We certainly go to the theater to be entertained, and the lord knows, we need our diversions from politics and the news these days. But the juice that energizes theater, keeping it vital and fresh, is found in plays that enthusiastically engage tough issues.
The stage may be about the world of pretend, but pretending the world is okay, especially in times like these, makes for flaccid dramatics. Seeing our lives and our society's problems reflected back at us can provide insight and understanding, and even be therapeutic.
Milwaukee professional theater has earned a C+ in tackling difficult social and political subjects over the past three decades. Some companies have been more committed than others, and in fairness, American dramatists have not exactly been storming the Bastille to write about the corrosive cultural, racial and economic conflicts in this country.
However, our local stage groups have shown admirable awareness of the world around them in programing their 2012-13 seasons. It will be a year of substance.
Regularly glance at Mark Clements' Facebook page, and you know he is a man with strong social and political convictions. The artistic director of the Milwaukee Rep is showing his hand with his play selection for 2012-13.
"The Mountaintop," authored by rapidly rising African-American playwright Katori Hall, will open the Stiemke Theater season in September. A small drama about Martin Luther King, Jr., on the last night of his life, the piece won the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play in London in 2010, and a Broadway production starred Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.
Later in the Stiemke season, the Rep is producing "How the World Began," Catherine Trieschmann's drama about a New York educator who gets stuck in an evolution controversy when she moves to Kansas to teach there.
On its larger Quadracci Powerhouse Theater stage, the Rep will mount "Clybourne Park," the most celebrated new play of the past two years. Written by Chicago actor and playwright Bruce Norris, it won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, the 2011 Olivier Award in London for best new play, and the 2012 Tony Award for best play.
"Clybourne Park" is unusual in that it bookends a classic American drama, Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 "A Raisin in the Sun." That play was inspired by the Hansberry family's direct experience with restrictive racial covenants in Chicago real estate before equal housing became the law.
Norris set "Clybourne Park" in the same Windy City house that is central to "A Raisin in the Sun," before and after the action in that drama. Act I of "Clybourne Park" takes place in 1959, and Act II in 2009, illustrating the intractable nature of racial issues in this country. By the way, "Clybourne Park" is a biting comedy.
The Rep will immediately follow its January-February production of "Clybourne Park" with a March-April staging of "A Raisin in the Sun."
Race and real estate will also be addressed by the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre in September with its world premiere production of "Broken and Entered," written by Madison dramatist Kurt McGinnis Brown. The piece revolves around two white brothers who move back to their family home in a crumbling inner city neighborhood.
Next Act Theatre opens its season in September by examining international banking and financial bubbles with a satire titled "Microcrisis." You can't get more timely than that. Yale and Juilliard grad Mike Lew wrote the piece.
The exciting rise of Latino theater in the U.S. has been a development largely ignored by Milwaukee's stage companies. Kudos to Renaissance Theaterworks for launching its season in October with "Enfrascada," a witchy comedy about a Latina desperate to get her wayward boyfriend back. The hoodoo-voodoo piece was written by Chicago-based actress and dramatist Tanya Saracho, one of the hottest playwrights in the country.
Saracho, a native of Mexico, starred in the Renaissance production of "Fat Pig" four years ago. Since then, her writing career has soared.
It has been 17 years since the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre mounted Wisconsin dramatist Richard Kalinoski's stunning "Beast on the Moon." The production introduced local audiences to actress Mary MacDonald Kerr, who has gone on to have a stellar career here.
In Tandem Theatre Company will revive "Beast on the Moon" next March. The play is set in Milwaukee in 1921, but it is about the Armenian Holocaust and two of its survivors struggling to make a life together.
Genocide continues to exist in the world, and it is important that we Americans, living in the safety our country gives us, recognize that.
Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.
During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.
Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.