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How Theater Is Tackling Current Events, From Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton to RBG (Guest Blog)

”The thrill of a current-events play is that it can distill those events into something much more thoughtful and engrossing than mere news,“ playwright Doug McGrath says

In dark and divisive political times, many seek escapist entertainment, particularly at the multiplex. (Think “Downton Abbey.”) The cynics among us can stream Ryan Murphy’s latest series “The Politician,” which takes a dark and comedic look at a young man trying to do the right thing, albeit for the wrong reasons. Those nostalgic for a kinder, gentler presidency can always tune in to “The West Wing,” moving next year from Netflix to HBO Max.

But it is in the theater world where audiences are currently exploring the sins of the distant past — slavery, racism, sexism anti-Semitism — through the lens of today. “You can’t understand where we are if you don’t understand where we were,” Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan said.

As we speak, Brian Cox is bullying his way through a burgeoning Black Power movement, and that annoying little war starting up in Southeast Asia. No, not as Logan Roy in HBO’s “Succession,” but as Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965-68 Washington. “The Great Society” is the latest collaboration between Schenkkan and director Bill Rauch. It is the sequel to “All the Way,” which starred Bryan Cranston as our 36th president, and took home Tony awards for Cranston and the play itself.

They are not alone in tackling tough issues on stage. The most talked-about new Broadway show is “Slave Play,” which harrowingly (and often hilariously) shows how interracial relationships are forever haunted by the worst evil in America’s past. Opening soon is “The Inheritance,” a six-hour-plus two-parter coming from London that deals with the post-AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ’90s.

“Soft Power” is playing at the Public Theater (original home of a little piece called “Hamilton”) and musically tackles the U.S.-China connection. And if you think RBG has had enough of a moment, know that “Sisters-in-Law” just enjoyed a successful run at the Wallis in Los Angeles. That one focuses on Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and, according to one of its producers, recent Tony winner (“Hadestown”) Dale Franzen, “shows us how it used to be possible to have dialogue and discussion, not just divisive argumentation. I think that hits a chord right now.”

Another female-driven political piece is Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which concluded a successful Broadway run and is heading to Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum as part of a national tour. If ever a show felt current while taking us way back, this is it. “Never Is Now,” playing at L.A.’s Skylight Theatre, deals with a contemporary group of diverse young actors portraying real-life survivors of the Holocaust. They break often to compare the lives of the survivors with their own issues.

Knowing they need to stand the test of time, these plays steer clear of mentioning — or even winking at — the current president. An exception is “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” now at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons. Will Arbery’s drama  deals with a reunion of five Catholic conservatives living between the two coasts. The characters are loudly opposed to abortion, Obama and all things LGBT — and at least one of them refers to President Trump as “a Golem molded from the clay of mass media come to save us all.”

Political plays, especially about people and events too recent in our memories, have not fared well of late. “Hillary and Clinton,” starring Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow, created initial buzz among theatergoers last spring but the show closed ahead of schedule. Similarly, Beau Willimon — the man behind Netflix’s “House of Cards” — brought Uma Thurman to Broadway in a contemporary Washington-based piece called “The Parisian Woman.” Critics and audiences voted no. Oscar and Tony nominee Doug McGrath, who wrote “Checkers,” about Richard Nixon, warned, “The risk of a current-events play is that actual ones change or develop. But the thrill of a current-events play is that it can distill those events into something much more thoughtful and engrossing than mere news.”

Of course, just because the names and times may be old, the issues may not be. Rauch and Schenkkan say that while many things in their new production resonate in today’s climate, that was not necessarily the point. “Who knew we would come out at a time when presidential overreach, foreign influences and restoring voting rights would be back in the news?” Schenkkan said.

Rauch added: “I like to say that ‘All the Way’ was the right play for the Obama era, and ‘The Great Society’ is the right one for the Trump era.”

Mary Murphy is magazine and TV journalist and an associate professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism. Michele Willens is a New York-based writer and NPR theater commentator. They are writing a book on the history of entertainment journalism.