Ah, springtime. When a theatergoer's heart turns to genocide, inequity and human remains.

As the first tulips emerge, two plays with dark, un-spring-like themes are opening on Twin Cities stages (a third, Penumbra's grief-themed "Weathering," also was scheduled to debut but has been shifted to fall). It may seem anomalous but the folks behind Mixed Blood Theatre's "Imagine a U.S. Without Racism" and Full Circle Theater's aftermath-of-war "Atacama" say there are good reasons to do challenging dramas right now.

For starters, as playwright George Bernard Shaw famously said, "No conflict, no drama." Even an escapist show such as Old Log's current "Margaritaville" needs some sort of conflict — in that case, a will-they-or-won't-they? — to get the action going.

There's plenty of conflict in "Imagine" and "Atacama," both of which close May 1. Mixed Blood's "Imagine" came out of a conviction that dark times demand big changes.

"We took it really personally when theater was put at the lowest tier of essentials," said Mixed Blood's Jack Reuler, whose organization greeted the pandemic by embarking on a seven-month process of redefining itself that included neighborhood renewal and transforming into a food pantry. "When the next pandemic comes, how can theater be looked at as a solution? How can we infuse the arts, and theater, into the social equation so they become a catalyst for change?"

In a way, just as spring 2022 feels like a cautious emergence from two years under a cloud, "Imagine" — based on interviews with folks from every state, who were asked to envision a racism-free world — can be seen as a light in the darkness.

"We want to infuse imagination into things that usually lack imagination. Policy-making and changes of behavior are oftentimes stuck in paths and ruts," said Reuler, who founded Mixed Blood to address the "isms" that divided the country in 1976 and still do. "For most of my years, idealism and ideals have been pooh-poohed as something unattainable, and I think they are attainable."

The hope is to inspire conversations on the ride home from the theater, as well as an impulse to participate in the anti-racism the title suggests.

Something similar motivates "Atacama," in which two characters search the titular Chilean desert for the bodies of children murdered under the country's devastating Augusto Pinochet regime.

"We're dealing with darker material, emotionally challenging material, but at the same time there is a hopefulness and redemption," said Rick Shiomi, co-artistic director of Full Circle, which is producing the play at Park Square Theatre.

Two earlier attempts to stage "Atacama" were postponed because of the COVID pandemic, so its timing is somewhat coincidental. But it was always envisioned as a spring show. And, despite difficult themes, Augusto Federico Amador's play is about rescuing hope from tragedy.

"It's a dual thing, the recognition of the transgression that happened, the admission by those who committed it and, on the other side, the seeking of justice and gaining of hope for humanity," said Shiomi, adding that the play fits neatly with Full Circle's mission. "Social justice is very much a part of our company, so this is a classic case of the need for justice in dealing with a tragedy."

Another theme that unites these dark plays is urgency. The reason to do them now is that they should be seen as soon as possible. In Mixed Blood's case, it'll be the last show under Reuler, who's retiring this summer.

Seema Sueko's "Imagine" is a new play, written during the pandemic, and the voices it assembles are as recent as the latest wave of the virus. "Atacama" debuted in 2018 but Shiomi thinks it's needed more now — with Russian President Vladimir Putin being called a dictator committing genocide — than when it was originally to have been performed two years ago.

"With the tragic invasion of Ukraine by an autocratic leader in Russia, we're seeing right now the experience of war crimes and civilians being killed," Shiomi said. "What we might think of as something that happened in the past is so powerful to us right now."

As the Ukraine invasion reminds us, tragic events don't care what season it is. But one goal of the arts can be to help us make sense of those events.

"We don't dodge the horror of the tragedy," said Shiomi. "At the same time, we have to emphasize the hopefulness, that there's a direction toward the light. Toward spring, in a sense, and a kind of renewal."

Theater, too, is coming out of a period of hibernation, said Reuler, and needs a spring-like sense of renewal to remain vital for audiences that have mostly done without it for two years.

"We need to come back and be different, so we are essential, emotionally and spiritually and intellectually," he said.

'Imagine a U.S. Without Racism'

Who: Written and directed by Seema Sueko.

When: 7:30 Wed.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends May 1.

Where: Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. 4th St., Mpls.

Protocol: Masks and COVID vaccination (or negative test within 72 hours) required.

Tickets: $25 or pick-a-price, mixedblood.com.


Who: By Augusto Federico Amador. Directed by Lara Trujillo.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends May 1.

Where: Park Square Theatre, 20 W. 7th Place, St. Paul.

Protocol: Masks and COVID vaccination (or negative test within 72 hours) required.

Tickets: $16-$35, parksquaretheatre.org.