After experiencing Mies Julie, the South African production based on August Strindberg’s incredible drama and written and directed by the equally incredible Yael Farber, I returned home full of deep yearning.
I had not attended the show as a reviewer for the Maryland Theatre Guide; Elliot Lane’s review is here. I went simply as a theatre-goer along with my wife, Elizabeth Bruce, who was reviewing for another site.
Though the production touches on universal themes involving class, race, and gender, it is clearly and inextricably linked to the passions and struggles taking place within contemporary South Africa. As the country deals with its legacy of apartheid, with the dispossession of its black South African majority of land and identity and human rights, there can be little doubt that the production sparked controversy, as voices rise in agreement with, and objection to, its fierce and unapologetic analysis of power.
My yearning was not, however, rooted in the specific themes of Mies Julie. Although the production possesses exceptional art across a broad swathe of areas, its analysis and passionate portrayal of how power distorts human relationships do not directly speak to the American situation: there will be no controversy here, as the issues between “the haves” and the “have-nots,” the powerful and the relatively powerless are not exactly similar.
My yearning, rather, was for our own DC theatre. I yearned for it to boldly assert, with passion and verve, its own analysis of the core bread-and-butter issues plaguing our society today. And make no mistake, we should not believe that somehow we as a society are free from the dynamics of power and how they corrupt our most basic humanity. Our issues are plentiful, and they are not tangential to our lives, but central to how we interact with each other, politically, emotionally, and culturally.
Now, I acknowledge some will say that our theatre does address our key issues. They might point to Arena’s Good People, or Forum’s Agnes Under the Big Top, or Ford’s Laramie Project, or Woolly’s Detroit and say, “Those shows dealt with America’s unemployment issues, and its immigration issues, its discrimination based on sexual orientation, and its collapsing middle class. And indeed, to be fair, these shows spoke to those themes, but sadly only with a broad brush.
None of those fine productions–and they were polished productions all—looked unwaveringly at the pain that arises within the context of their real life situations.
None brought the dynamics of status and power into the limelight and unwaveringly asked their questions, so that then we could see how our humanity responds.
None of those smart, professional productions offered us a deep view of this truth even with a lower case “t.”
Rather, they couched their explorations in clever dialogue, journalistic nuance, imaginative flourish, and aesthetic expression. As a result, the window to humanity that might be revealed in each of their potent situations was obscured by the lens.
So the yearning that grips me does not express some lack of craft, or talent, and most definitely not a lack of resources. I daresay DC theatre has as abundant of resources as any theatre community in the country, or the world.
What DC theatre lacks, and what a production like Mies Julie so clearly reveals, is the urgency of NOW.
What must our theatres speak to, act on, and find solutions for—now, today? How might our theatres serve the urgent real life needs of, not the theatre community in an act of self-reflection, but the broader American community that is so much in need of vision. If that vision cannot be political, then why not theatrical?
Now, without doubt, Mies Julie is that gift of art that arrives in the world rarely, and to judge all art by its accomplishment would be unfair. Nevertheless, the vision it brings to the stage, even if it were a thousand times flawed, would leave us begging for more.
And it is high time Washington’s theatre left us begging for more.