by Jordan Scott Hardesty
The United States deserves a good laugh. We’ve been wrapped up in news articles, disingenuous speeches, suffering, and chaos for well over a year and honestly, it’s taking a toll on our mental health. A couple of years ago, we wouldn’t willingly look to argue with strangers on the internet over politics. In fact, we would’ve deemed this practice insane, but look at where we are now. Defending our political leanings on Facebook has become a daily ritual. Politics reduces us to spite.
We deserve a laugh, but are we given the opportunity to laugh? The artists that try to make us laugh, such as Saturday Night Live, just become a cycle of the crazy things that are being said every day. We see excessive mentionings of insulting the physical attributes of politicians rather than a critique, or even a response, to the political turmoil. Since when did satire come to mean exact repetition?
I had an epiphany recently when watching the universally acclaimed stand-up of Hasan Minhaj’s Homecoming King (2017). The performance was hilarious, yet endearing, witty, yet enlightening, and so much more. This was performed post-election, but there was no mention of a specific politician or anything that was going on. However, I’ve never seen anything more passionately American while offering a critique of the social rhetoric used against Muslim Americans in the 21st century. It was not inherently political, but to say that the piece was apolitical would be antithetic.
There is this tragic moment in his set where he describes an event in which his prom date stood him up because of the institutionalized racism present in his date’s family. Minhaj wastes no time to make this situation lighthearted, while also highlighting that this is a problem. This is the genius of his style of comedy. It is hardly observational comedy, but rather the more complex comedy of humanity.
Since viewing this, I have made it my mission to try to understand what the equivalent is in theatre. I look to the current offerings in the political theatre canon, and I am distressed at the mediocrity. I think to the aggravating Building the Wall which stopped short of addressing anything other than cartoonish depictions of American politics. Or the horribly misguided production of Julius Caesar at The Public Theatre which seemingly only sought to lampoon rather than accurately portray the complex titular character. Every revival now comes with the oversighted conversation of what any given play would mean in “Trump’s America.”
This, in short, is a theatre of politics. These plays discuss power, and politicians, and failure. We cannot engage, because it is above our pay grade. We can just see something wrong. This is nothing more than aggravated propaganda. The plays are made only to villainize politicians.
I advocate for a move towards a theatre of humanity. In theory, theatre of humanity reduces each of us to humans to comment on multiple human conditions. Issues are discussed, not as legislation (though it can certainly move us to legislative activism), but as everyday happenings in the human world. We are not distanced from the characters. We relate to the characters. In some circumstances, we are the characters.
These plays do exist. In fact, they have existed for years. Among my favorite recent plays that I’ve seen were Tracy Letts’ The Minutes, Michael Milligan’s The American Mercy Tour, Aziza Barnes’ BLKS, and Richard Jones’ stunning revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape. That being said, these plays exhausted me. Almost all of the aforementioned plays end in a defeat or submission to a system of oppression. I leave the theatre passionate, however pessimistic, about the future. I felt like I could not engage in the issues but rather just deal with reality. These plays remind me why I consider myself to be an activist, but they do not give me the energy to keep going.
Unhappy with the current offerings, I decided to look back on our history. These shows were garish, and farcical but incredibly witty and winsome. There was tragedy within them, but they were always light-hearted in nature. There was always a love story, always the ignorant leads, but always written in a way that would give people of various backgrounds something to laugh at. Sometimes it could be garish and tacky, however these musicals tended to use kitsch as a weapon by using witty lyricism to engage its audience in issues of humanity.
I happened upon the wacky revues and musical comedies of Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, David Baker, Harold Rome, Marc Blitzstein, and several others. I’m talking shows like Pins and Needles (1937), Fiddler on the Roof (1964), The Cradle Will Rock (1937), Vintage ‘60 (1960), Call Me Madam (1950) and others.
One song from these shows that really stood out to me was David Baker and Sheldon Harnick’s song “Isms” from Vintage ‘60, of which I believe captures the true spirit of the comedy of humanity. The character is a young girl and she is singing about not understanding all of these so-called “isms” that her parents are talking about. Of course, when this production landed on Broadway, the country was deep in the Red Scare. There were plenty of “isms” to talk about. Audiences were allowed to laugh at this innocent little girl talking about conversations happening in every American household. In the middle of the song, we hear her monologue:
“…Maybe I’ll understand about the Isms when I’m older and I’m old enough to read. Well my daddy talks all the time and he never reads nothing. I asked him why and he said that ‘reading makes him think and thinking unsettled his prejudices.’ I bet at this very minute he’s talking about isms and spasms, and criticisms, and skepticisms, cynicisms, pessimism, and rheumatism. My daddy is a Congressman. My mommy wears earplugs…”
This song reduces the trivial politics of the United States to just meaningless “isms.” This is truly in line with comedy of humanity. Politicization of humanity leads to ignorance. Treating the issues of the world as political problems distances us from engaging in solutions. Let’s resolve to address issues as problems in humanity through light-hearted theatre.
We don’t need impersonations of politicians, we need to point out where we went wrong. We don’t need to throw facts and figures at an audience, we need farce. We don’t need to make people angry, we’re already angry. What we need, more than anything, is to laugh. We must aim to address the issues, not demonize our oppressors.