WASHINGTON — When John Strand’s “The Originalist” debuted at Arena Stage in 2015, the play broke box office records.
“I think people were very interested to see what we would do with the character of Antonin Scalia on stage,” Strand said about the show that focused on the late Supreme Court justice. “And because it was in Washington, we were actually putting the play on a mile and a half from where he worked every day.”
Getting a behind-the-scenes look at what made the controversial justice tick was enough to draw the crowds in, but Strand said an underlying theme kept them coming back.
“We explored: What does it cost us to take a step toward the middle, if we’re willing to leave our position, whether it’s the right or the left, and listen to the other person just for a minute?”
And that is a question that will come up repeatedly in the next decade at Arena Stage.
Shortly after the 2016 election, Arena Stage announced it will commission and develop 25 new plays and musicals focused on stories of politics and power over the next 10 years in a series called Power Plays.
“[This is] a moment in the United States where everybody is asking, ‘What does it mean to be an American?’ There’s more civil and civic engagement than at any time in my lifetime, and this is a wonderful initiative that really dives right into the heart of that,” said Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith.
Political theater is not absent from D.C. — most of it just happens a few blocks away from Arena Stage’s Southwest waterfront location — but playwright Jacqueline Lawton said something transformative happens when a story hits the stage. Judgments are put on hold while the audience invests in the characters and their experiences.
“Theater allows us to focus on individuals and the human condition,” said Lawton, whose play “Intelligence” is the first to premiere in the Power Plays lineup.
“[It] allows us to raise awareness around issues or ideas and come together as a community to experience how different people respond to and engage in those ideas. And because it’s told through the lens of a story, these issues don’t have to be didactic.”
Stories from presidents and political insiders will be told throughout the 25 plays, as will those from women and African-Americans. Nathan Alan Davis’ commissioned play shines a spotlight on “black Wall Street,” a historically black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that was destroyed by riots in 1921, and Strand, author of “The Originalist,” which will come back to D.C. for a second run at Arena Stage, is working on another production about Theodore Roosevelt.
Mary Kathryn Nagle’s play, “Sovereignty,” details key moments in history of the Cherokee nation, of which she is a part.
“Humans are consumers of stories,” said Nagle, a playwright and attorney. “Stories motivate us; they motivate us to maintain a status quo, to hold on to traditions, they motivate us to change. If the laws change and our [native] sovereignty is restored, it will be because people have heard our stories — and they haven’t heard our stories right now.”
To Smith, Arena Stage’s address was an obvious reason to embark on the political project. D.C. “lives, breathes and sleeps politics,” Smith said, and the subject resonates with local residents.
“This is the smartest audience in the country. This is an audience that understands nuance more than any audience that I know of. It is an audience that can take in any kind of information and synthesize it,” Smith said.
“And what a joy to be in an audience where we’re doing a play about [former] President Jimmy Carter, and we have people in the audience who were in his administration.”
For more information on the initiative and upcoming performances in the Power Plays series, visit Arena Stage’s website.