Please stop using Donald Trump as your Punchline.

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by Emma Durbin

What is the goal of your play?

Many playwrights have an individual idea of what their writing is, and how they hope to impact an audience. However, many theatres are commissioning plays that reflect on today’s political realm with some means of distance. A playwright will present a play about the past or set it in a fictional world that is meant to reflect our modern-day time. Recent Chicago productions of such plays include Insurrection: Holding History by Robert O’Hara at Stage Left, Rose by Laurence Leamer at the Greenhouse, and We’re Gonna be Okay at American Theatre Company.

Blind Date by Rogelio Martinez at the Goodman Theatre, however, failed to take advantage of the political event’s distance from today. The play is set in the 1980’s and looks into the famous day that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met to discuss the arms race and formalized what we call mutually assured destruction. While the play had set itself up to be an effective historical reflection, the whole thing was ruined by one line. Midway through a scene, one of the characters referenced Donald Trump in a line forewarning the audience to be careful about future presidents. Many members of the audience laughed at this joke, but I did not, and I was not alone.

When I come to the theatre, I expect to witness a new perspective in a different world from my own. I have now heard the same jokes on news and social media for two years at least. I do not want to hear the same things I could have read at intermission while scrolling through my Facebook feed. When a play script such as Blind Date has lines written that clearly have nothing to do with the world of the play and are only inserted to explain to its audience its message, it has committed a great crime. In the particular case of Donald Trump references, this is problematic because it is belittling, it is exclusionary, and it is also boring.

I find these jokes an example of us liberals being elitist about our views. Trump references in theatre contribute to the problem of the lack of communication and collaboration between opposing parties and political views. As an experiment: imagine you’re sitting in a room with 500 strangers. You know nothing about the people next to you and you’re watching this play. All of a sudden one of the performers alludes to someone who you and your friends admire and with whom you share similar beliefs as being like the villain in their show. It sounds like every single other person in the room is laughing in agreement. All of a sudden, you are highly aware that you are in a place where your beliefs, your opinions, your experiences, are meaningless and despised by all those around you. Not only that, but now everyone next to you knows you weren’t laughing.  They know you are exactly the thing they are laughing at. After this experience, how likely are you to see a play ever again? Please circle your answer.

Not at all likely 1     2       3       4       5       6       7       8         9       10 Very Likely

Of course, there are theatres that have missions such as About Face, or Congo Square, that are meant for specific audiences of similar political backgrounds. Whether LGBTQ or POC, these audiences come to these theatres to see themselves on stage and bond with a specific community… But the Goodman is not one of these theatres. The Goodman theatre’s mission states that the organization is dedicated “to three guiding principles—quality, diversity and community.” The Goodman is not a bubble, it’s one of the largest and most reputable regional theatres in Chicago and serves as a gateway to the large and wonderful world of Chicago’s smaller non-profit theatre scene.

Segregating the opinions of audience members in no way promotes diversity of the audience. Even if the opinions that are made fun of are those of the right! When the Goodman, which is like the front gate to our city’s theatre, blatantly excludes the people with unpopular opinions, how will we as a society ever have a conversation? And for what reason would these antagonized patrons return to the theatre after such an experience? Liberals should be writing plays that include various beliefs through the asking of questions, as opposed to the giving of answers. And these are the plays our theatre companies should be hunting for. Otherwise, we’re only enlarging the divisions between Liberal and not-Liberal. Otherwise, what are we saying that’s different from what news and social media are saying? What questions can we ask our audiences? How can we challenge them? If all we ever hear is lines from villains such as “I don’t have small hands,” what do we gain from coming to the theatre?

The Goodman is not the first nor the last theatre to use Trump jokes. Paula Vogel’s Ubu Roi Bake Off, which Victory Gardens participated in, asked nine Chicago playwrights to write Ubu Roi as if he were Donald Trump and vice versa in five-minute staged readings. Vogel describes this even on her website as a “a national grassroots movement to respond to our global crisis.” The idea that we need to see Donald Trump made fun of on stage to make change and to “respond to our global crisis” is misguided. As an audience member, I was rather bored. I neither learned nor saw anything of originality. This is not the fault of the playwrights, but of the rules to Vogel’s bake off. The only interesting presentation that night at Victory Gardens was from a playwright who broke and disregarded all bake-off rules, and instead read aloud some emails between himself and a White House Official.

A play’s impact is never helped by the exclusion of audience members. Theatres should include audiences of all identities and all beliefs (and not just those that we agree with!). Theatres need to ask more questions and stop trying to give solutions.

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