A young man from Colombia sees New York for the first time. A pianist from Harlem sees his son for the first time. A woman speaking in sign insists on the beauty of her language.
What is American?
Berkshire theaters are taking on this question with a tough and broad-minded compassion as they open this summer season with plays they feel are strongly, immediately relevant in a time of questions and divisions across the country.
Williamstown will welcome an actor known for a role that defined America in its early days. Leslie Odom Jr., winner of the 2016 Tony Award for best actor as Aaron Burr in the original cast of Hamilton, will come to Williamstown to star in a reading of Alan Fox’s play in progress, Safe Space, with Williamstown Theatre Festival at the Clark Art Institute (in August 2017).
He will play a professor with a student who brings a complicated accusation against him, says WTF’s artistic director, Mandy Greenfield. And when the college president steps in, all three have to ask themselves where they stand in this country.
The first play on WTF’s stages will take on that question from the title onwards: Jason Kim world premiere, The Model American, will open on the Nikos Stage, directed by Danny Sharron.
Gabriel, young, Latino, gay and generously ambitious, comes from Colombia to New York looking for work and love. He begins alone to build a place to be who he is, Greenfield says, in ways he could not in the family, the class and the place where he was born. Kim tells the story, as Gabriel lives it, with humor and dignity and maturity.
The play was born at WTF last summer in a Bill Foeller Directing Fellowship, a rare program — few in the country focus on emerging directors, Greenfield says. Sharron and Kim applied together last year and worked with WTF in the spring and summer.
So the play was not written in response to the election — Kim began it well before — but it hits home for Greenfield now.
“I do believe playwrights are the interpreters of the time we are living in,” she says. “But it is shockingly relevant to be doing a play about an immigrant’s experience in 2017, when every other headline seems to touch on it. He was involved in it before it was the stuff of headlines, responding to what he sees and feels, and it is a prescient interpretation of questions we face.”
Barrington Stage Company takes up the challenge of those questions in Ragtime on the Mainstage and Kunstler, a one-man show about radical lawyer and activist William Kunstler, on the St. Germain Stage.
Kunstler defended Freedom Riders in the Civil Rights Movement, the Chicago Seven during the Viet Nam War and American Indian activists. He often defended the Constitution to the line, says artistic director Julieanne Boyd. He would defend a man or woman to defend freedom of speech, or to defend their right to defend themselves — rights he considered basic to the Constitution and the country. He was putting the system itself on trial.
Ragtime will hit a harmonic as it calls on America to live up to its promises.
Barrington Stage usually opens the Main Stage season with a musical, and this summer Boyd turned to one she has wanted to do for years.
This is the right year, she says, for a play with a sweeping cast and a glorious score, based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel, with a novel’s depth of courage and pain.
A housewife from New Rochelle, left on her own, meets a piano player from Harlem and a father from Latvia, and enters into the risks they take to protect their families and their lives.
It is set at turn of the 20th century, and a hundred years later its themes are still with us, Boyd says — immigration, race, injustice.
Berkshire Theatre Group responds with a love story with a broad scope.
“It’s about who has control of the conversation, and how we become equal,” says artistic director Kate Maguire.
Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God will open on the Mainstage on June 22, directed by Tony awardwinner Kenny Leon.
A man and a woman meet at a school for the deaf. James is hearing, and he teaches speech and lip reading. Sarah is deaf from birth and speaks in sign and loves the fluid, expressive strength of her language. Lauren Ridloff, who plays Sarah, is also deaf, and so are two of her fellow members of the cast.
“Laura is extraordinary,” she says. “She brings great depth and understanding of this character.”
Written in 1979, the play feels tensely right for this year, Maguire says. It has been on her list for a long time and has come up every year, and this is the time, “because it has such a center, such a center in the heart, and we are so off-center right now.”
It is a play about about hearing and not hearing in many ways, about communication, about being off-balance and finding how to come together.
“We could make lists right now of how off-balance we feel, no matter where we are. So many walls are being built — we’re even speaking about our government investing in them. It’s in our consciousness that it’s ok to build walls, when we’ve spent decades trying to break down walls.”
Fresh from a reading with the cast, she recalls a scene when Joshua Jackson as James makes Sarah speak out loud, knowing the language she speaks familiarly does not use sound in that way.
“It’s one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had in a theater,” Maguire says.
That dynamic between a man and a woman feels very present to her now.
“He is trying to control the relationship,” she says, “and she won’t have it. And he learns. He learns her language.”
This story first ran in the June 2017 Berkshire Magazine. My thanks to Anastasia Stanmeyer.