“The theater must always be a safe and special place,” president-elect Donald J. Trump declared in an angry tweet directed to the cast of the Broadway show Hamilton on November 19, 2016. The night before, vice president elect Mike Pence had been in the audience; at the end of the performance, Brandon Victor Dixon, a star of the show, had addressed him from the stage, citing “alarm and anxiety” about the coming administration and appealing to him “to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.” In June 2017, protesters interrupted performances of the Shakespeare in the Park theater company's Julius Caesar, decrying the graphic assassination of a Caesar who resembled President Trump. Delta Airlines and Bank of America withdrew their funding even as others voiced support. Chrystyna Dail's Stage for Action explores the history of a short-lived activist theater in the 1940s, raising broader questions about performance, patronage, and the politics of theater. Established in 1943, the theater group Stage for Action (SFA) took up the rallying cry of other socially engaged artists to proclaim “art as a weapon.” Members sought to craft theatrical productions that met professional standards even as they challenged audiences to support progressive causes. Initially funded by private donations, labor unions, and the National Citizens Political Action Committee (an outgrowth of the Congress of Industrial Organizations Political Action Committee), the SFA became a national organization in 1946 when it allied closely with the Progressive party and Henry A. Wallace's 1948 presidential campaign. Inspired by the New Deal–funded Federal Theatre Project (FTP), the SFA used the living-newspaper format that the FTP had deployed to dramatize contemporary social issues. Dail argues that the SFA afforded greater scope for women as leaders and participants and that its productions advocated for women's rights and government support for child care. The SFA also stood out for its consistent support of civil rights and inclusion of black actors, sponsors, and board members. After World War II its plays also argued for nuclear disarmament and attacked the widespread violations of civil liberties by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Closely linked to the Progressive party after 1946, the SFA collapsed after Wallace's resounding defeat in 1948. HUAC investigations of participants had a chilling effect, Dail argues; it seems likely that the organization also suffered from its reliance on the patronage of the Progressive party. A strength of Stage for Action is Dail's descriptions of productions such as Charles Polachek's Skin Deep (1944), which challenged racial categories and racist policies, and Arthur Miller's That They May Win (1944), on the struggles women faced on the home front during World War II. Dail's primary argument is persuasive but narrow: the evidence of the SFA's activities and commitments, she proposes, refutes the view that activist theater was quiescent between the New Deal and the renewal of activism in the 1960s. Her book reveals the particular power of theater to engage (and outrage) its audiences; more consideration of theater as a medium might have shed light on the SFA and the role of activist theater in a political life that might be seen as performance art. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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