In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

"Crowns" was the first play in March to carry a message about the social issues facing us. (PHOTO: Mark Frohna)

The issue with social issue theater? Telling a story as worthy as the message

They are often called something like "social consciousness plays," and they are frequent choices for theater companies, several examples of which have been staged this past March.

I saw 13 plays in March, four of them ones that dealt with social issues – some more successfully than others. One of the key issues, however, is how these plays are marketed to potential audiences and subscribers.

The month began with the Skylight production of "Crowns," a story about one kind of healing power for the victims of violence on our streets – not necessarily the shooting victim but those who were affected by it.

Yolanda is a young woman from Brooklyn whose brother was shot and killed. To help her heal and to use getting in touch with her history, she is sent to live with her grandmother in South Carolina where she heals her broken spirit and learns what it means to be a church-going healthy woman with a sense of her history.

Skylight billed the show as a gospel musical and a story of the hats worn by black women, a hat for every occasion. The message of healing snuck up on me and left a lasting impression.

The next play of this genre was "American Song" at The Rep.

The show was billed as a look at the conflicts of being a parent and had an emotional appeal to everyone who has a child. It fulfilled its promises with a troubling and bumbling journey through the life Andy, played sumptuously by James DeVita. But this was so much more than a story about parenting. It evolved into a searing moment of violence-inspired crisis. The unexpected explosion of a heart when the most unexpected, the never even imagined, act occurs.

In this case, the Rep delivered on its promise, and more.

Then this past weekend, I saw two plays that dealt with the empowerment of women: "Cancelled on Final Approach" at Renaissance and "Ella Enchanted" at First Stage.

"Cancelled" was the story of the first women to fly military aircraft during the second World War. They faced incredible discrimination from men and extreme difficulty finding their place in the world.

It's a good story that deserved a better play. The unfortunate thing was that these characters never developed into anything more than stereotypes and cardboard cutouts. I easily knew who the good guys were and who the bad guys were, well before any of it was revealed. There were no surprises and no special insights into the struggle for female empowerment.

Adding to the unfortunate surprise was that it was Renaissance staging the production. The company has a devoted focus to advance the role of women in the theater, and through its subjects, the cast and crew of past productions has created a remarkable example of female empowerment in theater.

The final production was "Ella Enchanted" at First Stage, a remaking of the legendary Cinderella. The play was billed as the tale of a young woman who was cursed with obedience and her struggle for the freedom to say "no." Complete with music and spectacular costumes, the company delivered as it always does, without a hammer but with an unmistakable grasp on how to deliver a message fit for audience of all ages.

Live theater is one of the most magical places to explore the issues we constantly deal with, and Milwaukee is unafraid to go after them. The key is to match the promise with the delivery. Tell a story as worthy as the message inside of it.

Renaissance's upcoming season

Renaissance has announced its 2016-17 season with the promise of three highly respected plays directed by three of Milwaukee's most accomplished and brilliant women directors.

Along with The Rep's Leda Hoffmann, Mallory Metoxen – who made her directorial debut leading a stunning production of "The Understudy" two years ago at Renaissance – is one of the best young directors in the city, male or female. Next season, she's in charge of "Drowning Girls," based on the true story of three women who were murdered by their husband, George Joseph Smith. The murders took place shortly after the dawn of the 20th century, and the subject of paying an ultimate price for making the wrong decisions resonates.

Meanwhile, Mary MacDonald-Kerr will direct the powerful "Luna Gale," an exploration of the smothering job of being a social worker. After removing a baby from struggling parents, Caroline is convinced that she has made the right decision. But her story devolves into a mess of overwhelming demands and an absence of support that carry a woman's level of frustration to alarming heights.

Finally, artistic director Suzan Fete will direct "The Violet Room," a story of dreams gone in the midst of confusion and mistake. The play, set at the dawn of the Jazz Age, is a look at the creative process as well as the demands and sacrifices of love.


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