From its beginnings in 1954, Arena Stage has never been shy about the theater’s artistic responsibility to address the contemporary, making and producing artful plays that tackle our common humanity and wrestle with politics, race, gender, justice and history.
Touching on a few examples: “The Crucible,” “The Great White Hope” and “Indians”; founder Zelda Fichandler’s penchant for staging the plays of political firebrand Bertolt Brecht; current Artistic Director Molly Smith’s staging of plays by Paula Vogel; in between and since, plays by August Wilson and Athol Fugard and Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman examinations of our national divides.
That often fearless trend has persisted every year, most recently with “All The Way,” the gripping play about LBJ’s gritty battle to introduce and pass civil rights legislation; “City of Conversation,” a generational saga about life in the salons of Georgetown; and “Roe,” among others.
Now, however, Arena has made it official with an announcement (complete with panel discussion) of news regarding its far-reaching Power Plays initiative, in which Arena will, over the next 10 years, commission and develop 25 new plays and musicals “focused on stories of politics and power” — and likely also about burning issues of race, gender, justice and equality.
The project got an impressive launch this week with a $2.5-million donation from real estate investor and longtime Arena patron Curtis T. Bell. The gift is considered a matching grant, designed to raise another $2.5 million toward the Presidential Voices portion of the series, for which Bell chose to make his donation. The five cycles of Power Plays embrace Presidential Voices, African American Voices, Insider Voices, Musical Theater Voices and Women’s Voices.
“Curt has given us an enormous gift, and we’ll be reaping the rewards for years to come,” Executive Director Edgar Dobie said. “For theaters to remain healthy, new work has to be part of what you’re tackling. … With Power Plays, what we have is a risk worth taking and a risk worth supporting. … We have to do this.”
Bell said: “We’ve just come out of a riveting presidential campaign, one that woke up everyone in the country about presidential elections — even those who had no interest before. Through Power Plays, Arena is ensuring that people who live here know the political figures and the stories that have shaped this powerful city.”
Smith called Bell’s gift “transformational.”
In some ways, the project — which is expected to thematically deal with our nation’s history decade by decade — is obviously unique in scope, ambition and the focus on new plays. In fact, it’s gotten a head start; there have already been three plays in the project, beginning with “Camp David,” the marvelous play by Lawrence Wright about the meeting among U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat — a production that produced one of those great Washington theatrical moments when Carter, former first lady Rosalynn Carter and Sadat’s widow were on hand for the opening night in 2014.
Additionally, there was John Strand’s “The Originalist,” in which Helen Hayes Award-winning actor Edward Gero portrayed the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. And currently at Arena Stage is playwright Jacqueline Lawton’s examination of the intelligence scandal during the George W. Bush administration and the Iraq War centering on CIA operative Valerie Plame and her husband.
Several works in the Power Plays project are already under way, including a play by Nathan Alan Davis (“Nat Turner in Jerusalem”) about the 1920s race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which all but destroyed a settled African American community known as the “Black Wall Street”; a play by John Strand about Theodore Roosevelt; and “Sovereignty” by Mary Kathryn Nagle, a playwright, an attorney and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, about the plight of Native Americans.