Theater Night: A Curated Selection of Theater in the DMV

Anaseini Katoa as Esmeralda and Lynn Hawley as Nancy Reagan. Art: Chris Banks

On 16 April, we commemorated the anniversary of DC’s Compensated Emancipation Act, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. This piece of legislation would eventually result in the end of chattel slavery, an oppressive and inhuman system that had dominated the landscape of the United States since the 16th Century. This month’s column reviews theater that questions what freedom means: Freedom for one or many, the consequences of freedom of choice, and the effect of freedom on those we love. Read on for our curated selection.

In The Spotlight
Nancy, Mosaic Theater
Showing 28 Mar – 21 Apr

Did you know that Nancy Reagan, through the Bolling First Family of Virginia, is related to Pocahontas? Did you know that the Reagan administration catalyzed one of the most fundamental shifts in Native American life by its introduction of casino gambling into American Indian reservations? Nancy is a powerfully topical work by playwright Rhiana Yazzie that dives into the teased hair, legwarmers, neon glamor and shoulder pads of the 1980s—the setting for these significant personal and public historical convergences.

Directed by Ken-Matt Martin at the Mosaic Theater, Nancy examines freedom from differing yet interrelated perspectives: Freedom to use our own voices to narrate the history of our people. Freedom from harm caused by social, economic and environmental injustices, and freedom to live unencumbered by someone else’s perspective on who we are or should be.

Rhiana Yazzie. Photo courtesy Mosaic Theater.

Rhiana Yazzie’s career has been focused on centering Native American stories. A member of the Navajo Nation, her establishment of the New Native Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2009 enabled the extensive network of Native playhouses and creatives in the Twin Cities to project their voices even further. Her work within these communities has seen her awarded a St. Paul’s Bush Foundation Fellowship in 2018 and most recently a Steinberg Playwright Award in 2020. “As an audience member, as a Native person, I want to have the same opportunity that everyone else has in that they get to explore the various pieces of their emotions and politics.” says Yazzie. “I feel that very often when we approach Native American work or Native Americans in this country, you’re often viewed as this phenomenon that’s been victimized throughout history, or you get placed on a pedestal for the atrocities that have happened to your community. Or you get viewed in ways that are almost otherworldly, like people getting so taken with Shamanism and Native American spirituality. It’s these opposites that seem to be the only places we can live in.”

Nancy tells the seemingly disparate stories of First Lady Nancy Reagan and Esmeralda and Jacqueline, a mother and daughter struggling to make ends meet amidst the paranoia and greed of 1980s America, a period during which a young Yazzie first became aware of the way her world was structured. “I was a small kid in the 1980s. I lived in a reservation border town called Farmington, New Mexico. I clearly recall understanding the difference between my people and non-native people. I remember my mother was so vocal about the Reagans. I remember how fearful life was because of Ronald Reagan and nuclear arms and the Cold War. I spent almost every day of my youth in the 1980s worried about nuclear war happening.”

The story of Pocahontas, a daughter of a Powhatan chief absorbed into white settler culture, mirrors that of many Native American tribes and their members. Nancy, Yazzie explains, is a meditation on the complexities of colonial power and its insidious ability to infiltrate Native social systems, with the character of Pocahontas standing in for this complex dynamic. “The idea of erasure and assimilation is a big piece of this experience. In any history of the US, there’s always a Native part that’s been left out. I always ask how you maintain your identity as a Native person. Pocahontas was complicit in allowing the English to settle. She plays into imported ideas of womanhood and authority. By a choice of assimilation or being complicit with white supremacy, you’re destroying your community more than the white community can destroy it.”

On Right Now
Macbeth, Shakespeare Theatre Company
Showing 9 Apr – 5 May

Could there be a more compelling study of the effects and consequence of free will than William Shakespeare’s Macbeth? I chatted to Simon Godwin, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Artistic Director, about the STC’s production of this classic tale, being staged in an industrial area of NE DC.

Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes in the Edinburgh production of Macbeth. Photo: Marc Brenner.

Take note: While tickets are already sold out, a limited range of $20 lottery seats will be made available through from April 7, so get online now and register for alerts.

Macbeth is a play that explores the concept of freedom of choice, and the consequences of this freedom. How is this theme interpreted in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of this classic work?

Simon: The play grapples with the riddle of agency versus destiny. How much are we really in control of our lives? In this production the witches, who make a series of powerful predictions at the start of the story, become a more empowered presence than usual: they become agents of change, as if leading Macbeth ever deeper into a spiral of terror and destruction, culminating in his own demise.

What has been a highlight of working with Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma in the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth respectively?

Simon: Ralph and Indira bring to these roles an extraordinary depth of experience in classical acting. Ralph has played many of the most iconic roles in Shakespeare and brings an exceptional understanding of his language. Working together with him for the third time has allowed us to build on our past successes to travel ever deeper into the psyche of Macbeth.

Macbeth: Simon Godwin. Photo: KK Ottesen.

Indira combines a forensic understanding of the language and a delicate humanity and lack of judgment towards Lady Macbeth. Indira invites us to see Lady Macbeth as a complex, at times sympathetic, character who aspires to go beyond her situation, with disastrous and tragic consequences.

What does it mean to produce a play like Macbeth in Washington DC during a US presidential election year?

Simon: It’s a fantastic opportunity to share Shakespeare’s’ darkest study of power gone wrong in a city that’s navigating these questions every day.  I can’t wait to be in fervent dialogue with audiences in Washington DC about this provocative and exhilarating story.