There is a question I’ve been asking myself. It comes up more and more as I continue my adventures in theatre. The more I work on shows that are socially relevant and newer (something that generally, not always, goes hand-in-hand), I wonder: Why are there so few shows being performed that speak to the issues of today? Why do we as audiences and theatre-makers alike continue to revere the elder works? Please do not take any of this to mean I dislike more traditional and older shows; to this day, Gypsy remains my all-time favorite musical and I’m working on a concept for Romeo and Juliet.
I wonder this because there is so much richness in shows that speak to the events and problems today. New Line has opened Atomic. The rock musical follows Hungarian physicist Leo Szi󠆏lárd as he navigates the politics of World War II and the Manhattan Project. This musical is especially relevant given last year was the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan AND President Obama’s trip to Hiroshima as the first sitting U.S. president to visit the city since the bombings.
Atomic explores the psychological toll the creation and dropping of the bombs takes on the scientists involved. The United States is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of women and children in Japan. The women and men who helped create the bomb immediately felt remorseful and guilty. J. Robert Oppenheimer is reported to have told President Truman that he had “blood on his hands.” The show ends with the scientists shakily telling themselves, “We save a million lives. The choice we made was right.” The message is clear.
We live in a world that is still reeling from the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown and the radioactive destruction of Chernobyl. St. Louis is dealing with the effects of radioactive materials leaking into potable water. Atomic asks us if releasing the power of an atom was right. As a good story does, no attempts are made to answer that question.
Two weeks ago, I saw Tesseract Theatre’s production of Mitzi’s Abortion. The ten-year old play is an exploration of a late-term abortion from many sides—for (the to-be grandmother), against (the husband and an uncle), unsure (the mother to-be), and others—makes for compelling and timely story-telling. The matter of a late-term abortion is further complicated by the fact the fetus/child is brain-dead and will die very soon after birth.
The playwright, Elizabeth Heffron—a St. Louis native!—has left the audience in between the proverbial rock and hard place. We have again been confronted with all the necessary information to make our own decisions. All that said, there is an argument to be made that the play does not go far enough. In her review of the show, Tina Farmer of KDHX asserts it is “…a play that examines multiple, but still not all, perspectives in the case of a woman facing an unpleasant choice in the late term of her pregnancy.” I do agree with Ms. Farmer, but this is the first time I (that is Sean Michael and Sean Michael alone) have a seen a play about abortion onstage. It is a start.
There is one more play I’d like to mention: Bosnian/American, a play recently gathered and produced in partnership by Fontbonne University and Mustard Seed Theatre. It explores the effects of the 1992-1995 war and genocide in Bosnia by mixing flashbacks, present-day commentary, and the tale Aska and the Wolf. A moment from the play has stuck with me. The Bosnians of our story are fleeing the genocide to nearby countries. As the campaign worsened and more and more Bosnians fled, European countries began to close their borders to the refugees. This was 1995, not 2016. Yet, we have echoes of this time today with the Syrian, Iraqi, and Eritrean refugee crises.
These three shows are mentioned because they are fresh in my mind. Partially, it is because they have presented me with questions I am grappling with. The other part of this is the fact they are relevant. President Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima since it was bombed. The ability of women and doctors to make decisions regarding the termination of a pregnancy is being curtailed by legislatures and judges throughout the country. We are dealing with wars and genocides that are displacing millions.
I think St. Louis needs more theatre like this. We have lots of it, yes. Many theatres even do it accidentally. I think we should do more. As I’ve heard lately, overestimate the intelligence of your audience and they will thank you for it.
Those who make and those who attend theatre need to be confronted with questions and perspectives that challenge what we know. We need to see the voices of people who are different colors than us and learn what their struggles are. We should learn what they think of the same things we all look at. Worldviews are dangerous when they are shouted into an echo chamber. A play or musical (even a film or TV show) marries emotions with these questions. They ask us to invest in characters whose viewpoints are different from our own. That is a fundamental responsibility of theatre, at least in my opinion.
That’s not to say I don’t want to see shows that may be less relevant or little more fun. As I stated earlier, I love Gypsy. Even then, that show is still relevant. How many reality shows deal with stage moms?
Sean Michael is a local actor and director, founder of The Scene Shop, and executive director of Tesseract Theatre. He has been seen on stages from St. Charles to Grand Center. See what’s next for him on his website.
**DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of THE SCENE SHOP.