September 13, 2014

My Purposefully Female-Centric Fall Preview

Wish lists, which are what my fall previews tend to be, can be hit or miss things. So many of the shows and performances I was most excited about at the start of previous seasons turned out to be disappointments (don't even ask about my 2012 list).  

So although I’m as eager as the next theater lover to see Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in It’s Only a Play, Hugh Jackman in The River and the all-star casts in Love Letters and A Delicate Balance, I thought I’d try something different this year. 

There’s been so much talk about the small number of major productions given to works by female playwrights (click here to read about the latest effort to change that) that I decided my preview would highlight upcoming shows written or directed by women.
But that’s turned out to be a disappointment of a different kind. Diversity advocates complained that only two plays by women were produced on Broadway during the 2013-14 season and that both—Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal—were written by women who'd died years earlier.  

Now that season is looking like the good old days because there are no plays by women at all scheduled for Broadway this fall. And I only identified seven that are being done by major off-Broadway companies. Make of it what you will, but those shows also account for the majority of the fall shows that are being directed by women.  
I certainly don’t want to keep anyone away from the promising pleasures of shows like Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Disgraced or Donald Margulies’ Chekov-inspired new play The Country House just because they were written by men. But women buy the majority of theater tickets and it might be helpful if we gals (and our smart guy pals) also actively supported the work of female playwrights—and not just out of solidarity but because there’s some promising stuff by women coming this fall too. 
Here are four, all dealing with the kind of big, brawny issues that most interest me. The fact that the playwrights turned out to be (since I didn't choose them for this reason) so racially diverse is an extra bonus:

THE OLDEST BOY:  Written by Sarah Ruhl and directed by Rebecca Taichman, this show would have been high on my list, even if I weren’t focusing on women this season because Ruhl, who has just published a smart collection of essays on playwriting (click here to browse it) is one of the most intellectually ambitous writers working in the theater today. Her latest centers on a woman, played by Celia Keenan-Bolger, who discovers that her young son is considered to be the next incarnation of the Buddha. It opens at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in November.

OUR LADY OF KIBEHO:  Before she turned 30, Katori Hall had become the first black woman to win the prestigious Olivier Award for best new play of a London season for The Mountaintop, her meditation on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final night before his assassination, seen it produced on Broadway, been the subject of a profile in the New Yorker and named an artist in residence at the Signature Theatre Company.  Despite all that, I wasn’t that big a fan of either The Mountaintop or Hall's subsequent play Hurt Village but I’m intrigued by the potential for a potent mix of politics and religion in her latest offering about a Rwandan girl who believes she’s seen The Virgin Mary. Directed by the male but always-inventive Michael Greif, it opens at Signature on Nov. 16.

STRAIGHT WHITE MEN: The issues of race, class and gender fascinate the playwright Young Jean Lee as much as they do me. Her past plays have been determinedly edgy and avant-garde (African-American actors wore blackface in The Shipment and a troupe of women performed naked in Untitled Feminist Show) but this one, directed by Lee herself and featuring a quartet that includes the master actors Austin Pendleton and Scott Shepherd, is said to be a naturalistic look at white male privilege. It’s scheduled for a month-long run in November at the Public Theater, which is also presenting Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 &3), a Civil War drama written by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Jo Bonney.
TO THE BONE:  Plays about poor people are still rare—or at least rarely given significant productions—and so I’m intrigued by this play about Latina immigrants working in American poultry factories even though the playwright Lisa Ramirez, who also appears in the show, is new to me. It opens next week, under the direction of the stage vet Lisa Peterson, for a limited run at the venerable Cherry Lane Theatre, which is celebrating its 90th season.

Now let's all keep our fingers crossed that come this time next year we'll be remembering how each of the shows on this list made my good wishes for them come true.

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