Features NYC Published 26 July 2020

Theater 2020: The Season That Wasn’t

With a shortened 2020 theater season, we focus on the exciting artists we came across in 2020 and who we want to see more from in a post-pandemic theater world order.

Exeunt Staff
Bruce McKenzie and Jules Latimer in Atlantic Theater Company's Paris. Photo: Ahron R. Foster

Bruce McKenzie and Jules Latimer in Eboni Booth’s Paris. Photo: Ahron R. Foster

It seems unlikely that live performance will happen again in 2020.

We usually do a wrap-up at the end of the year of our most memorable theater experiences. With only a few months of live performance to look back on, we thought we’d go a different direction this year.

We wanted to find the good in this truncated season. Here are the theater artists we personally encountered for the first time in 2020 and want to see more from. Plus, our ideas and wishes for a post-pandemic theater in an era we hope will be defined by dramatic structural change.

2020 Discoveries

Eboni Booth: Eboni Booth’s Paris at Atlantic Stage 2 was an underrated gem of our abbreviated 2020 theater season, and felt like the exciting announcement of an important new voice. Not really new, of course – we had already seen Booth dazzle as a performer in Clare Barron’s Dance Nation. I had been most awed by her work in Abe Koogler’s  Fulfillment Center, where she brought vibrant, empathetic life to a character grappling with horrible depression. She hit a similar balance with Paris, her New York playwright debut, which is a bleak play but still allows some room for joy.

Knud Adams’ slow, clinical production earned some comparisons with Sam Gold’s staging of The Flick. But in its smart handling of race, Booth’s play actually feels like a necessary corrective to The Flick. Baker gave a surface handling to Avery’s experience with workplace discrimination in her play, mostly using it as a plot point. Booth digs into the silent but persistent degradation black employees can face, and shows us how it can chip away at a person without ever spelling things out. I look forward to hearing more from Booth in our hypothetical, post-pandemic theater paradise.  (Joey Sims)

Elinor T. Vanderburg’s Bloodshot (Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk)

Elinor T. Vanderburg: Seeing Bloodshot at the Exponential fest this year introduced me to the sizzling writing of playwright Elinor T. Vanderburg. Her pulp fiction world was situated around a bone-tired Black man trying to get to the bottom of a mystery in an anxiety-riddled New York City where no one had been able to sleep for three years.

I’ll admit her insomnia-tic “fiction” seems closer to reality now than it did to me then. The relentless exhaustion she portrayed was both a colorful storytelling device and a powerful metaphor. She and director Sanaz Ghajar used a cabaret setting and bombastic music to build more and more atmosphere. I want to know what she can do with a bigger budget, more resources, and, if theaters put their BLM statements where their budgets are, a theater world willing to confront head-on the myriad experiences of Black people in America. (Nicole Serratore)

“Tumacho” at the Connelly Theater (Photo: Quinn Corbin)

Ethan Lipton’s TumachoTruth be told, I have almost forgotten what happened at the beginning of the calendar year. Scrolling back to those unimaginable pre-pandemic days on my calendar, I am so glad I caught the tail end of the Tumacho run, which reminded me that westerns are best when they’re stupid and have puppets in them, and was easily the most pleasurable theater-going experience I had in 2020. (Dan O’Neil)

C.A. Johnson: I haven’t kept up with the Zoom-based theater experiments that have been going on since New York shut down, but I’m glad to learn playwright C.A. Johnson has had two of her monologues performed by Alison Pill and Daveed Diggs online through The Homebound Project.

Her Off-Broadway premiere, All the Natalie Portmans at MCC Theater, was a charming look at diva worship as a form of queer escapism. Though that description might make it sound like a ‘90s Sundance weepie, Johnson delighted me with her engaging dialogue and refreshingly conversational comedy. The play wound up lacking some focus, but I’ve no doubt in my mind that a bit more direction and experience can shape this exciting playwright into an invaluable new voice. (Juan A. Ramirez)

The Conversationalists (Photo: Marcus Middleton)

James & Jerome: No show I saw this year tapped into theater’s imaginative potential better than James & Jerome’s The Conversationalists at the Bushwick Starr. The Conversationalists asked a lot of its audience, having us work in tandem with its musician-storytellers to envision a non-existent “movie” together. Under Annie Tippe’s kinetic direction, James Harrison Monaco’s mile-a-minute narration combined with Jerome Ellis’s brilliant music direction to make simple storytelling tools feel like a million bucks.

