Cleveland theaters are finally emerging from a long, dark period of closure. They’re not done with the pandemic, however. Their play selections for the coming 2021-2022 season reflect continued awareness of such lingering ills as systemic racism, police violence, and wrongful incarceration.
Virtual performances provided a workable stopgap measure for many venues during the pandemic, but for theater artists to truly thrive, they require live, in-person audiences.
“I feel like I’ve spent the last year reinventing, and I don’t need to reinvent anymore,” said Scott Spence, artistic director of Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood. “I’d like to return to the roots that were working so well for us, and fortunately science has provided the way to do that.”
Beck Center for the Arts
After completely updating its HVAC and air filtration system, Beck Center reopens to live performances this month in the newly named Senney Theater with Finegan Kruckeymeyer’s “This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing,” running July 22-Aug 8. Starring Derdriu Ring and directed by Eric Schmiedl, this inspiring mythical tale depicts the struggles and aspirations of three sisters in search of adventure, purpose, and truth.
“Audiences are going to want to be entertained more than anything else as they find their way back into venues, but there’s still too much going on to ignore some of these social and BIPOC issues,” Spence noted. “So it was important that, while keeping the season light in other places, we also explored a theater piece of substance.”
That timely play of substance is “The Exonerated,” by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, running Oct. 8-Nov. 7. Winner of 2003 Drama Desk and Outer Circle awards, the play tells the true stories of six wrongfully convicted former prisoners drawn from interviews, letters, transcripts, case files, and public record.
For Colleen Jackson, the play’s director, who fittingly works as the Shaker Heights Chief Officer for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the timing is perfect, especially in light of the pre-pandemic release of the Central Park Five, who also had been wrongfully convicted. “It’s not often that we get the kind of attention to social justice issues that we have right now,” Jackson said.
Audiences will experience vicariously the suffering of these six real people as they encounter the deficiencies of the criminal justice system. For Jackson, it’s the just the sort of bold approach needed to begin to effect change in the U.S. at the moment.
“It’s about people of different colors, so it’s not a color story, but an American criminal justice story,” Jackson said. “Theater characters give people an opportunity to get to know them, even if it’s just the time they encounter them on stage, and it allows people a chance to connect and then empathize with people who might be in that situation.”
Across town in Cleveland Heights, Dobama Theatre also took advantage of the downtime to implement physical improvements, including all new ADA accessible seating with clearer sightlines and enhanced air filtration. It also revamped the way its board and staff function, involving them more intricately in the artistic process.
But it also took steps to be more inclusive. Each cast this season will be multiracial, Motta said, and several productions will include queer representation.
“We are going to be even more authentically inclusive, supportive and welcoming not just in the shows we produce, but [in] how we produce them,” said artistic director Nathan Motta.
At the heart of the Dobama season, “Kill More Paradise” (March 4-27) thoughtfully examines the loss of black lives at the hands of police. Four young black men in this play by James Ijames find themselves in a cosmic purgatory, trying to figure out where they are and why they’re there. The play doesn’t focus on the murders but rather on the tragedy of the beautiful lives lost.
“It’s very poetic and there’s a lot of movement and humor, and it centers on joy and advocacy,” Motta said.
Bringing people together for a shared experience is only one role theater will play in the new normal, Motta said. Having spent the shutdown pondering America’s long-standing problems, theaters now have no choice but to begin addressing them.
“After everything that happened, how theaters work and what type of art theaters produce should absolutely not go back to normal,” he said.
This fall, Convergence-Continuum in Tremont will produce another timely play by Ijames, “White” (Oct. 8-30). This one tells the story of a gay white painter who hires an African-American actress to portray him, so as to be included in an exhibition featuring artists of color.
As is typical of Convergence-Continuum productions, “White” devolves into chaos while exploring issues of race, gender, sexuality, and art.
“There are some theaters where the plan is to just go back to normality and let people have an escape from the real world,” said Cory Molner, director of “White” and the theater’s interim artistic director. “At Convergence-Continuum, we do not try to escape the real world. We try to put a lens on some of it.”
Like its peers, Convergence used the pandemic shutdown to refurbish. To address safety concerns when it reopens, the already small, intimate Liminis Theater will reduce capacity to 75 percent, or 30 people, while keeping open all 40 seats, allowing guests to sit where they comfortable.
In the third and final segment of a season called “Matters of Conscience,” Clyde Simon will direct “The 20th Century Way,” by Tom Jacobson (Dec 2-18). Two actors will play some 20 characters in this true story based on a sting by the Long Beach Police Department in 1914 to entrap “social vagrants” having homosexual sex in public restrooms. The operation led to an ordnance against “oral sodomy” in California.
“The disjointed time and place is something I like as an aesthetic and as a challenge,” said Simon, the recently retired founder and artistic director of Convergence. “It’s a pretty challenging piece, and it should be a very profound piece for the audience.”
The first play of the Convergence season will see Simon as one of the lead actors. He’ll appear in “Oliver Parker,” by Elizabeth Meriwhether (Aug 20-Sept 11). Tom Kondilas directs this play about a 17-year-old who owns the run-down apartment where Jasper, played by Simon, lives and interferes with Oliver’s attempts to find romance.
Social justice has been a focus for Playwrights Local in Cleveland’s Waterloo Arts District from its founding six years ago. The first play developed and produced at the theater in 2015 was “Objectively/Reasonable,” a response to the police shooting of Tamir Rice the previous year.
“We want to give local playwrights the license to follow their muses, but to balance that with an interest in material that captures and impacts the community most powerfully,” said artistic director David Todd. “One of the reasons we emphasize social justice/equity themes is the degree to which we’ve seen them resonate with our audiences.”
This season, Playwrights Local, which has been producing a variety of radio plays during the pandemic, opens Nov. 5-20 with “The King of Cage Street,” a play written and directed by playwright Michael Oatman.
Set in Oatman’s hometown of East Cleveland and penned while the author was a social worker, the play explores an unusual relationship between a blue-collar businessman and his neighbor. Oatman said the work was inspired by a real friendship he observed between a rural white man with racist leanings and a black transgender person living in the city.
“[T]hey kept bumping into each other in the foster care system, and after a while they became the only familiar things in their lives,” Oatman explained.
Still topical, the play is already 10 years old, but hasn’t seen a performance since 2018, when it premiered at the Stone Cottage Theatre in Texas.
Oatman said he’s excited to see a production of the work in Cleveland and to share his experiences of the foster-care system with his own hometown. Theater, he said, he is a place of refuge and open discussion whose value to the community soars during times like these.
“Theater can give a voice to the voiceless,” he said. “[That’s] one of the things that makes me get up in the morning.”
Christopher Johnston has published more than 3,000 articles in publications such as Christian Science Monitor, Scientific American and Time.com. His book, Shattering Silences: New Approaches to Healing Survivors of Rape and Bringing Their Assailants to Justice (Skyhorse) was published in February 2018.
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