The 2016 presidential race — and the representative candidates themselves — revealed myriad divides in America that “Saturday Night Live” and fearless performing arts companies like the Brave New Workshop have had a field day satirizing.
Old-school theater companies also have grappled with the divides, with the Guthrie, for example, hosting nimble “happenings” to provide forums for community affirmation and healing.
After the 2016 election, Minneapolis’ Pillsbury House Theatre commissioned five 10-minute playlets for a serious and searching anthology show. The first installment of the series, “The Great Divide: Plays for a Broken Nation,” dealt with ideological differences via works from writers such as Christina Ham, Katie Ka Vang and James A. Williams. Last year’s show, “The Great Divide II: Plays on the Politics of Truth,” asked questions about the nature of truth in an era marked by rampant lies and charges of fake news.
Now the theater has commissioned five playwrights to ruminate on the status of women in “She Persists: The Great Divide III,” opening Wednesday.
“If you find time to think about the divisions, you can always find ways to overcome them,” said Faye Price, co-artistic director of Pillsbury House. “This is not about red or blue, but about the role of women in the world — past, present and future.”
A time of extremes
The playlets come at a time of extremes for women in America, as evidenced by the bitterness and vitriol surrounding September’s testimonies to the Senate Judiciary Committee by Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford.
At the same time, more women have become empowered in the wake of the #MeToo movement and in electoral politics. The record number of elected female representatives now serving in Congress made a statement at the recent State of the Union address by donning suffragette white.
The playwrights in this “Great Divide” cohort — Aamera Siddiqui, Cristina Florencia Castro, Casey Llewellyn, Philana Imade Omorotionmwan and Oya Mae Duchess-Davis — are mostly up-and-comers. They approach the subject in a stylistically varied manner, with some taking a linear approach and others more abstract.
Some of this year’s pieces are set in the dystopian future. Siddiqui’s “I Voted” takes place at a Wisconsin polling place in 2024 when voter suppression efforts against select citizens reach a breaking point. “May Yamoe,” by Castro, takes place in a Spanish class where an entrepreneurial teacher absorbs the aggression and microaggression of the environment.
“When the elections happened in 2016, it was a big shock but there was a feeling that we could bridge the divides and we’re all gonna be OK,” said director Noël Raymond, who helmed last year’s show and returns to stage “She Persists.”
“Now it feels like we might not all be OK, and a lot of people already aren’t, and Americans are getting farther and farther apart.”
Representing different worlds, the playlets are a challenge to the design team. And while the approach is sober, the production has elements of rhythmic fun.
“Part of what I love about these plays is that they feel like events,” said Raymond, a veteran theater artist for 30 years who also serves as co-leader of Pillsbury House alongside Price. “We have a DJ who plays music in-between and they feed into each other.”
Art for social change
Like Mixed Blood Theatre and Penumbra Theatre, Pillsbury House uses art partly for social justice. The company, in fact, is housed in a community center that offers health services, banking and after-school programs. It has a lot of hands-on experience helping people to change and grow.
But even they are daunted by the level of vitriol in the political environment.
“When we think about bridging divides, it’s still possible in an interpersonal, person-to-person way,” said Raymond. But at the macro level “it feels like the world is getting more dangerous, and it’s harder to have generous and generative conversations about issues across political ideologies.”
That is not to say that Raymond or the company are about to stop trying. She believes deeply in the power of art to affect and effect change. Getting under another’s skin and showing how we are more alike than not helps with understanding and empathy, she said.
It also provides an opportunity to share perspectives in a forum that lends itself to more quiet and serious communication, as opposed to the tone-deaf traps of social media.
“Many people are living in these pockets of fear and despair,” Price added. “But we made a commitment amongst ourselves to continue to address this divide as long as the flames of division continued to be fanned.”