The show married its fierce imagination with a commitment to acknowledging present-day inequities, featuring a show-stopping monologue from Ellis about the prison-industrial complex. At the monologue’s end, Ellis directly asked the audience if he, a Black man living in America, was human. “Am I human?” he asked us repeatedly, letting his words hang in the air over long pauses. The silence that greeted him from the predominantly white audience at the performance I saw was devastating.

By cultivating audiences’ imaginations and asking that we be present with one another, I believe James & Jerome’s work can help us strengthen the creative muscles we’ll need to build radically different futures together. I can’t wait to see more of their work.  (Daniel Krane)

SECOND STAGE WE'RE GONNA DIE BY YOUNG JEAN LEE DIRECTED & CHOREOGRAPHED BY RAJA FEATHER KELLY WITH Debbie Christine Tjong, Marques Walls, Freddy Hall, Janelle McDermoth, Ximone Rose, and Kevin Ramessar in We/'re Gonna Die. Photo: Joan Marcus

The cast of We’re Gonna Die. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Janelle McDermoth: I keep returning to Janelle McDermoth’s performance in We’re Gonna Die at Second Stage. I was unfamiliar with McDermoth’s work before this, but when she stepped out, she was so captivating, so commanding that I couldn’t rip my eyes from her and every blink felt like I missed something special.

She had this tone about her, this kind of all-knowing irony that suffused everything she did. Some of that is in Young Jean Lee’s text, but the arch of McDermoth’s eyebrows, her slanting body language, the way she let the “jokes” tumble out of her mouth so casually that you didn’t realize they were supposed to be funny until you were already laughing – that was all her. We’re Gonna Die was the perfect combination of material and performer. I want her in everything now. (Lane Williamson)

Beth Malone and David Aron Damane in The Unsinkable Molly Brown

Beth Malone and David Aron Damane in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

A new Molly Brown and The Headlands: Unlike most Exeunt NYC contributors, I don’t live in New York. Because this year’s coronavirus closures interrupted the busiest part of the theater season, my show count for 2020 is depressingly low even by pandemic standards.

That said, I’m grateful for a Sunday in late February, right before the bottom dropped out, where I saw two productions back-to-back that would warrant mention on my best-of list under any circumstances. The Unsinkable Molly Brown (revived by the Transport Group) allowed me to indulge my obsession with second-tier musicals of bygone Broadway, and featured a towering performance by Beth Malone, that rare contemporary performer who marries Golden Age vocal chops with a unique, idiosyncratic stage personality. The heavily revised libretto and concept by Dick Scanlan and Kathleen Marshall also connected Molly’s story of survivorship and perseverance to modern-day questions of class and national identity, without turning overly didactic.

Aaron Yoo in  THE HEADLANDS (Photo: Kyle Froman)

That lovely afternoon was followed by Christopher Chen’s hypnotic The Headlands, a dreamlike mixture of classic noir, San Francisco lure and Asian-American history. Knud Adams’ production featured some of the best acting I’ve seen in a long time from Aaron Yoo, plus the always interesting Mia Katigbak and Mahira Kakkar, and innovative projections by Ruey Horng Sun. I didn’t know on that Sunday that in three weeks’ time, theater as we know it would cease to exist for the foreseeable future. Hindsight makes me extra grateful; hope leaves me looking forward to similar days to come. (Cameron Kelsall)

Skye Turner: When I think of my sadness surrounding this brief Broadway season and what the art of live theater might become, the only person that brings me a be a bit of excitement for the future of Broadway is Skye Turner. The 11-year-old powerhouse who plays young Tina Turner in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, is the perfect introduction to Adrienne Warren’s award-winning Tina performance. From the moment Turner steps on stage at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, she commanded my attention.

