“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” wrote renowned poet and human rights activist Cesar A. Cruz in 1997. Several plays that have burst onto the stage in recent years have lived up to that ideal, telling stories from the viewpoint of the vulnerable and voiceless.
Hamilton, a hip-hop and rap-inspired retelling of America's birth and the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, has been a huge hit - it recently snatched 11 Tony awards. The Broadway production employs a large, multicultural cast and portrays Hamilton as “just another immigrant, comin’ up from the bottom”. It seems to have whetted audiences’ appetite to see innovative, sometimes uncomfortable stories unfold on the stage.
Although arguably more progressive than Broadway, London’s West End is still a commercial enterprise and large theatres tend to commission ‘safe’ work to guarantee ticket sales. Shows such as The Lion King, Wicked and Mamma Mia tend to be popular choices among audiences reluctant to take a risk, such as those who are going to the theatre as a rare treat or have spent a great deal of money on expensive seats. But there are plenty of plays to inspire optimism in the future of theatrical diversity.
The National Theatre is leading the way in creating bold political theatre. Its latest show Les Blancs has just closed, following a critically acclaimed run. Taking no prisoners in its damning indictment of the domination of white voices in the telling of black history, Lorraine Hansberry’s play is about revolution and overthrowing white colonial power. Hansberry offered a powerful voice against racism and oppression in 1950s and ‘60s America, and inspired Nina Simone’s anthemic protest song, ‘To be Young, Gifted and Black’.
Theatre-makers at the fringes of the scene are often more willing to telling vital stories. Although they often have tiny budgets and face greater risks, there are countless examples of smaller-scale plays addressing difficult issues and amplifying minority voices.
SWARM is an upcoming piece from Target Theatre that is soon to embark on a UK tour. It promises to give a voice to the people seeking asylum in Europe, whose stories of fleeing war and persecution rarely reach the public consciousness. SWARM voices the unheard opinions that prospective citizens hold of British people, and examines the often vile language used by politicians and the media and parroted by the public.
Plays and musicals can be more than spectacle and entertainment. As Hamilton has shown, the theatre is also a powerful medium for telling important stories. As the show is live, viewers can’t turn the page or change the channel if the events on stage make them uncomfortable.
Theatre also sidesteps mind-numbing statistics and sensationalist headlines, in favour of engaging viewers on an emotional and intellectual level. The challenge is balancing lofty aspirations and idealism with the requisite level of razzle-dazzle to put bums in seats. Shows that succeed in walking that line can make tonnes of cash while also educating people, promoting diversity and acting as a force for change. Hamilton, take a bow.