If someone were to give you a free-association test and say, “Broadway,” the first word that would probably spring to mind would be “musicals.” If you thought about it a little longer, you might come up with “prestige London transfers” or “star-driven revivals of beloved classics.” But “experimental, politically engaged works that challenge and subvert mainstream tastes, beliefs, and expectations by a racially, ethnically, and sexually diverse group of artists”? Not so much. By and large, those in search of provocative, boundary-pushing, diverse theater have had to head Off- or Off-Off-Broadway into that realm known as “downtown.”
In recent years, the dam between uptown and downtown has started to spring a leak or two—and this season, the floodgates have opened. A rush of new productions written and directed by artists with a distinctly downtown sensibility are reshaping the Broadway landscape. It would be an impossible exercise to generalize what these directors and playwrights are doing, not least because part of their appeal is the striking originality of their perspectives. But it’s fair to say that all of them are creating work that speaks to the moment in which we live.
Take perhaps the most conventional-seeming, but subtly subversive, of these new works, Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton, which opened on Broadway this spring. Starring a customarily fantastic Laurie Metcalf as Hillary and John Lithgow as her nettlesome helpmeet, Bill, Hnath’s play takes place in a New Hampshire hotel room on the eve of that state’s 2008 Democratic primary. He wrote it that year and has resisted any impulses to update it in relation to the 2016 election. But rather than dating the work, its time-capsule character serves to underline the relentlessness of political pressures: “I’m writing a play about the Clintons, but I’m also using them as these kind of mythic figures that offer an occasion to think about how we see people in power, how we read people in a marriage, and how we expect different things from a woman running for president than we expect from a man,” Hnath says—an inquiry that feels particularly relevant as a record number of women gear up to run in 2020.
As a straight, white male who writes offbeat but accessible narrative plays, Hnath is an inspired but not far-fetched choice for a Broadway production. A slightly less intuitive pick is the queer playwright, singer-songwriter, and performance artist Taylor Mac, whose darkly hilarious—not to mention gore-spattered—Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus opened on Broadway this spring. Best known for his transformative, extravagantly humane, now-legendary 2016 epic A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, Mac got his start on the New York stage in the mid-1990s, writing and performing politically engaged drag performance pieces in downtown bars and clubs. (See: Cardiac Arrest or Venus on a Half-Clam, which, Mac says, “compared my sex life to the war on terror.”)
For his Broadway debut, Mac has been paired with the great George C. Wolfe, who has directed a trio of top-banana clowns—Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielsen, and Julie White—to bring Mac’s outrageous vision to the stage. Inspired in part by the death of Mac’s mother and the 2016 election, Gary is, as he puts it, “a kind of American vaudeville of an Elizabethan idea of the Roman Empire” that uses the carnage in Shakespeare’s goriest play as a metaphor for the ruin left in the wake of Trump’s ascension. It combines meditations on the value of revolutionary action versus incrementalism, the ability of theater to transform horror into something meaningful, and the fleeting nature of our existence with a giant heap of flatulent corpses, errant geysers of bodily fluids, and a kick line of dead Roman soldiers whose penises sway side to side in unison.
Frozen it ain’t, but from the beginning, Mac envisioned Gary for Broadway: “After the election, people said, ‘Oh, we have to take our work to Indiana, we have to take our work to Oklahoma. We can’t just exist in our New York bubble.’ And I said, ‘No, we have to do our work on Broadway, because Indiana and Oklahoma come to Broadway.’ So if we make Broadway shows that are something other than just shoring up the status quo, then that’s it right there—that’s reaching the people.”
Another work bound to have a profound impact on people is the Florida-born Matthew Lopez’s dazzlingly brainy and heart-stirring epic The Inheritance, which is expected to come to Broadway next season after its premiere in London, where it was rhapsodically heralded as the next Angels in America and won the Olivier for best new play. Like that era-defining work, the two-part, seven-hour play deals with the lives of gay men in America, using elements of the plot and structure of Howards End as a springboard into twenty-first-century New York and its environs. Following three generations of gay men (rather than the three families in E. M. Forster’s novel), the play asks how history—particularly the legacy of the AIDS crisis—affects present life. “I’m of a generation that grew up without a lot of mentors or guidance from the generation that preceded me, because it was decimated during the plague years,” Lopez says. “But I’m also old enough now to see a whole new generation of young gay men and gay women and trans kids, and an obligation to give them that which we weren’t able to receive ourselves.”
This season also sees the Broadway arrival of a pair of musicals that, respectively, reexamine old forms and use new ones to shed light on the current state of the union. From St. Ann’s Warehouse comes director Daniel Fish’s radically reimagined Oklahoma! (dubbed on social media #SexyOklahoma), which profitably takes several pages from the experimental-theater playbook to find the dark heart beneath Rodgers & Hammerstein’s sunny golden-age classic, suggesting that the brashness, violence, and suspicion of the Other that flavor this post-2016 era have been baked into the American pie since the beginning. And in Hadestown, under the direction of Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812), the folk-rock singer-songwriter Ana?s Mitchell resets the Orpheus and Eurydice myth in a twilight Depression-era New Orleans, turning Hades into a charismatic demagogue who, in a song called “Why We Build the Wall,” sings, “Because we have and they have not!/Because they want what we have got!”
