We Americans like to claim that our theater entertains; we leave politics to the politicians. There are a few notable exceptions, like '30s agitprop, but that's just propaganda (or so we claim).
Of course, the myth of a nonpolitical theater is just that, a myth, created by the people in charge to hide the political meaning that supports their worldview. The Brady Bunch (in both its television and theatrical forms) was political. Under sappy dialogue and characterization were the politically charged messages of the always happy nuclear family and the intrinsic superiority of white folks. While the intellectuals refused to take the Bradys seriously, the message was getting through to its huge audience.
But political theater that is overt is also problematic, since we are willing to see only those plays with which we agree. I doubt that people who go to see the S.F. Mime Troupe are shocked by what they hear. Part of the fun of seeing the troupe is hearing a progressive message with which we already agree. Studies have likewise shown that jurors generally make up their minds about a case during the opening statements. After that, they listen for evidence that supports their conclusion, and disregard evidence that challenges it. Don't we do the same when we refuse to see a play that might force us to question our beliefs?
All of this came to me because of a conversation I had with Roger Guenveur Smith. Because I'm familiar with Smith's work (his Frederick Douglass Now is one of the best things I've seen) I know that his A Huey P. Newton Story will be worth going to for its theatrical values alone. But won't it be too bad if you don't see this play because you think that it must be “political” and you know what those politics are? If all you know about Huey Newton is that he founded the Black Panther Party in 1966, you know very little about this fascinating and charismatic man. Smith told me that Newton was “as interesting a mythological figure as Hamlet or Macbeth or any other stock hero in the theatrical canon.” When I asked, “Why don't we have a Huey Newton now?” Smith responded, “Do we need one? [Newton] questioned our need for leaders and our concept of leadership.”
Huey Newton was more than an image on a poster, and if only to see that “more,” you ought to attend this production. But you also have an obligation to seek out that which you define as “other,” whether that is black instead of white, male instead of female, active rather than apathetic. After all, theater has the power to change lives, but only if we take the first step. A Huey P. Newton Story runs at the Magic Theatre in S.F. through Nov. 19 (441-8822), and at Laney College Theatre in Oakland through Dec. 17 (510-763-7774).
By Deborah Peifer