Whether you call it a renaissance or an emergency, the agonizing subject of race in non-post-racial America continues to turn out superior plays by black playwrights. Many use the very structure of theater to dramatize the ways we look at each other. But it is also useful, powerful and, in the case of Aziza Barnes’s “BLKS,” a flat-out joy ride to see black life onstage as it is lived without (much) reference to whites. Under Robert O’Hara’s hold-onto-your seats staging for MCC Theater, this roommate comedy (with a hefty afterkick) was just the release we needed.
It was a dreadful year for new musicals. A few — like Michael R. Jackson’s “A Strange Loop” Off Broadway and “Hadestown” and “Tootsie” on Broadway — had at least some of the ingredients needed to lift the impossible art form into excellence: thematic ambition, exacting skill, dramatic coherence and superior staging. But only Dave Malloy’s chamber opera about electronic addiction, directed by Annie Tippe for, again, the Signature Theater, had them all, and gorgeous music to boot. It left me both horrified by the indiscriminate electronic appetite of the internet but also thrilled by the survival of painstaking, handmade craft.
It was the slap heard ’round Central Park. Escorting Shakespeare’s great comedy into a #MeToo, Black Lives Matter world, the director Kenny Leon moved the action in this Public Theater production to 2020 Atlanta, rendering the idea of romantic resistance as timely as it is classic. But given that timeliness, how could he drive the play’s “merry war” to its happy ending? That’s where the slap came in, as a woman named Hero reset her fiancé’s clock with a solid smack. For a few summer evenings at the Delacorte Theater, that was a huge civic release and a good start.
Another play set in a church basement? Adam Bock’s drama, directed by Trip Cullman for the Williamstown Theater Festival, set you up to expect nothing but naturalism from a handful of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts preparing coffee for their 12-step meetings. But as the play dug deeper, its realistic trappings dropped away, leaving the Off Broadway treasure Deirdre O’Connell to deliver a stupendous 25-minute monologue that ripped open the story with heartbreaking self-reproach. Phantoms, she showed, do not come unbidden into our lives; we invite them, over and over.
If you don’t like plays about children, wait until you see what children become. That’s one way of looking at Bess Wohl’s tragicomedy featuring four siblings, ages 5 through 12. Though we know something is very wrong — where are their parents? — we don’t know what it is until we meet them anew, 32 years later, haunted not only by what has happened in the interim but also by who they once were. In Michael Greif’s pinpoint production for Second Stage Theater, the very idea of personal growth came to seem dubious: In searching for the self, everyone is hurtfully selfish.
I’ve twice pulled out my big adjectives for Jeremy O. Harris’s play about three interracial couples on an “antebellum sexual performance therapy” retreat. I’ve also heeded criticism of it from those who find its vision of racial reconciliation perverse. But for me, Harris’s metaphor for the ghostly afterlife of America’s peculiar institution remains as theatrically rich — and as hilarious and scalding, in a staging, once again, by Robert O’Hara — as any to date. If it weren’t so perverse, it wouldn’t be true.