By Bob Abelman

In this era of fake news – just as in other times of trial and tribulation – many serious theater artists are making sure there is an element of authenticity in their storytelling by merging journalistic principles with dramatic theatricality.

Referred to as documentary dramas, these plays are built from historical and archival materials such as trial transcripts, interviews, newspaper reporting, personal or iconic visual images, government documents and autobiographies. They provide a dramatic narrative to often random or isolated factual details, resulting in a powerful theater experience bolstered by historical fidelity.  

Documentary dramas tend to surface when and where they are needed most.

Many serve to recognize and mend past injustices in societies newly recovering from a legacy of colonialism or religious persecution. Such is the case with post-apartheid South Africa’s “He Left Quietly” (2002) by Yaël Farber, grounded in the words of a man who spent three years on death row for a crime he did not commit, and post-conflict Northern Ireland’s “Des” (2000) by Brian Campbell, a one-man memoir about a radical West Belfast priest. The act of sharing the stories of past atrocities demands that a society confront its own recent brutal past while acknowledging that all involved must continue to live side by side. 

Some of these plays tell stories to guarantee those atrocities are never forgotten or repeated, such as the hundreds of works culled, verbatim, from interview transcripts of Holocaust survivors now cataloged at the National Jewish Theater Foundation in Coral Gables, Fla. They offer the theatrical narratives of ordinary individuals responding to extraordinary circumstances and give voice to the countless others whose stories would not otherwise be told.

Documentary theater has become, in the words of Nobel Peace Prize-winning South African cleric Desmond Tutu, “testimony’s ambitious sister.”

Leading the charge locally is Cleveland Public Theatre, whose home is in the Gordon Square Arts District in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, and Playwrights Local, which operates out of the Creative Space at Waterloo Arts in Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood.

Living newspapers

In America, documentary drama got its start under the auspices of the Federal Theatre Project (1935-1939), which was established as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. It was aimed primarily to provide relief to out-of-work actors and other theater professionals, but the funding of performances brought art and theatrical truth-telling to Americans who were suffering economically during the Depression. 

The content of these early American documentary dramas – labeled “living newspapers” by FTP national director Hallie Flanagan – was typically drawn from everyday life, particularly the experiences of first- and second-generation working-class immigrants. The storytelling needed to be inspirational as well as reflective and offer, according to Flanagan, “re-thinking rather than remembering.” And so their form was decidedly modernist, embracing collage, montage and expressionism. And, because of limited financing, they were and are decisively minimalist.  

One example is “One-Third of a Nation” (1938), a play inspired by FDR’s second inaugural address statement that he saw “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” Rather than tell a story, the play presented a subject – the abject state of housing in Depression-era America – which was illustrated by testimonials of its victims, slum statistics recited over loudspeakers and the performance of verbatim sections of floor speeches by U.S. senators. The play ran for nine months in New York City, where it was seen by more than 200,000 people, and it was performed 7,600 times on a nationwide tour on a shoe-string budget.

Documentary plays have flourished since.  

In the 1960s and 1970s, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and global economic upheaval compelled a new generation of theater artists to question and comment on media and government reporting about these events. In 1978, for instance, El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista, Calif. staged “Zoot Suit,” which retold the story of World War II-era riots in Los Angeles among Chicano youths and white American servicemen over a contested murder trial. 

From left, Rose Portillo, Daniel Valdez, Evelina Fernandez, Edward James Olmos, Rachel Levario and Mike Gomez in the 1978 world premiere of “Zoot Suit” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. / Photo by Jay Thompson

In the 1980s, many artists used the documentary form to tell more singularly personal stories of identity formation and the struggle against oppressive ideologies. Emily Mann’s “Execution of Justice” (1985), for example, chronicled the case of Dan White, who assassinated San Francisco mayor George Moscone and openly gay city supervisor Harvey Milk.

More recently, Moises Kaufman’s “The Laramie Project” (2000) offered a breathtaking collage of monologues devised from interviews with townspeople from Laramie, Wyo., where a 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming had been kidnapped, beaten and left for dead. 

Anna Deavere Smith’s critically acclaimed “Fire in the Mirror” (1992) examined the Crown Heights riots, “Twilight: Los Angeles” (1994) exposed the tensions surrounding the LA riots and her “Notes From the Field” (2016) called out America’s criminal justice system and the centuries of injustice it’s built upon. It was based on interviews with more than 250 people touched by this injustice.  

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s celebrated play “The Exonerated” (2002) is composed of interviews with individuals who have been released from death row.

Closer to home: Cleveland Public Theatre 

According to executive artistic director Raymond Bobgan, the mission of Cleveland Public Theatre is to “raise consciousness and nurture compassion through groundbreaking performances of new and adventurous work by Northeastern Ohio artists. And this can be accomplished through stories that are factual as well as fictional.” This has resulted in staged world-premiere productions of original, locally generated documentary dramas, including “Johanna: Facing Forward” (2015) and “Incendiaries” (2015).

