As a theater lover, this is usually one of my favorite parts of any season.
January has become the de facto time for theaters to take on some of their most ambitious projects, and normally, that means tackling a classic.
While a season opener sets the tone, and the season ender assists in you going out on a high note, the middle of the season, combined with the arrival of a brand new year, can sometimes be a reset or a chance for an organization to greet audiences who’ve made a resolution to see more theater with the best it has to offer.
And clearly, we’re not doing that this year.
But while most of us agree that many models need to be chucked out the nearest window, I would argue that barring something in the mission statement that has us avoiding anything that isn’t extremely modern, we should fight to keep the classics spot alive.
What I think we need to look at is what defines a classic.
First off, let’s not get into Shakespeare.
If you love it, fantastic, but it’s the customary go-to, right?
Also, I know The Great Gatsby is in the public domain now, but for the love of god, don’t. We had a wonderful local production only a few years ago, and another fabulous college production before that. Let’s put a moratorium on all things Gatsby for the foreseeable future.
Then there are the Tony and Pulitzer winners.
I promise you we have raked those coals bare. One of the benefits of living in an area with so much theater is that your “I’ve never seen” list gets shorter and shorter until you find yourself wondering why you’ve seen six different productions of Bus Stop.
The question is: What are the new classics?
The shows that wouldn’t immediately jump to mind as something that works for both a field trip and guarantees audience and critical acclaim unless you royally mess it up?
These would be my choices for the Top Ten shows we should see not only being produced more often, but conceptualized. Reimagined. Given the kind of signature performance that helps establish younger companies still introducing themselves to audiences and assists theaters with more longevity in demonstrating their acuity at tackling the big texts.
All of these plays are just old enough to have cemented their inarguable excellence while still being new enough to ensure that many of us have probably only seen a few of them onstage. I also tried to weave around choosing titles that are already highly produced even if they could be thought of as new classics (plays like The Clean House or Appropriate.) I also tried to keep manageability in mind, which is why you won’t see M. Butterfly on the list. It’s a gorgeous play, but only if you can find someone to play the title role, and that’s no easy feat.
Feel free to argue with me, that’s part of the fun of theater and Top Ten lists, but after you’ve run to the comments section, run to wherever you get your plays and read all of these.
In no particular order–
10. bobrauschenbergamerica by Charles Mee
For my money, everybody should do a Charles Mee play once a year. This just happens to be my favorite, but all of them are wild and wonderful. I’m already breaking my rule about audiences though, because boy oh boy, do you need an audience that’s willing to go on a ride, but what better way to cultivate one than with work this joyous? Plus, you can read all his plays for free right on his website (charlesmee.com)
9. King Hedley II by August Wilson
I have no idea why this play isn’t done all the time, especially since this is the play that got Viola Davis her first Tony Award. While I’ll never quibble about which Wilson play is the best, the 1980s seems like a time worth examining again in the current moment. When I spoke about conceptualizing earlier, Wilson is who I was thinking about. In America, you know we love you when we start deconstructing you, and it seems a shame that Wilson’s work has never been attempted by directors willing to view it through a less-than-naturalistic lens. His later work, like Gem of the Ocean, even seems to beg for it. I can see why trying something like that with stalwarts like Fences might be tricky, so why not give it a try with something lesser known, but equally powerful?
8. On the Verge by Eric Overmyer
I allowed myself one of those “it used to be done all the time” plays, because this is one even I haven’t seen, and goodness knows, I’ve tried. Go back and read it and you’ll find it not only holds up, it holds on. It is long overdue for a professional revival.
7. An American Daughter by Wendy Wasserstein
When theaters produce Wendy Wasserstein, they produce The Heidi Chronicles and call it a day. In my opinion, this is the play we need from her right now. A blistering condemnation of what women face in the political arena, with observations on the media that seem prescient and dialogue that ranks among her best. Why it wasn’t done everywhere in 2016 is beyond me.
6. Dot by Colman Domingo
No artist should be allowed to be as talented as Colman Domingo, and yet, he’s just as good a playwright as he is an actor, which is saying something. His play Dot is one of the best I’ve read about aging and how it impacts a family, and it offers a star-making turn for its title character.
5. Sonnets for an Old Century by Jose Rivera
Trinity’s recent production of Marisol should have had everybody going back and looking at the work of Jose Rivera, but unfortunately, I’m not sure we were as adventurous in the before times as Rivera requires. Luckily, we’re all game for much bigger leaps once this plague is over, right? And the perfect way to showcase that is by taking a look at Rivera’s half-poem, half-exaltation that offers unlimited possibilities for casting, directing and designing. It features some of the best monologues I’ve ever read and language that you’ll never be able to forget.
4. What of the Night? by María Irene Fornés
It’s possible you know Fefu and Her Friends and Mud, but while you might be tempted to produce Mother Courage once you’re back in business, I’d plead with you to look at this grandiose theatrical experiment instead. It’s epic in scope and messaging, and features the legendary playwright at the height of her prowess.
3. Drowning Crow by Regina Taylor
Regina Taylor’s gospel musical Crowns is more well-known, but I found her adaptation of The Seagull to be one of the best ever written. It’s a no-nonsense, gutsy approach to the work that has no reverence for the source material whatsoever (which is sort of how you have to do it if you’re going to adapt Chekhov). Sometimes you have to meet an audience halfway with a story they know, told in a manner they’re not familiar with, and this is a great example of that special kind of artistic marriage.
2. Satellites by Diana Son
Son’s play Stop/Kiss is her most popular work. Even my theater produced it years ago, and while I can see why it packs a punch, a part of me was upset I didn’t discover Satellites until much later, and in the middle of an already-programmed season, because it’s an elevation of all her previous fascinations in a way that’s both humorous and devastating. It’s also one of the best plays about city living that I’ve ever read.
1. Father Comes Home from the Wars by Suzan-Lori Parks
Before you tell me you’re too scared to take on a play this massive, I’d like to remind you that nearly every artistic director I’ve ever met has wanted to produce Angels in America at some point, most of them will eventually, and once the rights to The Inheritance become available, I’m sure I’m going to have to sit through at least two local productions of that before I ever get to see something as exciting as Father Comes Home from the Wars. Parks’ play was met with near universal acclaim when it premiered, and like most plays that look at history and race, it barely ever appeared outside of major markets after that. It’s exactly the kind of work we need to be doing when theaters reopen, and it still has all the strengths of any and all American classics, while not letting America off the hook.
If you don’t end up liking any of these plays after you read them, use them as a jumping off point to discover more work that could find a home on your stage.
Just please don’t make me sit through another production of The Glass Menagerie.
I’m begging you.