The enemy is poverty, and the wall keeps out the enemy, and we build the wall to keep us free.
These lyrics taught me the power of political theater. After growing up on the Children’s Theatre Company and the Star Tribune, I had learned to express my love of theater on stage and keep my political beliefs to the school newspaper. Then I heard the “Hadestown” soundtrack.
In Anaïs Mitchell’s anti-capitalist adaptation of the Orphic myth, the poor poet Orpheus struggles against Hades, the evil embodiment of capitalism who enslaves the poor to build a wall around his city of Hadestown.
“Hadestown” reached secondary theaters as President Donald Trump’s “border wall” rhetoric hit the news, catapulting the experimental musical into the heart of political relevance. Enamored of its political message, I avidly followed its path as it rose toward that pinnacle of theater: Broadway.
The show left for London as I started college at Columbia University in New York. I couldn’t wait for it to return and change the world. Then I experienced Broadway, and I found out that “Hadestown” would never change the world, at least not as a Broadway production.
The problem is that Broadway audiences are used to flashy, uncontroversial musicals. Decades of meaningless spectacles like “Anything Goes” and “Mamma Mia!” have portrayed theater as pure escapism, not a medium for conveying ideas.
Such hedonism has trained audiences to view political shows likewise. As William Burling’s essay on “The Horizons of Revolutionary Theatre” attests, Broadway buries political messages in the artistry of the musicals themselves, leaving the “controversy packaged as entertainment.”
The Tony-award-winning brilliance of “Hadestown” thus actually obscures its message. When I saw the show on Broadway this April, the audience missed all the nuance of its political overtones, gawking instead at the gorgeous music and stunning stage magic.
Hades does the same thing in Hadestown. When Orpheus incites the workers to rebellion with a song — a perfect analogy for successful political theater — Hades does not bother to silence him. “Sing a song for me,” he commands instead. “Make me laugh! Make me weep!” Like the Broadway audience watching him, Hades invalidates Orpheus’s message by reducing his song to simple entertainment. This epitomizes Broadway.
I was wrong to look east toward New York for the pinnacle of theater. In reality, Broadway only exemplifies commercial theater: innocuous crowd-pleasers that maximize profits by attracting escapist audiences.
Broadway lost its way before Minneapolis even made it on the theatrical map. Now, however, we have more theater seats per capita than any U.S. city outside of New York.
If Broadway represents the old, jaded, capitalistic Hades, erecting walls to keep out foreign ideas, then Minneapolis, with its younger, vibrant theater community, can be the radical Orpheus who breaks them down.
Our major theaters already develop tons of political content. The Guthrie’s adaptation of “An Enemy of the People” addresses the political causes of the water crisis in Flint, Mich. In The Moving Company’s mute masterpiece, “Speechless,” a tower of “hope” for the 2016 election becomes democracy’s tomb. Mixed Blood Theatre’s “Autonomy” pits a young Dreamer against Google, Amazon and ICE in a world of automated vehicles.
Broadway has political shows, too, but retraining its ever-changing, consumerist audience for civically engaged theater would be impossible. In Minneapolis, however, lower ticket prices reduce the stakes of experimentation, and a local theater community forms a loyal, trainable audience: us.
We constitute the audience; we control our theater community. With our shared political history and culture of inclusion, Minneapolis can lead the nation in political theater by cultivating the community we already have.
We can better support organizations like Mixed Blood and The Moving Company that produce creative, political content. We can cheer on polemical productions like “An Enemy of the People” or “Indecent” at the Guthrie and dissect their significance on the drive home, over social media and in debates about current issues.
Minneapolis can revitalize political theater at this crucial juncture for America. We can put ourselves on the map, not as a Midwestern alternative to Broadway, but as a national leader in political theater. We decide what theater means in Minnesota. Let’s give it substance.
Jacob Weinstein, of St. Paul, is a tutor and amateur actor.