I was in awe of her showmanship and wondered how she was able to do that in the ten minutes she’s on stage. I am not sure what I did to deserve seeing Tina twice ahead of the Broadway shutdown, but being able to see Turner completely nail it during both performances makes me confident that her career will be lengthy and significant. (Ayanna Prescod)

The Future of Theater

What’s Next: Now I’m looking forward to whatever comes next, whenever it comes. I’m wondering about street theater. Maybe New York can become more European in its theater aesthetic, especially now that we have captive audiences in outdoor dining spaces oh-so-adjacent to the streets (which we are now supposed to be able to roam more freely). It’s also easy to imagine a resurgence of actual mask work – a new commedia for a post-pandemic populace. Not to necessarily imply that in order to move forward, we have to look back. Maybe we can look in all directions — I’ve been interested in the relatively cheap technology around 360° immersive VR streaming. What would a Sleep No More experience be like if you weren’t actually there but someone was navigating it live on your behalf? (Dan O’Neil)

What Theater Can Be: I was having a lot of health issues in the early part of this year, and didn’t get to the theater as much as normal–but this forced break has given me a lot of time to think about what theater can be when it returns. And I find myself thinking less about the artists I want to see–though this year’s Kilroys List, as ever, is a wish list for me of the writers I should be checking out–than the models of theater we might imagine.

While I haven’t yet found a groove with online theater–perhaps because online theater has yet to find its own groove?–I’m inspired by the growing attempts by organizations and artists to grapple with the questions of access raised by both the pandemic and our present moment of renewed focus on social justice. How do we keep what’s best about theater–its immediacy, its present tense–while also making it less of an elite art form, less expensive to see, and less concentrated geographically?

I’m avidly following the debate over the Wilma Theater’s Globe project–a way of reimagining their mainstage to be safer while also including more digital and virtual programming so as to extend rather than reduce their audience, but that has at times seemed to be prioritizing the needs of a subscription-based audience with a high tolerance for personal risk over the safety of their staff and artists.

This summer’s Ice Factory festival–a reliable source of exciting new work–has reenvisioned itself for the livestream, which is enabling them, for example, to include work by artists based in Singapore and Malaysia. And I’m looking forward to the work that this moment will inspire from artists whose work already interrogated our culture while also being formally inventive: Jackie Sibblies Drury. James Ijames. Haruna Lee. Claudia Rankine. Hansol Jung. Heidi Schreck. Jeremy O. Harris. (Loren Noveck)

Caryl Churchill & Stew: If we’re going to be subjected to a deluge of pandemic plays when theaters reopen, I’d like one from Caryl Churchill. I think she’d write a play that captures the terror, the hollowness, and the uncertainty of this experience without being too on the nose. Obviously her play wouldn’t be able to touch the specific shitshow that is being in America – our government’s failure to take action in containing the virus, rampant unemployment, and the racism that reaches farther, faster, and longer than both of those things.  I would love a new piece from Stew to encapsulate that experience. His music feels emotionally abundant. It holds so much and that’s what we need to convey this era where we’ve been singularly sequestered and collectively protesting.  (Lane Williamson)

The Voices We Have Pushed Aside: There are stories that are not getting told on our stages. We know this. We have always known this. Even with increased representation on stage and off stage by BIPOC, there can be an odd sameness to theater that gets produced or a sense of something being held back. Nothing too adventurous that might make subscribers bolt.  In addition, the white gaze can still cast an omnipresent haze on work–whether through an audience’s reaction or the way critics write about the show.  While there has been some slight progress on some of this, it’s still there. White supremacy creeps into places we fail to interrogate, including in ourselves.

I can only hope when live performance comes back we do not fall into the old ways. I am hungry for stories I have not heard. I am eager to be shown places, experiences, and lives heretofore unknown to me.  I want to be in more performance spaces where we are interrogating these questions together.

I have been watching Korean dramas during the pandemic and watching one centered on a story about slavery, class, identity, and colonialism through a Korean lens about America and Japan’s interests in Korea in the early 1900s made me see those issues, all present in America today, differently.  Let me see more of these stories.

But also, I’ve been watching endless TV romances and we can experience fun, joy, and swooning on stage too. Queer the fuck out of these stories. Show me characters of color who get to love, play, and celebrate. I am greedy. I want it all. (Nicole Serratore)

Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine