Art both reflects life and gives us perspective on it –– as evident in the socially aware work now being produced at the Hangar Theatre and Syracuse Stage. Their online projects, most of them free to the public, address key political and racial issues of inclusion and equity.
From the Hangar Theatre Company, a reading of Jacqueline E. Lawton’s “The Inferior Sex” streamed last Friday, directed by Cynthia Henderson. The nine-woman play is set in summer 1972, when Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (played by Adara Alston) was campaigning to be the first Black female president. Having founded a new feminist-fashion magazine, the editors struggle to define their focus –– how much food, fashion, or politics? –– while trying to stay afloat financially. When the magazine’s white women (and one Asian) editors welcome to their team a cutting-edge activist reporter who’s Black (Erin Lockett), their assumptions and values are tested.
Exploring racial issues in a professional and avowedly feminist workplace is the compelling premise of Lawton’s play. The story deepens with the editor in chief (Sarina Freda) needing to decide whether to expose her powerful father’s misdeeds (he’s partly bankrolling the publication); all is complicated by their Black family housecleaner (Dionne M. Robinson) finally deciding to speak out.
The Hangar’s next production, Joy Peskin’s “Dear Hope,” streams also only one evening: Sunday, Nov. 1, at 7:30 p.m. Former artistic director Michael Barakiva helms this story about “coming together in divided times.” When a woman heading to the D.C. Women’s March meets a conservative man attending the presidential inauguration, both sincerely try to find common ground. (This show is free, with registration required.)
Also next month, Syracuse Stage’s “re-imagined” six-play virtual season opens Nov. 11 with Lanford Wilson’s “Talley’s Folly,” starring real-life couple Kate Hamill and Jason O’Connell. Subsequent shows include work by Black playwrights: Anna Deavere Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” and Kyle Bass’s “salt/city/blues,” a world premiere.
In addition, Syracuse Stage is now featuring three different social initiatives, all free. “100 Conversations for Change,” a series of video dialogues with community members, is an innovative project with 100 Black Men of Syracuse and Black Cub Productions. Drake Harrison, president of 100 Black Men, hosts the discussions with Central New York leaders and influencers. The first four conversations are already online, with Syracuse’s mayor and chief of police, among others.
Two theatrical shows are also currently streaming, free upon registration. Black women’s lives are the focus of “A Gatherin’ Place,” available through Sunday, Oct. 25. Written, directed, and produced by Dr. Juhanna Rogers, this hour-long piece, handsomely filmed on an actual stage, is a collaboration with The Harriet Tubman Troupe, a community theater group associated with Auburn Public Theater.
The spine of the show is Rogers’ performance of her poem, “It’s Hard to Tell a Black Woman’s Story,” the lines then repeating to inspire monologues by each of eight women. In the play’s context, they’re all residents of the same Brooklyn building, and they’ve just learned that their writing teacher and beloved mentor, Miss Paulette (played by Rogers), has passed. She had listened to them, given them journals, urged them to find their voices, and encouraged them to face life’s trials while supporting each other.
The individual tales they share — about the challenges they face and overcome –– are as varied as the women themselves: white perceptions and judgments, social exclusion and sexual abuse, self-doubt and exhaustion. Each intense story is richly detailed and shared with real intimacy. The women recount historical traumas that are “passed through generations,” but they also find a way forward. In one story, a woman overloaded with bags urges the others to “put down your bag and readjust your crown” –– don’t carry heavy woes and fears, travel lightly, free yourself.
In contrast, the hopeful strains of “A Gatherin’ Place” are countered by the fearful message that dominates “It Can’t Happen Here,” a powerful reading of the satirical radio play based on Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel. This production, featuring professional actors, is set in the era of rising fascism, as well as the ascendancy of Huey Long in Louisiana. Presented by Syracuse Stage in partnership with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, this work can be heard via YouTube through Monday, Nov. 8.
Listening to this play proves more disturbing than the 1938 broadcast of Orson Welles’ radio play “War of the Worlds” ever did; Martians invading New Jersey pale when compared to the brave new world that Lewis imagines. His incompetent demagogue who ascends to the U.S. presidency, supported by a powerful few and backed by a ruthless militia, seems remarkably familiar. We observe the government’s increasing repressions through the perspective of one newspaper editor (played by David Strathairn), whose fight for freedom of speech (not to mention his family’s safety) comes at great cost.
Barbara Adams, a regional arts journalist, teaches writing at Ithaca College.