Sunday, June 14, 2009

Obama's Influence on Theater

Here are two interesting articles for you:
Obama goes to Broadway
Critics' reactions to the gesture

If you hadn't heard, President Barack Obama fulfilled another campaign promise by taking Michelle to see a Broadway show. Honestly, when I first heard about this promise, I thought he meant one of the big Disney-esque musicals filled with glitz and glam. It never even crossed my mind that they would see August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone.

First of all, August Wilson was a genius and one of the leading examples of American Lit in an increasingly shallow pool of authors to draw from. You probably already know my recently discovered love for this man. Author of the Century Cycle (a series of ten plays about African American culture and identity in the 20th Century), he is the *only* playwright to complete a cycle of plays that long and ambitious. Not even Eugene O'Neill finished his attempted cycle. Wilson is also the first African American to have a Broadway theater named after him. On top of all that, this particular production is ground-breaking because it's directed by the white Bartlett Sher (of recent South Pacific fame and artistic director of the Intiman Playhouse in Seattle). Wilson insisted on having black directors for his plays, as he layed out in the aptly named "I Want a Black Director."

So what does this have to do with Obama?

He's not just President -- he's a power celebrity. People are in love with him. And just like any other celebrity, people want to do what he does, hear what he hears, see what he sees. If you doubt this, I dare you to browse through iTunes' celebrity playlists without clicking on one person. America's obsession with Broadway musicals will have to make room for other plays now -- plays you could anthologize and say "this is American."

The pop culture knowledge of what "American theater" is expanded a little bit thanks to Obama.
Sure, some critics are complaining that he's only enforced the ideas of regional theater and that he should've gone to see a show in DC. But that's not the point. For America, Broadway is still the be-all, end-all of theater. But now our President acknowledged that there's more to it than Sondheim. This is a step in the right direction. The Obamas' date both evidences our shortcomings as a Broadway-obsessed theater culture and works against that condition. It's a symbol.

And maybe we're making too much out of this date. But hey, until Obama appoints someone to fill the anticipated cabinet-level position on the Arts, this is all we have to talk about in the theater community. No official announcements on creation of the position yet, but there has been talk. After all, the U.S. is one of the few 'major' countries in the world without a high-ranking government minister of the Arts. We can only hope that this date (which shows Obama's knowledge of and love for the Arts) is a prelude to more national support for the theater.

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