Can Plays Looking Back at US History Offer a Way Forward?

Stephen Michael Spencer, Jack Willis, Tramell Tillman, and Carlo Albán as Jason, Stan, Chris, and Oscar in the 2015 OSF production of Sweat. Photo by Jenny Graham.

American history took Broadway by storm with Hamilton in 2015. But five years before the musical about founding father Alexander Hamilton became a megahit, the Mellon Foundation became a primary supporter of a unique project to put US history on center stage for contemporary audiences in more than three dozen new plays.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s (OSF) “American Revolutions” project is the nonprofit regional theater company’s largest undertaking of new work since it was founded in 1935. More than 100 playwrights, historians, and partner institutions are collaborating on the creation of 37 plays, each about a critical moment of change and importance in American history. The number 37 is an homage to the known plays in the Shakespeare canon, and reflect OSF’s effort to bridge the themes of the Shakespeare plays OSF has long-staged with those of this newer set of works, in order to build a new American canon that represents the diversity of the nation’s collective history and experience.

By January 2016, 24 of the 37 plays had been commissioned and eight had been produced at OSF or partner theaters. The remaining commissions will be made by the end of 2017.

20110510_ghostlight_reh_0003.jpgCollaborators Tony Taccone and Jonathan Moscone with Resident Dramaturg Lydia Garcia at a rehearsal for Ghostlight at OSF in 2011. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Among the eight plays already produced is Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, about President Lyndon B. Johnson‘s first term of office up through the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Last year, the drama made it to the Great White Way and earned Tony awards for Outstanding Play and for Best Actor for Bryan Cranston in the role of LBJ under the direction of OSF’s Bill Rauch. Another is Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s Sweat (playing now through February 21, 2016 at Arena Stage in Washington, DC), which explores the demise of US manufacturing work and of labor unions and how poverty is reshaping the American narrative. After premiering at OSF, New York Times critic Charles Isherwood raved that Sweat “brims with the kind of ripe, richly imagined life associated with the work of the great August Wilson (a comparison I do not make lightly).” And, scheduled for production in summer of 2016 is playwright Lisa Loomer’s Roe, about the people behind the historic US Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade.

The Foundation has long supported companies distinguished by their sustained commitment to artists, distinctive artistic visions, and histories of producing new or artistically ambitious works, often by means of extended residencies and partnerships aimed at strengthening the quality of new work.

Alison Carey, the director of the project for OSF, says that her organization was optimistic when first applying for a grant from the Foundation in 2009 because “We knew that our goal of supporting new work would be very compatible with what Mellon was doing.” OSF, which first received funds from Mellon in 1983, is known for its commitment to creating institutional scaffolding to support playwrights, which is a focal point in the Foundation’s effort to build a diverse and inclusive performing arts ecosystem.

“Because of Mellon’s support we have the freedom and the capacity to bring playwrights together, either in Oregon or New York or wherever the playwrights want to work and meet,” says Carey.  American Revolutions playwrights are supported from the brainstorming process through research that is often both broad and deep, and thus long. Nottage, for example, spent nearly two years interviewing citizens in Reading, PA, the former steel and textile town where she ultimately set Sweat. OSF has created a community of other playwrights engaged in the same exercise.

The value of this is not lost on Nottage and her peers. “We so often write in isolation and we struggle with ideas in isolation, but with this particular commission we were invited to sit around a table at these convenings and present our work and talk about our struggles,” she said in a recent interview conducted by OSF staff. “I felt really supported not just by the theater but by the other playwrights that were part of this commissioning process.”

“We wanted to challenge ourselves and contemporary playwrights with ‘How do you create a variety of realities that address the complicated nature of who we are as a people – a bunch of humans making decisions – and who we are as a country?” says Carey.  “And that’s part of what the American Revolutions cycle tries to address.”  

American Revolutions

American Revolutions aims to look behind the scenes and in the margins of American history, as do other plays in various stages of development (some still untitled), including:

  • Michael Friedman’s American Pop, which digs deeply into racism in America as revealed in popular song, from the beginning of sheet music in the 1840s to the first copyright in the early 1920s.
  • Rhiana Yazzie’s Matachanna, which looks at early contact between Native Americans and European settlers.
  • Bill Cain’s Hasty Pudding, which explores the life of Abraham Lincoln’s son after his father’s assassination, the invention of the modern Republican Party, and the Pullman Porter Strike.
  • David Henry Hwang’s play about US-Philippines relations in the late 1800s.
  • Dominique Morisseau’s play about the role of African Americans in the Civil War, a topic initiated by OSF and inspired by the MacArthur “Genius” Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?”
  • Dan O’Brien’s play about guns’ key role in American history, culture, and jurisprudence—also a topic initiated by OSF.