Keep the Fire Burning

Save theater that deals with urgent issues from languishing in 'development hell’

  • July 5: Police shoot and kill a black man, Alton Sterling, for selling CDs in front of a convenience store.
  • July 6: Police shoot and kill a black man, Philando Castile, as he reaches for his driver’s license. He bleeds to death as his girlfriend captures it on her phone and beams it to Facebook.
  • July 6: A black man is harassed, profiled, and beaten by police in an American college town torn by racial and class division. Protesters march; violence erupts.
  • July 7: A black man, Micah Xavier Johnson, opens fire on police officers, killing five.

The third entry on the list happened only onstage, in a workshop production of Running on Fire. I saw black playwright Aurin Squire’s searing new play-in-progress at Connecticut’s Eugene O’Neill Theater Center just hours after police killed those two unresisting black men in Minnesota and Louisiana, the latest in a long, horrific and continuing string. As in Squire’s play, Facebook videos played a critical role in igniting national outrage.

Next morning, I awoke to grimmer news on the radio: echoes of gunshots recorded in Dallas on July 7, during a peaceful protest of those killings. Five police officers were murdered in the ambush, others wounded in what could have been a scene from Running on Fire.

Running on Fire's workshop production at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center.

‘Running on Fire’ in workshop production at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.

For those of us participating in the O’Neill institute, the coincidence of the real events and what was happening on stage was wrenchingly clear. We couldn’t stop discussing it, and how the country seemed to be returning to a state of rage and division reminiscent of Los Angeles’s riots over the police beating of Rodney King. We were in the disturbing center of creative cHal’s.

Isn’t that what we want art to do — speak to society’s deepest and most urgent issues? For those few of us who saw it, Running on Fire could and did help us understand and emotionally process the terrible events of those few days. But there’s little chance that others, especially here in Oregon, will be able to see the show until months (or maybe years) after the news has grown cold.

Meanwhile, the world races by at the speed of a tweet. Heated exchanges about today’s racial justice crisis constantly ricochet around the internet or the dinner table and pulsate through political campaigns. All could be bolstered or complicated by the insights Running on Fire could provide and the responses it would provoke.

But for the play to make an impact, someone would have to trust it right now, as it is. Someone needs to put this play on stage now. And this flies in the face of America’s typical “development hell” model for new plays, which often requires scripts to be workshopped and refined for years before they finally get in front of an audience.)

Of course, development is important. Incubators like the O’Neill Center, which for five decades has nurtured nascent plays by emerging playwrights, from August Wilson’s earliest triumphs through Lin Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights and more, play a vital role in American theatre. Squire’s new play will likely benefit from refinement and reworking, based on the feedback possible only after a play hits the boards — the kind he’s now received from the O’Neill workshop performance.

But how long should a play gestate? As playwright Christopher Hampton recently said, “I think the problem for writers is your play tends to get workshopped to death. These are the things that people haven’t done before or said before or expressed in this particular way, and people are alarmed. And they should be. My fear [is] that it all takes away those jagged edges that really cut into the audience.”

Those jagged edges are what get people talking. And when a play confronts the issues that people are talking about, producers and theaters should value timely passion over the quest for perfection.

Even with its early-version flaws, Running on Fire already crackles with visceral immediacy and in-your-face intimacy. However, if it takes three or more years for Squire’s artistic response to American racism to reach Oregon, or even Broadway, America loses a critical opportunity to grapple — on a deeper level than journalism or politics provide — with one of its most urgent issues. If there is going to be more development, let it happen fast. The shootings continue. Black men are dying now. America needs to see Running on Fire right now. Not three years from now.

A version of this story appeared earlier in TDF Stages.

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