Political Theater In Boston Explores Themes Of Warfare, Racism

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Tonye Patano and Carla Duren in
Tonye Patano and Carla Duren in "Ruined" at the Huntington Theatre Company (Kevin Berne/Boston University)

A lot of critics dismiss political theater as being too much of the moment and therefore too easily dated, which has always struck me as too rigid. Political theater extends the conversation in a way that journalism often doesn’t. It puts a human face on events and, at its best, makes us feel issues like racism or violence to the core of our being.

‘Ruined’ Explores Warfare In The Congo

That’s certainly true of “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play getting a fine production at the Huntington Theatre Company through Feb. 6. The title, at least literally, refers to the sexual molestation of women in the Congo by both the rebel forces and the government. In the case of Salima, played by Pascale Armand, she was not only raped, but her baby was murdered in front of her.

But “Ruined” also does more than just play to our emotions. It’s somewhat of an adaptation of Brecht’s 20th century classic, “Mother Courage,’’ as the central character is Mama Nadi, who runs a bordello and offers the only safe haven that can be found for these tragic women who, except for those who are “ruined,’’ are forced into prostitution.

Political theater puts a human face on events and, at its best, makes us feel issues like racism or violence to the core of our being.

Nottage casts a curse on both the rebels and the government forces, as if to say that the wages of men’s wartime sins are the devastation it does to the women, and to the country as a whole. It also points a finger at Western indifference, if not complicity.

When we look at the headlines of what’s happening in foreign countries there’s a kind of compassion fatigue. “Ruined” gets past that pretty quickly, though it does let the audience off the hook with a note of easy uplift instead of underlining the tragedy of what we’ve just seen.

Unlikely Subject Matter Sheds Light On A Long-Standing N.Y. Issue

There’s another excellent political play in town, “In the Footprint, The Battle Over Atlantic Yards,” by the Civilians, who are performing the work through Sunday at the Paramount. They developed the project with Arts Emerson, Emerson College’s great new arts program.

The unlikely subject matter is the urban development project in Brooklyn to bring the New Jersey Nets there, among other things. But the Civilians make the issue of eminent domain, something that Bostonians are certainly familiar with, compelling with a variety of strong theatrics from musical numbers to modernistic re-creations of who said what.

The group, at least in my mind, takes a very strong stand against Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Acorn and the developers. They side pretty clearly with those who say the destruction of the Brooklyn neighborhood was way too high a price to pay. Whether you agree or not, it makes the issues come alive in a way I certainly didn’t get from reading about it in the New York Times.

‘Neighbors’ Uses Black Face To Bring Message Of Non-Assimilation

Less successful is “Neighbors,” on through Feb. 5, by Company One, one of Boston’s adventurous small theaters-in-residence at the Boston Center for the Arts. It’s about an African-American man, a university professor who’s married to a white woman. He looks out his window one day and notices that the new neighbors are stereotypical characters in black face — though they’re black themselves — right out of a minstrel show, with names like Mammy and Sambo.

But the mix of real and surreal elements doesn’t work. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is exploring how all those horrible racial stereotypes, from Aunt Jemima to Mandingo, still permeate American race relations even with an African-American in the White House.

But I don’t know that you can make that case when all your characters are stick figures, particularly the middle-class teacher Richard Patterson, played by Johnny Lee Davenport. Even though he’s supposedly one of the realistic characters in the play, he’s more of a caricature than the more fanciful minstrel-show characters. It’s almost as if the playwright set out to prove that assimilation is the wrong road for African-Americans, and so he has to make the assimilationist a ridiculous man rather than give him any heft.

Other Local Theater Offerings

A couple of other plays mix real and surreal elements much better, particularly “Hysteria,” by the Nora Theatre Company. The show runs through Jan. 30 and is a very funny, but equally thoughtful, imagining of Sigmund Freud’s meeting with Salvador Dali. It’s also an exploration of Freud’s changing views on sexual neurosis. Richard Snee, John Kuntz and Stacy Fischer are all excellent.

Theresa Rebeck’s “The Understudy” at the Lyric Stage Company runs through Jan. 29. It has some of the flaws that many plays that trash Hollywood suffer from, but it lifts itself above that dreary genre, thanks to Franz Kafka, whose fictional play is being worked on by an actor (longing to play the lead) and an understudy (yearning to play the secondary character). Mr. Kafka will have something to say about role playing.

But “Afterlife: A Ghost Story” does not mix its naturalistic and fabulistic elements well at all. It’s a world premiere meditation on death and loss at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown. The play runs through Feb. 6.

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