Politics in theater: Artists Repertory Theatre season preview

The 35th anniversary season of Artists Repertory Theatre, located in Southwest Portland near Providence Park, promises to be one hell of a year. ART’s seven plays have been specifically curated to get political and spark conversation.

Theater—community, large scale, professional or amateur—invariably is a reflection of contemporary society. Writers are influenced by the context they live in; it is impossible not to be. The shows that ART puts on are always new plays, first performed within the last three years or so. But this year is a little different. The plays were selected in 2016, right around the time of the election.

“Most of the people in our staff…are feeling a lot of anxiety,” ART Artistic Director Dámaso Rodríguez said. “Theater can be used as an escape. Or theater [can be used] to explore and discuss that anxiety and shared experience of relief by taking on work that doesn’t shy away from the moment.”

And that is what ART is tackling this season: racism, chronic illness, climate change, government oppression…ART isn’t pulling any punches.

This season’s plays involve Tony winners, Pulitzer winners, MacArthur Genius playwrights, a commissioned play and prolific plays.

The season kicks off with An Octoroon (Sept. 3–Oct. 1) by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a dark comedy more about the experience than the story. Read our opening night review here.

Caught (Oct. 1–29) premieres at ART in October, in partnership with The Chújú Gallery/SF and The Geezer Gallery with artist Lin Bo and playwright Christopher Chen. Rodríguez describes the installation/theater piece as reflecting the contemporary by the way it showcases “how a government can pretend to be pro artist but acting as if [they are] not an oppressive regime…art as a way of obscuring, [when] they are actually oppressing people.” The multimedia production explores what truth and perception are, depending on who is speaking and who is viewing.

Stephen Karam’s The Humans (Nov. 19–Dec. 17) takes place in a single location over the 90-minute production. “It’s almost surreal in its hyper-realism,” Rodríguez said. Generations of a family gather to celebrate Thanksgiving. Over the course of dinner, audiences come to understand the various anxieties of each member of this middle/lower-class family.

“You could do this 50 years from now and get a sense of what it’s like to be alive right now,” Rodríguez said. “It’s a 21st-century look at what a certain kind of American life is like.” What Death of a Salesman was to the ’40s, The Humans is to today. “The anxieties come out in really interesting ways,” ART publicist Nicole Lane added. That said, the play does not create a sense of hopelessness. “There’s something positive about it,” Rodríguez said.

Magellanica (Jan. 20–Feb. 18) explores climate change, detailing a 1985 expedition to Antarctica to study a hole in the ozone. It is a five-part play, with each part lasting an hour (audiences will be treated to a dinner break). Rodríguez and Lane, anticipating that audiences might be tentative regarding the long run-time, commented that people familiar with Netflix-binging can comfortably take a journey that looks at governmental control, isolation, climate change and truth.

Continuing the theme of topical timeliness is Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy (March 4–April 1), a 2015 Pulitzer winner about a black cop forced into retirement after being shot while off-duty by a rookie white cop. Kevin Jones, whom Portlanders may be familiar with from the Red Door Project (described by ART as “an organization that uses art as a catalyst to transform the racial ecology of Portland”) will be playing the main character, Pops.

The Thanksgiving Play (April 1–29), written by Larissa FastHorse, was commissioned by ART. A classroom full of white teachers is tasked with putting on a play that will celebrate Thanksgiving while somehow honoring Native American Heritage month. “It’s mutually exclusive,” Lane said. The teachers utilize an actor whom they believe is Native American as their textbook. Even as a comedy, it invites discussion. These teachers could easily be the liberal, white, progressive, well-meaning instructors of Portland who are just ill-equipped to do what they are trying to do.

The season ends with I and You (May 20–June 17), one of the most-produced plays of the last year in the United States. On a surface level, this is a much quieter and smaller play than the previous powerhouses. It’s a two-character play: Two seemingly opposite teenagers have to work together on a project about Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. The rest of the season is “confronting and challenging,” Rodríguez said. The season is meant to be viewed in its entirety: “I and You is the takeaway. It’s a positive view of the future. More hopeful if you will,” Rodríguez said.

Lane added, “It goes beyond clearly drawn lines.” Director JoAnn Johnson described the play as “a cosmic hug.”

ART, in addition to the seven theater pieces, has a three-show Frontier series: limited-run shows curated by ART. They, Themself and Shmerm, The Holler Sessions, and White Rabbit Red Rabbit all sit somewhere between play and performance art.

An Octoroon is currently in production through Oct. 1 and the season runs until June 17. You don’t want to miss a thing. Visit www.artistsrep.org/onstage/201718-season for more info.