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Bad News and (Maybe) Better Plays

The news prompts dark reflections on plays that might shed some light.

Nneka Okafor, Starla Benford, Mandi Masden, and Joaquina Kalukango starred in Katori Hall's Our Lady of Kibeho, directed by Michael Greif, at Signature Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

Every day, the news seems to bring evidence that life on this planet is getting worse. It takes me an effort, after scanning the headlines every morning, to convince myself that life is full of good things and that there may actually be some hope for the human race. While many small things gratify, major events — like the recent horrific slaughter in Paris — all tend to confirm that humanity seems hell-bent on destroying itself, and the rest of the planet along with it.

The consequences of global climate change surround us, so we elect politicians who deny its existence. Violence increasingly riddles our daily lives, so we make weapons easier to obtain. The great religions, created to succor the needy and bind communities together in peace and love, get hijacked by bigots and mobsters who use them to spread only fear and hatred. "A cold dark place where sorrow cries all day": That's how Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill described life on earth in the last line of The Threepenny Opera back in 1928, and I defy you to tell me that matters have improved in the 87 years since. The Internet just helps us get the bad news faster.

Americans, of course, are famous for not wanting the bad news. I've often wondered why there hasn't been a movement to make our national anthem the Wicked Witch's song from The Wiz, "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News." (It probably hasn't happened because so few people today could give it the verve with which the late Mabel King knocked it out of the ballpark on Broadway.)

T.R. Knight recently starred in the world premiere of Samuel D. Hunter's Pocatello, directed by Davis McCallum, at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

The bad news keeps coming, but we don't want to face it and deal with it. Instead we invent ingenious modes of denial — including, in the theater, plays and musicals that dance showily around serious matters or paste on equivocal happy endings, to limp effect. Such works provide neither a clean, freewheeling temporary escape from our worries or a forceful informed take on them, either of which would be healthy.

The hero of Samuel D. Hunter's recent Pocatello (Playwrights Horizons), who spent the entire play trying to convince everybody that their family problems would magically resolve if they all sat down together for a meal in the lousy chain restaurant the protagonist managed, has positioned himself in my mind as a metaphor for our collective willed denial (in part, I suppose, because of T.R. Knight's marvelously manic performance). Even his denial was wholly directed toward his family's elaborate dysfunctions; it came as a relief when Hunter thoughtfully confronted him with someone — a highly intelligent teenage girl — whose concern was directed toward larger moral questions, like what the Japanese did to Nanking in World War II and the way food gets onto our tables.

Large moral questions, again about a historical atrocity, also flickered gently through Katori Hall's Our Lady of Kibeho (New York's Signature Theatre). Bravely, Hall tackled one of the most appalling events of recent decades, the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which nearly a fifth of the country's population was slaughtered. She only tiptoed, however, up to this dauntingly horrific subject. Her story dealt with an eerie prefiguration of the massacres: In 1981-82, 13 years prior to Rwanda's genocidal civil war, three Catholic schoolgirls in the remote town of Kibeho allegedly had visions of the Virgin Mary, in which she warned of a horrible slaughter to come, urging Rwandans to pray for peace before their hillsides ran with rivers of blood.

Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar is the author of The Invisible Hand, The Who & the What, and Disgraced.

Denial, African-style, turned out to be Hall's theme, as the girls successively convinced their schoolmates, an officious teaching nun, an irate parent, the region's bishop, and finally an investigator from the Vatican (the play's only white character). But the prophecy, when fully unveiled, got vehemently repudiated by everyone except the white visitor - most of all by the priest who had championed the girls as visionaries all along. When Rwanda's hills did run with blood in 1994, Kibeho was the site of one of the massacres, and one of the three girl visionaries was among the murdered, but that stinging fact, like most of the political and economic hows and whys of this hideous occurrence, lived in Hall's text only as a minute pointillist dot, too tiny for an unbriefed audience to perceive. Larger matters — earthly ones, at least — were left for scrutiny outside the theater.

Only one of our currently significant playwrights seems determined to place such matters on view in the theater. I rejoice because, in so many respects, he seems to be going about it in exactly the right way. And I quail because — you won't find this any surprise — our theatergoers don't seem particularly eager to hear him. I am speaking of Ayad Akhtar, who has had three plays produced in New York in the past two and a half years. Disgraced, which began at Lincoln Center's LCT3 in October 2012, won the Pulitzer Prize and is currently playing on Broadway — though only through March 1. The Who & the What, which played at LCT3 last summer, and The Invisible Hand, which recently closed at New York Theater Workshop, played out their subscription runs without inspiring storms of box-office enthusiasm. Despite their seemingly disappointing commercial track record, all three plays are remarkable, as much for what they attempt artistically as for the issues they raise. More about that next week.

Stay tuned to TheaterMania for part II of this "Thinking About Theater" column, which will appear on Friday, January 23.