It’s no coincidence that a number of plays on Bay Area stages this summer and fall are featuring the same character, one with a strong resemblance to a certain Republican presidential nominee. The most explicit is Dan Hoyle’s one man show The Real Americans, which he is performing at the Marsh in San Francisco.
“Donald Trump, he gonna be president,” says Hoyle in the role of Roy, an African-American, with his t-shirt pulled up and a pack of cigarettes rolled in a sleeve. “I like a president that’s bold. That has some balls. I mean Obama. He was a good president. But they didn’t let him do nothing. They gave him the keys to the city and he locked up the doors.”
Hoyle plays a dozen or so characters, based on interviews he did driving around the country during the recession, in 2008, and again last spring.
“If anything,” he said, “the desperation is greater. Especially for working class folks if they lost their jobs. And people’s sense of disenfranchisement makes them think things that probably aren’t all based in fact.”
In other words, many of his interviewees, mirroring the national mood, were passionate about Republican nominee Donald Trump or former Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, not so much. And that goes for the characters he portrays from the Bay Area as well.
“One of my Lyft customers was telling me that she was going to vote for Bernie,” says Hoyle in the role of a gig economy underachiever. “But now she’ll vote for Trump because he understands her anger.”
The Bay Area has long supported political theater. “We believe in the public square,” Theater Bay Area Executive Director Brad Ericson says, “we believe that our voices can make a difference.”
It’s often hard for theater companies to respond quickly to current events, as plays can take years to develop. But Ericson, who’s worked in the Bay Area theater scene since the early 1980s, can’t remember a time when so many shows focused on an upcoming election.
“We’re seeing a real flurry of political theater,” Ericson says, “just because the stakes seem to be so high. This is such a bizarre political season.”
The First American Play
Still, American Theater has often been a forum for both partisan politics and debates about race and class.
“The very first known play was called Ye Bare and Ye Cubb, which was a political tract about why colonists should not have to pay taxes,” says Christine Young, an assistant professor and chair of the performing arts and social justice program at the University of San Francisco.
That was 1655. Scholars say millions of people saw theatrical versions of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And in the 1930s, the Federal Theater project produced plays supporting Roosevelt’s New Deal.
“There were plays that opened in cities all across the country,” Young says, "and thousands if not millions of people saw the same plays.”
Can It Happen Here?
The prime example was It Can’t Happen Here, based on Sinclair Lewis’ novel, in which the populist senator Buzz Windrip wins the presidency with an “America First" campaign, then imposes a fascist state. The Federal Theater Project opened the show in 21 theaters across the country in 1936, with the Depression gripping America, and Hitler and Mussolini on the rise in Europe. And the novel is getting a fresh look in September from the Berkeley Repertory Theater.
A group of actors and members of the stage crew gathered recently for a first ever reading of the script, with dialogue that could be the transcription of a modern political talk show about the candidacy of Donald Trump.
“Philip,” a woman says of Buzz Windrip, “the man’s a racist and a misogynist.”
“Yes, Lorinda,” the character Philip answers, "he’s said some terrible and inflammatory things, but why do you think so many people support him. And it’s not because they’re all stupid and blind. People want a voice.”
Bennett Cohen wrote this new adaptation of Lewis' book with Berkeley Rep’s Artistic Director Tony Taccone. “It was just so clear,” Taccone says, “that the book was screaming to be done.
“The similarities between Buzz Windrip and Donald Trump are astonishing,” Taccone says. “In the sense that what Trump has done, like the character in the book, he’s taken this unadorned self, and put it out there, as something that’s more “real” than any politician. And there’s a significant portion of the population that buys it.”
Beyond that mirroring, Taccone says It Can’t Happen Here fits well with Berkeley Rep’s mission.
“It’s critical for a theater to be in dialogue with its community about what’s going on” Taccone says, “and between climate change and terrorism, we’re embedded in a very, very fearful time in the history of the world.”
The People Want a Voice
That ideal of community engagement matters a lot for most theater companies, but few are so clear in their politics as The San Francisco Mime Troupe.
“Theater is a hammer with which you shape the world,” says the Mime Troupe’s Resident Playwright Michael Gene Sullivan. “All theater is political in my opinion.”
This year’s Mime Troupe show, Schooled, features an orange0haired candidate running for the school board against a moderate (think Hillary Clinton) and a leftie (think Bernie Sanders).
The Mime Troupe makes explicitly agitprop theater, Sullivan says, which is meant to whip up the audience and get them to join a cause.
“If the audience leaves the theater basically the same people when they entered,” Sullivan says, “the show failed. Because your job is to change them.”
But most theater artists say they aspire to a more modest ambition, to inspire a sense of compassion and connection to people who may hold very different views.
“The long game for me is all about empathy,” Dan Hoyle says. “And you might not agree with the people on stage, but if you try to understand the world thru their eyes, I think that’s transformational in the long term.”
So a political play may succeed simply if the audience is talking about the play, arguing about the issues, and caring about their fellow human beings as they leave the theater.