The Great Work Continues: The 25 Best American Plays Since ‘Angels in America’
By Ben Brantley and Jesse Green
June 1, 2018
“The Great Work begins.” When we first heard the Angel of America bellow that bulletin as the curtain came down on Part 1 of the play named for her and her band of anxious immortals, many of us who look to the theater for inspiration were, in fact, inspired. Tony Kushner’s “gay fantasia,” fusing the ambition, morality and underdog sympathies of earlier 20th century masters, felt not only like a great American play but like a culmination and reimagining of great American playness. It slammed a door open.
That was 1993. Exactly 25 years later, the first Broadway revival of “Angels in America” started us thinking about what has happened to American plays in the meantime. Have they been as great? Is their greatness different from what it was? Is “greatness” even a meaningful category anymore?
Perhaps not on Broadway. Of the plays we’ve singled out as the best 25 of the last 25 years — dated by their first reviews in The New York Times — only nine have ever appeared on Broadway, and none originated there. No matter their size, most began on, and many never left, the smaller stages of Off and Off Off Broadway, or were developed at regional theaters.
No. 2 AN OCTOROON [TFANA, 2015]
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, 2014
Though Americans have been looking at race onstage since they first had stages to look at, much of what they saw was made and performed by white people, usually in blackface. One of the most popular such entertainments was a five-act melodrama by Dion Boucicault called “The Octoroon,” which opened on Broadway — yes, Broadway — in 1859. In it, a white man named George, the heir to a Louisiana plantation, falls in love with his late uncle’s illegitimate mixed-race daughter, named Zoe. Naturally it ends in tragedy: A ship loaded with cotton explodes. And, you know, slavery.
The same ship explodes in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s reappropriation of the Boucicault play, but it’s not the only thing going up in flames. The whole project of race drama from minstrelsy to “A Raisin in the Sun” is left smoldering in the wake of this shocking comedy.
I say “comedy” not only because by inverting the original story it gives its black characters — Boucicault’s stock figures and interchangeable slaves — agency and humanity, but also because it’s hilarious. When the slave Dido gets upset because Zoe calls her Mammy even though they are about the same age, Minnie, another slave, soothes her: “You can’t be bringing your work home with you. I know we slaves and evurthang, but you are not your job.”
The dialect is a provocation — are we allowed to enjoy it? But so is everything in “An Octoroon,” which seems to consume the original as both lover and predator. A black character identified as Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins himself shows up, in his underwear, to announce he will be playing George, for which he applies whiteface; another actor, playing Boucicault, applies redface for the role of an Indian.
These meta high jinks are highly self-conscious, which makes the audience self-conscious, too. That’s a state playwrights often hope to avoid, because it interferes with the easy reception of their stories. But Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins is all about that unease; the subject is discomfiting, and he intends to make it more so.
Decades of decorous theatrical argument may have changed the conversation and flattered liberals, but racism and the legacies of slavery are still No. 1 on the list of unrequited American sins. Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins means to requite them; onstage explosions are the least we should expect.-Jesse Green
No. 10 THE DESIGNATED MOURNER [TFANA co-production with The Public Theater, 2013]
Wallace Shawn, 2000
An anxious bleat that mixes self-defense with self-flagellation, the voice of the playwright Wallace Shawn has become synonymous with the sound of guilty white liberals, admitting their base natures and apologizing for their very existences. Since Mr. Shawn has appeared in New York and London productions of his own work, it has been possible for audiences to hear that voice literally.
But even without the nasal tones and sibilance that are essential to Mr. Shawn’s persona as an actor, his authorial voice is singular and unmistakable. It is as harsh as it is eloquent, as primal as it is educated, and it offers one of the theater’s fullest expressions of the shame of living in blinkered comfort and affluence while much of the world goes hungry.
That sensibility pervades an opus that includes “Marie and Bruce” (1979), a loveless portrait of a hate-filled marriage; “Aunt Dan and Lemon” (1985), a beguiling memory play about the seductiveness of fascism; and “Grasses of a Thousand Colors” (2008), a fable of erotic enchantment that finds the rutting beast within human sexuality. But his masterpiece is the sly, cutting and unbearably sad mea culpa “The Designated Mourner,” first staged in New York in 2000.
A series of confessional monologues delivered by three fatally connected characters, “The Designated Mourner” is set in a totalitarian future that now feels as close as tomorrow.
At its center is Jack (a role first played by Mr. Shawn), a lucky philistine who married into a world of glamorous literati.
Unlike the play’s other characters — his intellectual wife and her father, a famous poet — Jack is a natural-born survivor. It is Mr. Shawn’s contention that such status is hardly a badge of honor. Jack, by his own definition, is a rat, by which he means not a betrayer (although that shoe might fit) but a creature that does whatever it must to avoid extermination.
The play insists that we identify both with Jack and with the less admirable aspects of the play’s other, more insular characters. (Mr. Shawn does not write heroes.) This is achieved through the exercise of that distinctive voice of Mr. Shawn’s, so seductively clever, so seemingly sane in its rationalizations, so caustically self-aware. -Ben Brantley