The Stage: The forgotten shows that prove we need to protect theatre’s future

May 27th, 2016 § 0 comments

Brandon Victor Dixon and Audra McDonald in Shuffle Along (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

The act of making theatre is of endless fascination to those who make theatre, which accounts for the litany of backstage plays and musicals going back to, at least, the mechanicals’ scenes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. By sheer coincidence, New York is home to two new entries in this genre, both focusing attention on actual productions from the 1920s, and in the process restoring currency to forgotten works.

The more elaborate of the two shows is the Broadway musical Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, written and directed by George C Wolfe. This chronicles the history of Shuffle Along, America’s first all-black musical – both on stage and behind the scenes. It was a groundbreaking, bona fide smash in its debut, playing nearly 500 performances and making stars of many cast members. However, the show itself was very much of its time, and in the days before cast recordings, and no doubt as a result of failed revival attempts in 1932 and 1953, it faded from memory. Only thanks to Wolfe’s creative efforts has the show regained a foothold in theatrical history, beyond the realm of scholars.

By sheer coincidence of timing, Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichmann, with their Off-Broadway play Indecent, have performed a similar act of resurrection on God of Vengeance, a play with its roots in European Yiddish theatre, which played in two Off-Broadway theatres in 1922 before reaching Broadway, in an English language version, in 1923. Like Shuffle Along, God of Vengeance was largely lost to time, but not after a long successful run. God of Vengeance was effectively shut down when its cast and producer were charged and convicted with offering an immoral performance, and subsequent legal proceedings continued for the next three years, ultimately exonerating them long after the play had shuttered.

Adina Verson and Max Gordon Moore in Indecent (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Reading press coverage from that era, any number of reasons were cited for exactly what it was that made God of Vengeance so offensive, ranging from depictions of prostitution to portrayals of the desecration of Jewish religious symbols. What the press accounts of the charges left out, like many of the reviews that preceded them, was that the play depicted a lesbian relationship. While that love story was judged harshly by other characters in the play, it was portrayed as liberating by the playwright, Sholom Asch, rather than as shameful, which might have placated the moralists of the time.

As a student of the theatre, I was not unaware of Shuffle Along or God of Vengeance, but these new works certainly made them more vivid for me by recounting their histories theatrically. Working against theatrical censorship 90 years after those plays were first seen in New York, I confess to having invested deeply in Indecent long before I saw it. I went in anticipating a work that might in some way inform my own work, that would show me parallels to the small-mindedness that fuels censorship then and now.

While that is certainly a strand in Indecent, I was surprised to find that it was not, as I’d imagined, a straightforward anti-censorship tract. In fact, it is a love letter to the people who struggle to make theatre against all odds, in this case against those who wish to police morality, just as the new Shuffle Along pays tribute to the men who broke through a theatrical colour barrier, through racism, even though there were (and are) many more societal challenges to face. Both works are about vision and tenacity, with the more mournful Indecent putting me in mind of yet another play about the making of theatre, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good.

While I don’t necessarily think those who forget theatrical history are doomed to repeat it, it’s impossible not to think about the histories of these plays in light of the discourse surrounding America’s endless presidential campaign, where racial bias and limits on free speech are discussed as if they are viable planks in a political platform. I don’t think theatre artists want to turn the clock back one bit – but it’s worrisome to think that the attitudes that artists faced in the 1920s might once again gain political currency, even if they have always been present in our society, both covertly and overtly.

The new Shuffle Along and Indecent are reminders, as they honour and celebrate achievements and travails of the past, of why barriers broken cannot be allowed to be rebuilt. It is why, like the ghostly troupe in Indecent that reanimates nightly to tell the story of God of Vengeance over and over again, we must utilise and support theatre, and all of the arts, in an effort to dispel the worst impulses that will shape not just our stories and our ability to tell them, but our lives.

 

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