Meanwhile, away from the rialto, a new generation of ferociously talented playwrights is not so quietly laying claim to theater’s future. They have been led this season by an astonishing group of young writers of color (and one Polish immigrant), creating works of wild invention and blazing intensity that force audiences to confront racism, inequality, sexism, and the pain of being othered in boldly theatrical and, at times, uncomfortably personal terms.
Martyna Majok’s gorgeous, resolutely unsentimental Cost of Living, which looks at four people—a quadriplegic, a man with cerebral palsy, and their caregivers—who converge in a New Jersey apartment building, becomes a rough-hewn and lyrical meditation on the handicaps with which we all live. A native of Poland who came here at a young age and grew up in New Jersey, Majok writes with great heart and sharp-eyed clarity about the alienation and quiet bravery of immigrant lives. Her newest play, Sanctuary City, which opens next season at New York Theatre Workshop, centers on a recently naturalized teenager who agrees to marry her undocumented best friend so that he can stay in the country. “These are lives that often remain invisible,” she says. “Putting them on a stage says, ‘This is something worth paying attention to.’ ”
With its depictions of racial bullying and sexual violence, Ming Peiffer’s wonderful professional playwriting debut, USUAL GIRLS, a smash Off-Broadway earlier this season, has discomfort built into its DNA. In a series of acutely observed vignettes, we see the coming-of-age—sexual and otherwise—of an Asian American girl in Ohio and, later, New York City as she tries to navigate a world that feels hostile to her existence. “I went to a really, really personal place,” Peiffer says, “writing about feeling like an outsider on every level.” Despite its specificity, Peiffer says, the play seems to speak to women of all generations, and it seems to offer “an outlet.” She pauses and laughs. “But it’s funny, too!”
Of course, it’s unclear whether this shift toward more diverse writers represents a sea change in the way artists of color are being given a place on the New York stage. “Right now, I think it’s just a phenomenon of this season,” says Jeremy O. Harris, who recently electrified New York audiences with two plays (Slave Play and “DADDY”). “We’ll know that it’s really changed if in five years nobody blinks an eye if there’s an entire season of just black writers at a major New York theater.” Harris himself will be back next season with A Boy’s Company Presents: Tell Me If I’m Hurting You, in which he examines a breakup through the lens of a Jacobean tragedy. It’s an eagerly awaited piece from a young writer whose Slave Play announced the arrival of a major new theatrical voice—bold, brainy, funny, fearless, sexy, angry, wounded, transgressive. “It was like I’d cut off a piece of myself and put it into that play,” Harris says.
For my money, the depth and breadth of the talent that has been emerging suggests that these are voices that will be speaking to us for years to come. That was certainly the impression I came away with after seeing Aleshea Harris’s electrifying Is God Is, a mash-up of revenge tragedy, spaghetti Western, and meditation on the veneration of mothers in African American culture, at Soho Rep last year. (She’s currently adapting it for the screen.) Harris possesses a gift for incorporating and transforming a wide range of influences into her work. “I want to chase those with my own vernacular,” she says, “my own sensibilities, my own point of view on the world, and my own positionality as a young, black woman. How do I make the conversation all about women like me?”
One of the most startlingly original voices belongs to this year’s Pulitzer winner Jackie Sibblies Drury, who has had a breakthrough season with two critically acclaimed plays on the New York stage—most recently, at Lincoln Center Theater, the exhilarating Marys Seacole, a time- and continent-hopping look at the tradition of African American women as caregivers, seen through the prism of the real-life story of a Jamaican British nurse in the Crimean War.
While Drury is delighted at the attention she and her peers have been receiving, she has some qualms. “All of us are still in a lot of ways writing for white spaces,” she says. “I wonder what that work would be if that wasn’t an inherent part of creating theater right now.” That dilemma is at the very heart of Drury’s Fairview, a brilliant, audacious deconstruction of the soul-warping power of the white gaze (and the work that earned her the 2019 Pulitzer for drama). It stunned critics and audiences last summer, becoming the subject of fervent debate (not to mention the hottest ticket in town—it returns to New York this month for a limited run at Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center).
The play starts as a traditional family comedy but soon veers into uncharted territory, ending with a poignant and harrowing monologue by the family’s youngest daughter, during which she addresses all the white members of the audience in a way that shatters any illusions about living in a post-racial America. “I hope that the show has an expiration date because of that,” Drury says. “I hope that it becomes unperformable soon because it will seem incredibly dated, and that the audience will be so diverse that the gesture at the end of the play doesn’t make any sense. That would be pretty cool.”