Is live theater a useful vehicle for tackling issues of racism, sexism and inequality? Josh Sticklin, the associate producer at Washington’s Keegan Theatre, thinks so, but not in the way most people might expect. Plays onstage are not much good for delivering a message about what kinds of behavior are good or bad, he says, because as soon as you try to push an audience to a predetermined response, the drama goes flat. Far better to expose theatergoers to other kinds of experience and to raise questions without obvious answers.
“The job of theater is to just tell the story,” says Sticklin, who’s directing Keegan’s season-opening show, Good People, by David Lindsay-Abaire, author of the Tony-nominated (and Pulitzer-winning) Rabbit Hole.
“Don’t tell the audience how to respond; give them that opportunity, that responsibility. Show them people who are different from themselves and let them discover the connections to themselves. Let them say, ‘Ooh, I’ve had that cheese,’ or ‘I’ve been in that alley.’ Whatever the entry point is, let the audience find its own way in. The hope is that the experience will linger after the lights come up, that they will process their own reactions after they leave the theater.”
Lindsay-Abaire’s 2011 play is well designed to provoke ambiguous reactions and to open a window on different lives. Largely set in “Southie,” Boston’s working-class Irish neighborhood, the script centers on Margie (pronounced with a hard g), a woman who could barely pay the rent and take care of her special-needs adult child before losing her latest job. Meanwhile, her high school boyfriend Mike went to medical school and, while interning at Georgetown University Hospital, married Kate, the daughter of his supervising doctor. When their paths cross again, sparks fly.
The show offers an inversion of the usual race/class structure in America: Kate, the upper-middle-class doctor’s daughter is Black; the other five characters are working-class White people. When Mike climbs the social ladder out of Southie, his old friends mock him as “lace-curtain Irish.”
“What I love about that reversal is that right out of the gate it throws what we usually expect from American theater right out the window,” Sticklin says. “Instead of showing the Black character as oppressed, he shows her living in a world we might want someday. It confounds expectations, so the audience can’t get too comfortable. And in every scene, there’s another turn in the plot that goes against assumptions. The playwright never lets up in shifting the landscape underneath you and daring you to process that: How does that change your feelings about the characters? About the world of 2011? Of 2021?”
To help the audience process these issues, Keegan is partnering this season with Challenging Racism, an Arlington-based organization trying to educate Americans about systemic racism. Facilitators from the group will moderate an Audience Talkback session after one show in each run of the theater’s eight plays this season. Bringing the cast and production team together, the discussion will delve deeper into the concerns raised by the show. Moreover, representatives from Challenging Racism will visit rehearsals occasionally to help the cast and crew negotiate the same issues before the show even opens.
Sticklin is all for this collaboration. It reinforces his own pet project, the Keegan’s Boiler Room Series, which he founded in 2016. Each season — unless there’s a full-blown pandemic — new playwrights are invited to develop their latest work through workshops and staged readings that are then presented to the public late in the season (May 10-22 this season). One of the program’s alumni, the Brazilian American writer Graziella Jackson, is now serving as Keegan’s playwright-in-residence as she works on a new play.
“I’ve always loved new work,” Sticklin explains. “I’m interested in where theater is going, who it’s from, who it’s about and how that needs to change. It’s a shame that playwrights, actors, directors and audience members from certain communities that have too often been left outside the gate of American theater. What we’re trying to do with the Boiler Room Series, with Challenging Racism and with plays like Good People, is bring those people in through the gate.”