REVIEW: Staging Unrest: Performance in times of crisis

Politically provocative theatre has always been integral to the narrative of art and society, from the statements made about race and power as early as in Shakespeare’s Othello to the ones about immigration, representation, and leadership in Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. There seems to be something important about the staging and design of these plays that gives power to their political messages and articulates such notions to the masses– in Hamilton, one major feature of this was the cross-racial casting. For centuries, Othello was staged with portraying Othello in blackface. There is clearly something we must fundamentally understand about theatre to stage these pieces with thoughtfulness and grace. SMTD discussed these ideas in their talk, “Staging Unrest: Performance in times of crisis”, in conjunction with their upcoming production, Night and Day.

The panel for the event consisted of two directors, two designers, and the American and Polish cast for the play (there are Polish students and professors at the University of Michigan participating in this production). Night and Day is written by Charles Mee, who posts all his plays online and allows people to write over it, take parts out, and change it however they please (here is it, if you’re curious: This play is about image and movement and interpretation– it gives a great deal of freedom to the actors, directors, and designers to make it how they please. One actor claimed that this piece allowed for the flexibility and maybe even sympathy of different viewpoints, whereas other political theatre already has a message preconceived in the mind of the director or actors. Night and Day is experimental, daring, dissociative– and it puts pressure on the concept of political unrest rather than providing answers to resolve it.

A great deal of beautifully articulated points about theatre were posed at the panel, and each person on the stage had something insightful to contribute. Malcolm Tulip, SMTD’s beloved directing and acting professor, said, “Theatre is a series of scenes or images that we put in succession to each other, and the friction between them is what causes the depth and thought.” I thought this was a profound way to view political theatre especially– there is something happening between the images and scenes, whether on or off-stage, that causes the pressure to make meaning. There’s something important to be said if one scene is about Trump declaring that he’ll build a wall between the United States and Mexico, and if the scene right after it depicts a suburban Mexican family in California celebrating their daughter’s quinceanera. There’s tension, friction, pressure, whatever building between the two. It doesn’t even have to be overtly said. Night and Day zeroes in on this technique.

I also found interesting what Dominika Knapik, the Polish choreographer for Night and Day, said: when asked what theatre was like in Poland, she admitted that one of the popular sentiments surrounding Poland’s theatrical and artistic scene was that people’s tax dollars shouldn’t go towards making art that isn’t politically correct. “Wouldn’t this make theatre unpopular in Poland, then?” the mediator asks. Knapik says no– it only makes theatre more relevant if the government is actively trying to fight it. Art is a force to be reckoned with in politically decisive times. It fans the flames to revolution or degradation.

I thought the panel was responsive and extremely insightful, but I feel as though the event was too heavily geared toward the play Night and Day. I expected it to be more about staging political theatre from a theoretical perspective (it was marketed as such), and was a bit disappointed with the narrow focus on the upcoming Night and Day production. Still, the event was well-organized and stimulating. Above all– I would recommend everyone go see SMTD’s upcoming production Night and Day by Charles Mee and performed by students at the University of Michigan and Polish students from the University of Krakow.

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