by Toby Zinman
Professor Emerita, University of the Arts
American political drama is as diverse as America itself, and the issues that are crucial offstage also appear onstage. Plays tackle a wide range of overtly political and governmental topics including ‘American exceptionalism’, the global power the country wields and the Constitution. American political drama also confronts many socio-economic issues, from housing and health care crises, to racism, sexism and disability, as well as issues connected with language and identity.
Below we delve into just a few of the plays on Drama Online that engage with American political and socio-economic matters.
The 2022-2023 season’s most-produced play according to American Theater magazine, What the Constitution Means to Me, has won admiration from critics and audiences alike. The play is a long monologue in which Schreck speaks in her own voice about the Constitution of the United States: its amendments, its flaws, and its failures.
The Heidi Schreck we first meet tells us that she paid her college tuition thirty years before with prize money from a program sponsored by the American Legion in which young debaters argued for or against the Constitution. She explains that she based her debate position on the experience of her fore-mothers and that the Constitution did not protect them. This feminist argument has, dramatically, the advantages of both the interest of fact and the emotion of story. History, as she points out, is not even-handed. Her teenage zealotry segues into adult outrage as she asks us whether the Constitution should endure.
To explain the Constitution she refers to it as a “crucible”, a “pot in which you put many different ingredients and boil them together until they transform into something else. Something that is sometimes magic. So you see, our Constitution is like a witch’s cauldron.”
There is no mistaking Arthur Miller’s presence here; his play, The Crucible is a foundational work of American theater, challenging the same hallowed ideas as What the Constitution Means to Me. Just as Schreck addresses the cigar-smoking white men in the Legionnaires Hall, so Miller in his preface writes about the Puritans, “They believed, in short, that they held in their steady hands the candle that would light the world. We have inherited this belief, and it has helped and hurt us.” Miller and Schreck leap across time, from 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts during the witch trials, to 1953 when Miller’s play opened in New York, to 1989 when Schreck’s “fifteen year old self” presented her bold argument in the debate to win her prize money, to 2022 when the National Theatre’s spectacular production of The Crucible premiered in London, and finally to whenever it is that you are reading this. The two plays both highlight that the Constitution’s protections were not, and still are not, equitable.
El Guindi’s plays offer a wide tonal range; Back of the Throat is a study in ambiguity and disturbing tension—for the characters and the audience— while his later drama, Language Rooms, is even more emotionally distressing. Working from a privileged childhood and an international education, El Guindi seems to side with everyone and no one, which is exactly the point: ambiguity is the name of his dramatic game. His topic in Back of the Throat is racial profiling, which translates as typecasting, in his darkly hilarious show-business satire, Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes.
Back of the Throat begins sometime shortly after 9/11, when two men who are presumably CIA agents suspect Khaled of a connection to the 9/11 terrorists. Their intimidation and violation of his privacy and civil rights (another nod to the Constitution) grows more and more complicated: who is the bad guy here? Another suspect—a dead one—startlingly appears in Khaled’s closet as does his ex-girlfriend who offers damning testimony. And testimony it is, since the play forces us to act as judge and jury, constantly shifting our assessment. Each character is angry, but for different reasons and in different ways, and we, too, alternate between outrage and fear.
The title refers to how to pronounce Khaled’s name; that the two American agents cannot quite manage it becomes a metaphor for the dangers of miscommunication. It’s the Tower of Babel all over again.
The Oslo Accords were a set of agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that established a peace process for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The famous 1993 photograph shows Bill Clinton, standing, arms wide to include Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin as they sign the historic document.
Oslo is full of funny one-liners and a great deal of shouting; it follows the unlikely series of events of backchannel negotiations that began in Oslo, Norway, accomplishing in four months what had not happened in forty years of Israeli/Palestinian enmity. Norway has “what the U.S. can never have: the appearance of neutrality”. Mona, “the jewel of the Norwegian foreign service” and the wife of the hapless Prime Minister, is the courageous, unrecognized genius of secret diplomacy, knowing that some things, like the future of Jerusalem, have to be left to “constructive ambiguity”. That the accords soon collapsed into violence and revenge is the play’s dire conclusion, and a desperate hope for the future is all that can be extracted from Oslo’s finale. Current headlines as war begins again make this play’s power all the more shockingly grim.
Oslo swept the 2017 Tony Awards and won many other prizes; this audio production has a very starry British cast.
Lynn Nottage was the most-produced playwright in the 2022-23 season according to American Theater magazine. Her plays are rich and varied, from the searing Ruined about warlords in Congo to the grim factory drama of Sweat, to the charm of Clyde’s with its ex-convicts who create extravagant sandwiches.
Set in New York City, Fabulation follows Black publicist Undine, who experiences life at both the top and bottom of American society. A rollicking satire with a serious agenda, a meditation on identity and family and the reinvention of self; this theme is theatricalized by having the small ensemble of actors double and triple themselves creating a large cast of characters.
Undine is a fabulation with a name and personality borrowed from Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. After she graduates from Dartmouth, she fictitiously kills off her family, escapes the public housing where she grew up and becomes rich and ruthless. Her company is a “boutique PR firm catering to the vanity and confusion of the African American nouveau riche.” Her husband is a sexy creep who steals all her money and vanishes, leaving her pregnant and broke. With nowhere else to go, she returns to her roots in the Brooklyn projects, exploring the “full range of rage” as she discovers the real world of poverty, drug dealers and exasperating social services; but she also discovers authenticity and unexpected kindness.
The title of this play refers to the literal economic cost of living as well as the emotional cost of just surviving as a decent human being. As one character tells us, “The shit that happens is not to be understood.” In Cost of Living, Majok explores the way poverty and class separate people, despite their yearning for connection.
This quiet, heart-wrenching play is about four lonely, desperate people and the “shit” that has happened and is happening to them. Eddie is an unemployed truck driver trying his best to care for Ani, his tough-talking estranged wife now a quadriplegic after a car crash; Jess is an exhausted barista who sleeps in her car and works as a caregiver for John, an entitled, rich graduate student at Princeton who has cerebral palsy. Scenes alternate between the pairs: Jess bathing John, Eddie bathing Ani, with every awkward moment presented and many brave attempts at compassion rebuffed.
The dialogue provides four studies in the varieties of response to misfortune, and four very distinct voices; there is nothing sentimental here, no ennobling talk show talk about rising above adversity. Performed on Broadway with two disabled actors in the cast, the play becomes a profound revelation of the courage of ordinary people and the cost of just staying alive.
Visit our Previously Featured Content page to view other topics including Interpreting Shakespeare: Discover the First Folio, The Plays of Caryl Churchill, Women in Shakespeare, Drama without Borders: Stories of migrants and refugees, The Climate Crisis in Theatre, Black British Playwrights, and LGBTQ+ Playwrights.