San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) — one of the most renowned theater companies on the West Coast — is opening its online-only 2021 season by re-examining a handful of classics that deal explicitly with issues of racism and economic inequality. The company launched its A.C.T. Out Loud series of staged readings this week.
“These readings stand alone as a way we can explore great plays through the pandemic, and also offer us at A.C.T. a chance to ‘try them out’ for future production when we can return to making and sharing work in-person,” A.C.T. Artistic Director Pam McKinnon says of the three readings — all of them led by Black directors.
The topic of racism in theater is most prominent in the series’ opener, Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind. The controversial 1955 play is about how a Broadway troupe of white theater artists are forced to confront their own biases when they try to stage an anti-lynching play. Incidentally, art would imitate life when Childress’ play was denied a Broadway premiere after she refused to acquiesce to script changes demanded by her white producers.
McKinnon hopes to show that the play, directed by Awoye Timpo, co-founder of New York’s Classix theater group, is worthy of mention alongside the greats.
“Alice Childress, lesser known for racist and misogynist reasons, is in good company with Shaw and Wilder,” McKinnon says. “I wanted to be sure we put her play Trouble in Mind on the same platform as Arms and the Man and The Matchmaker.”
A.C.T.’s reading of George Bernard Shaw’s beloved romantic-comedy, Arms and the Man, streams from April 12 to April 18. Set during the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885, the play centers on Raina, a Bulgarian heiress engaged to a war hero, and her choice to shelter a Serbian enemy-of-war. Since its original 1894 production, the play has been lauded for its anti-war message and lampooning of class structure, a common trait of Shaw’s work.
For the award-winning Bay Area theater veteran Colman Domingo, the play is a chance to both return to his old stomping grounds and add his own twist to a revered classic. “I am so excited to be back in the Bay Area working with comrades whom I love so dearly,” he says. “Especially during this time, the re-imagination of theater to continue its impact on the arts is so important to me. I hope we achieve an honest interpretation of Shaw’s masterful Arms and the Man.”
Oakland-born director Dawn Monique Williams leads the reading of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker — the third production in the A.C.T. Out Loud series, which runs from April 26 to May 2.
“Initially, I saw revisiting this play as an opportunity to play with great actors on a delightful farce,” says Williams of the dramatic precursor to Hello, Dolly! “What I have discovered is Wilder’s clever commentary on class, the allocation of wealth, and the power of the artist to subvert power structures. His play is the perfect blend of comedy, laughter, joy, critique, and reflection for so many of us right now.”
A.C.T. Out Loud
‘Trouble in Mind’ | March 29 to April 4
‘Arms and the Man’ | April 12 to April 18
‘The Matchmaker’ | April 26 to May 2
Online | $5- $50 | 415-749-2228 | act-sf.org
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist, and arts critic. thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com