Contemporary Political Drama

What is the historical relationship between theatre and social change? Augusto Boal called theatre “the rehearsal for the revolution,” but over the last half-century American theatre has been repeatedly proclaimed a dead art. In this seminar-style course we will take the pulse of today’s American theatre scene as we explore trends in social and political drama with special attention to the last 55 years. In order to understand how theatre can react to, reflect, and challenge sociopolitical conditions we will read plays by Lorraine Hansberry, Luis Valdez, Ntozake Shange, Wendy Wasserstein, Anna Deavere Smith, Tony Kushner, Suzan-Lori Parks and others. After a brief introduction to the formal features and genre conventions of the American drama, our class work will focus on theatre history, close literary analysis, scene readings, student presentations, and critical discussions. Students will also write a take-home midterm essay and a final research paper. To help us think about the drama as a live, staged event, class work will include attendance at two theatrical performances, including one trip to an off-campus Birmingham theater. By studying both canonical and radical, vanguard theatres of the U.S., we will interrogate the most influential formal conventions of contemporary American drama while simultaneously piecing together a counter-history of experimentation. Ultimately, this framework will allow us to address larger questions about theatre’s civic and historical role in times of social and political unrest.

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3 thoughts on “Contemporary Political Drama

  1. What an exciting and full syllabus!

    I was very interested in using an exploration of revolutionary theatre as preparation for leadership, and am curious how this worked out. I saw this come out practically in the emphasis on classroom presentations and it seems in keeping with enabling students not just to passively study political theatre, but to personally engage with it and find their place within it. It also seems an opportunity to draw out some of the naturally quieter students and allow them a leadership role – in my experience these quieter student have often been women (though not always) and this deliberate sharing of space can also be seen as a feminist act.

    I was excited by the Living Newspaper assignment, both as a way to learn about techniques employed by the Federal Theatre Project (amongst others) and to apply to contemporary political action. Again, I’m curious how this worked and what issues the students chose to portray. Did any of the students work together or choose to take it beyond a “paper project” into performance? (It strikes me as a possible senior thesis project).

    Finally, given that we’re specifically concerned with feminist theatre, I was wondering how the two weeks devoted to discussions of feminist performance drew from and spilled into the rest of the course. I was pleased to see feminist plays in other parts of the syllabus so your students would definitely understand that feminism and women playwrights didn’t just spring into existence in the 1970s and then disappear again!

    Looking forward to meeting you and discussing these syllabi further,
    Talya Kingston.

  2. Yes, I love how integrated this syllabus is. –There is always the tension of, on the one hand, setting aside a particular time and space for specific issues/subject positions and, on the other hand, helping students see feminist critique and creativity as part of larger processes of cultural production.

    I am enthralled with this Living Newspaper assignment and would also love to hear more about it!

    Also, as a Medea obsessive, I love that the syllabus begins with the sexual politics of the Ancient Greeks. Looking forward to hearing more about how this first class goes as well…

  3. The Living Newspaper assignment is great—like Talya’s protest performance pitch assignment, it asks the students to assert that a particular issue is important to them and argue that performance can help illuminate something about that issue. I would be curious to hear what issues the students chose to explore, and if any of them were explicitly feminist. I am also struck by the heading for your Week 12: “The Personal is Political: Identity Politics and the Liberal Arts College.” Do you use the Gilman play as a springboard for the students to look critically at their experiences of identity politics, racism/classism/sexism, and political correctness at your own college? If so, I’d be interested to hear how those conversations went.

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