During the 1960s I was an English teacher in a rural high school in central New York. Sadly, this little valley town was infected by racial prejudice, which, at the time, the young people there had yet to question. Shamefully, these students’ misguided opinions were not discouraged by the school administration. Classroom discussions on civil rights were met with scowling (all white) faces before me; minds seemed closed to the idea of racial equality.
One day, it was announced that there would be a special play performed in the auditorium by a troupe of actors employed by the New York State Arts in the Schools program. Its title, “In White America,” probably made the principal think it was right up his political alley. It decidedly was not! Playwright Martin Duberman’s stunning documentary play is a compilation of short vignettes taken from actual events in American history about our country’s relationship with its Black citizens. Scenes included recitations from slave memoirs, Nat Turner’s blazing plea for freedom from his short-lived rebellion in the 1830s and a courtroom episode involving a Ku Klux Klan member. My students were electrified! The actors’ powerful portrayals flung open their slammed-shut mental doors and, by the time we came back to the classroom, they couldn’t stop talking. There was wide-eyed eagerness to hear from those whom they had previously looked upon with suspicion.
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Hands shot into the air. Could the actors come to class and talk to them?
“Of course,” I said, and a student ran back to the auditorium with that invitation. A few minutes later, the entire cast came into the room and, with thoughtful passion, answered questions from young people who would never be the same again.
Twenty years later, another example of the transformative power of theater presented itself. I attended a week-long seminar at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario in 1987, a time when the violent corruption unmasked by the turbulent Iran-Contra hearings was all over the news. We attendees were advised that one of the senior actors in residence, the brilliant Nicholas Pannell, troubled by world events, had persuaded festival administrators to create a repertoire of anti-war plays that summer. Hence, audiences could see a reflection of the real world’s perverse grittiness through the theatre’s protective mirror. One such play that year was the World War I drama “Journey’s End,” performed in a tiny theater enabling the audience to feel the terror of being right in the trenches with the war-weary soldier-characters. Also on the bill was “Not About Heroes,” the true story of British poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, who met only once in their lives, briefly, in a hospital for shell-shock victims in 1918. The depictions were intense, and we exited with tear-stained faces. Then there was Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida,” cleverly produced to interweave contemporary props and literary allusions to show the relevance of the Trojan War’s mind-numbing depravity for modern times. By week’s end, we all came away completely mesmerized.
The power of theater is its capacity to coax audiences into a deeper understanding by enchanting their imaginations, thus freeing them to explore a world apart from their own. By so doing, this potent art form allows space for change to occur. I know. I’ve seen it happen.