by Mark Johnson
Whenever one thinks of theatre in America, their immediate thoughts go to New York, and, more specifically, to Broadway. Chicago, too, has built a reputation as a city that produces high quality live theatre. But the San Francisco Bay Area might soon be included in that ever-so-small list of cultural meccas for the art of stagecraft within the next few decades. While New York has an expansive array of live productions both old and new, Chicago survives on its reputation for reviving classic works of art with taste and refinement. The Bay Area proves to be a slightly different beast altogether, thriving on producing newer works that frequently address social and political issues within the modern era.
In the Bay Area, it’s far more common to see a brand new play than it is to see such repertory staples as “The Glass Menagerie” or “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Sure, the staple theatre companies, like the American Conservatory Theatre, still produce high-quality productions of timeless plays, but even larger theaters like the Berkeley Repertory Theatre produce an unusually high quantity of new works—their newest season will feature three world premieres and no plays written before 2014. There are dozens of companies sprouting up all over the Bay Area attempting to take advantage of the freeing quality that producing new work can give to a local company. Theatre Aluminous is the newest player on the scene, hoping to leave their mark on the cultural scene of the current era by producing new plays that aggressively address social, political, and economic issues.
An Oakland-based company, Theatre Aluminous hopes to bring the creative energy that has been primarily focused in San Francisco and Berkeley and recenter it to Oakland to allow the city a voice of its own. The company’s most recent project was the Flash Mob Short Play Festival, a one-day outdoor theatre festival taking place outdoors along Oakland’s own Lake Merritt that featured three brand new short plays written by local authors. The festival was designed to celebrate the city and most of the work addressed growing concerns over gentrification and a loss of identity in the modern world. While movies and television can provide mass entertainment, only theatre has the scope and malleability to address actually current issues to an immediate audience. From Bertolt Brecht to Arthur Miller, August Wilson to Brian Friel, theatre has always found itself the true center of the cultural zeitgeist of the era.
The company’s next play will tap into a modern anxiety as well. Bruce Graham’s “White Guy on the Bus” (which will play at The Flight Deck in Oakland from September 15th-24th) is a powerful look at race relations in the modern world. The play premiered in Chicago in early 2015 (to generally strong but divisive reviews) and Aluminous is one of the first companies presenting the work, staging it before its New York premiere in the spring of 2017. Unlike many works about race, “White Guy on the Bus” shows no restraint in its hard-headed and ferocious analysis. It is a work that spews acid from start to finish. It’s tough material, but Theatre Aluminous remains undaunted. Artistic director Michael French sees the work as potentially vital to the continued discussion on race as we move into the future: “Underneath that anger, and underneath the truth of that anger, is a plea to anyone to find a solution to the things that cause us to be so angry.” The work may not hold anything back, but it is also not a purposeless exercise in anger. It opens up the conversation on race to include new facets, with a message that seeks to move the conversation forward, not hold it back.
The attitude of Theatre Aluminous is much in line with other companies in the area, and it is this attitude towards the theatre that will cause the Bay Area to become an increasingly notable presence in the national theatre scene. Whether Aluminous’s voice is worth hearing remains to be seen, but their voice will be added to the vital conversation that local theatre companies are currently having, and the mere presence of that conversation is what will ultimately prove to be important.
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