Written and directed by Tlaloc Rivas, “Johanna: Facing Forward” is based on the award-winning newspaper series “Facing Forward” by Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Rachel Dissell. The articles were published in September 2007 and chronicle the story of local teen Johanna Orozco, who just months before was sexually assaulted and shot in the face by her ex-boyfriend, Juan Ruiz. Grounded in Dissell’s reporting, the play explores Orozco’s early life, the complexities of her relationship with Ruiz, the shooting, the surgery, the recovery and the trial. Orozco’s tireless activism after the shooting and its impact on domestic violence legislation are also touched on.  

“I wanted to create a theatrical companion piece to The Plain Dealer series,” recalls Rivas, “which only the power of the stage can convey. I wanted to have audience members engage in a shared experience with a story that took place in their own city.” 

From left, Courtney Brown and Tania Benites in Cleveland Public Theatre’s “Johanna: Facing Forward.” / Photo by Steve Wagner

The script was written in both Spanish and English to add an additional layer of authenticity to the people involved with Johanna’s personal, medical and legal journey from victim to survivor. But also, according to the playwright, “it was to make sure that the most important voice in the play was always going to be Johanna’s.”  

“Incendiaries” explores the race riots that tore through Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood on July 18, 1966, after a racially charged incident took place at Seventy-Niners’ Café. In the aftermath, gunfire left four dead and dozens injured. Hundreds of fires swept through the area as looters trashed stores, causing millions of dollars in damage. More than 2,000 Ohio National Guardsmen were brought in to restore peace.

Conceived and directed by Pandora Robertson, this play – which transforms historical text, actual trial transcripts and documented citizen accounts into riveting theater – asks audiences to reflect upon the social injustice that happened in the past with the understanding that it is happening still. The play dramatically reenacts six days of Cleveland history using nothing more than seven actors, three chairs and a table.  

“I hope that our work can help build understanding and empathy that is much needed in these challenging times,” suggests Robertson. 

And who knows? If one event on the southeast corner of Hough and East 79th Street can spark tensions that escalated into riots, “then perhaps one play taking place at CPT (at) 6415 Detroit Ave. … can spark the kind of dialogue between white and African-American members of the community that will keep this from happening again.”

Closer to home: Playwrights Local

During rehearsals for “Incendiaries,” 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by police just across the street from the Cudell neighborhood apartment of one of the CPT cast members. A documentary drama about the impact and aftermath of the shooting, titled “Objectively/Reasonable” (2015), was created by an ensemble of local artists – Mike Geither, Tom Hayes, Lisa Langford, Michael Oatman and David Todd – and given a world premiere production at Playwrights Local, an incubator of new works.

Although there were some limited public protests about the Tamir Rice case in Cleveland, the city never exploded into fiery riots the way Baltimore did after Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody. In fact, its response was oddly tepid. Playwrights Local felt that a play using the actual voices of anonymous neighbors, friends, legal experts, activists, law enforcement officers and community leaders could help offer insight and perspective, ease the remaining tension and generate a healing emotional response. The result was slice-of-life monologues strung together to form a narrative of the tragedy, which offered a variety of shades of anger and disillusionment that did not shy away from ardent social commentary.  

From left, Samone Cummings, Joshua McElroy, Mary-Francis Renee Miller, LaShawn Little, Christina Johnson, Corin B. Self, Kali Hatten, Nathan Tolliver and Phillia in Playwrights Local’s “Objectively/Reasonable.” / Photo by Tom Kondilas

“Theater has always provided a place for truth-telling,” says Todd, who is also Playwrights Local’s artistic director. “But much of it takes the form of a sustained analogy like ‘The Crucible,’” which was set during the Salem witch trials of 1692 but offered perspective on the McCarthyism and House Un-American Activities Committee hearings that were taking place in 1953, when the play was penned. “When you remove that layer of metaphor,” as was done with “Objectively/Reasonable,” “you get to a pretty stark reality.”

“This play is not just about entertaining, educating and informing,” suggests production director Terrence Spivey. “It’s a call for action and speaks out for those who suffer in silence.”

Which is precisely what documentary dramas have done since their inception. And will continue to do when the world needs them most. CV

On stage

Upcoming documentary dramas on Cleveland stages

• “Live Bodies for Sale” by Christopher Johnson will make its world premiere from Nov. 22 to Dec. 15 at Playwrights Local, 397 E. 156th St., Cleveland. Roughly 4.5 million people worldwide are trapped in forced sexual exploitation. This documentary-style work captures the human trafficking crisis in present-day Ohio, presenting monologues and scenes derived from interviews with real-life survivors, empowerment advocates, law enforcement agents and legal professionals.

• “The Absolutely Amazing and True Adventures of Ms. Joan Southgate” by Nina Domingue-Glover will make its world premiere from May 16 to June 6, 2020 at Cleveland Public Theatre’s James Levin Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland. In 2002, Joan Southgate – a retired social worker and Cleveland-area activist – left the small town of Ripley, Ohio, to perform a 519-mile walk across Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Canada. She did this with one goal in mind: to highlight the courage and resourcefulness of freedom seekers and conductor families who risked everything on the Underground Railroad. This play is based on personal interviews as well content from Southgate’s memoirs and YouTube footage of her lectures.

Lead image: Wesley Allen takes center stage during Cleveland Public Theatre’s “Incendiaries.” / Photo by Steve Wagner