for video by Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), the play powerfully asserts the personal stakes that live between the lines of American law.
2. Walks of Life
How well do you really know your neighbors? Walks of Life, a series of audio plays by La Jolla Playhouse and the Blindspot Collective, might just give you the opportunity to learn more about them. Each play presents a small fictionalized snippet from the lives of people in your community you may not have met yet. Listen in on a mother regaling her daughter with stories of the Egyptian music of her youth; walk a few blocks down the street and catch a teenage daughter using scientific research to try and keep her parents from divorcing. These slice-of-life plays are intimate without being schlocky, and give a real sense of what diversity means in everyday life.
3. American Utopia
Even if you aren't even slightly aware of David Byrne's illustrious music and performance career, I implore you to check out American Utopia. Masterfully directed for the screen by Spike Lee, the rock spectacle is performance art piece and marching band parade rolled up into one. Fans of Talking Heads certainly won't be disappointed, but Byrne and his band present something larger than a greatest hits concert: They embody the promise and possibility of a society that embraces inclusion. If you look close enough, you might even find that society in your own backyard.
"American government is a car crash but I just can't look away."
Here's a couple of plays that explore the dangers of our government for you doomscrollers out there:
4. It Can't Happen Here
Wondering what the worst-case scenario looks like for America? It Can't Happen Here is about as clear and horrifying a vision as they come. Adapted from the Sinclair Lewis novel by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen, It Can't Happen Here imagines an alternate American history in which the country falls to fascism under a strongman president. (I know, it hits close to home.) The audio series features a talented ensemble cast led by David Strathairn and rich, thoughtful sound design from Paul James Prendergast; the whole experience feels like a glorious return to the golden age of radio plays. Berkeley Rep has made the play available for free in an effort to "motivate citizens to exercise their civic power and vote"; heard aloud, the play is a haunting warning of a future Americans could still yet face.
The President of the United States requests your presence for dinner this evening. Anne Washburn's Shipwreck, a dive into the Cult of Trump and the liberals obsessed with it, is now available as a podcast. Directed and adapted for audio by Saheem Ali and produced by the Public Theater, the play juxtaposes two dinner parties: one, thrown by a group of liberal friends in a Vermont cabin; the other being the now-infamous dinner between Donald Trump (played by Bill Camp) and then-FBI Director James Comey (played by Joe Morton) in which the president threatened Comey's job. The play exposes the deepest liberal insecurities, particularly in its portrayal of Trump. It forces the audience to consider the possibility Trump is exactly the all-powerful strongman he claims to be.
"I want to learn more about America, but I can't handle anything about the election right now."
Here are a couple of shows that focus on periods of American history you might not know about:
6. Hold These Truths
Catch the story of one of the men who fought the internment of American citizens all the way to the Supreme Court – and lost. Jeanne Sakata's enormously popular solo show on the life of Japanese-American sociologist Gordon Hirabayashi is brought to life in Hold These Truths. Joel de la Fuente, in a positively magnetic performance, flawlessly jumps between characters in the portrayal of Gordon's refusal to submit to internment under Executive Order 9066, as well as the Supreme Court case that followed. Gordon carries the storytelling of a full courtroom drama with a charming ease; you almost forget halfway through that you've been watching one performer the whole time. Hold These Truths is an intimate play that gives voice to a fundamentally American story.
7. Zoot Suit
Why would the LAPD arrest 300 Mexican youths just for wearing suits? Luis Valdez's crackling play Zoot Suit explores Latino identity in Los Angeles during World War II, and specifically portrays the Sleepy Lagoon murder trials which led to the wrongful conviction of 12 Mexican-American youths. The recording, captured in 2001 and re-released from the LA Theatre Works archives, is just as fresh today. It thrums with animated performances and a captivating soundtrack of Latin and big band rhythms. Zoot Suit is a spellbinding docudrama and courtroom thriller that marries fact and fiction seamlessly.