Friday, November 2, 2012

Putting the "Uh" in America

(Bowman Wright in Topdog/Underdog, which recently closed at Marin Theatre Company. Photo by David Allen.)

When I was a grad student at S.F. State, I took a class on American drama, and one of the central questions of the course was what makes American drama American. What are its perennial concerns? Some, as proposed by our professor, might be

  • The American Dream
  • American exceptionalism
  • Finding and coming home
  • The Melting Pot

(I think there were others, but this is all I can glean from my notes.)

Now that it's election time and theaters are offering the accompanying goods, some of the shows I've been reviewing lately -- Assassins at Shotgun, Topdog/Underdog at Marin Theatre Company, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, at SF Playhouse -- make me think American drama might have another (if not mutually exclusive) evergreen theme: the compulsion to tell our story, to capture who we are and what we believe in.

(Much of the ensemble of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, at SF Playhosue. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.)

I'm sure, of course, that this is far from a uniquely American phenomenon and for that matter one that's not at all confined to theater. And, as Chloe Veltman has amusingly suggested, election season does seem to seem force artificial topicality out of theaters (when they might not otherwise be so inclined to attempt to define our national identity, that teensy little subject).

Still, I wonder if because of the fracturing (and the polarization) of our country, so many groups feel marginalized, so left out of the American Dream, that we, more than other nations, feel compelled to tell our story over and over again, to reimagine it, to hear hitherto neglected groups contest it or lay claim to it -- on the stage. Just in these three plays, we get versions of America from three groups of outsiders: presidential assassins, poor young black men, and frontier populists.

(The nine would-be and actual presidential assassins chronicled in the Shotgun Players production. Photo by Pak Han.)

It's exciting to think of this election as a time that might in retrospect mark a change in our theater. 9/11 was a watershed moment in American drama; is it possible we're ready for another seismic shift? Is it possible that 2012 will be the year we were finally pushed too far by extremists? What would it look like to have a theater and a politics that's not so defined by caricature or motivated by a sense of unbridgeable divide?

These are probably hopelessly naive questions. But as voters and political commentators profess a longing for a discussion of the real issues, I find (or grope for?) a parallel in my theatergoing to a wish for an art of more nuance.

Assassins continues through Nov. 11; info here.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson continues through Nov. 24; info here.

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