Whether it’s the Great White Way or College Street, questions of social justice in an increasingly polarized country can be asked and explored onstage.
“I think a lot about my responsibilities as a white man,” says Edward Isser, W. Arthur Garrity, Sr. Professor in Human Nature, Ethics and Society and chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance. “What do I have to offer? I have a tremendous resource here as a theater professor and an ethical obligation to partake in the discourse.”
Isser has staged productions on campus that illuminate contemporary issues in unexpected ways, an approach he notes has a rich history across time: “Shakespeare understood that great political theater is not about a specific event but an intersection between the political and the psychological; he wrote allegorically. There’s a reason he wrote plays about Julius Caesar — that’s how he was commenting on contemporary events.”
In 2017, Isser directed students in “Fuenteovejuna,” Lope de Vega’s sweeping 1619 drama about the ominous outcomes of a dictatorial regime. “In my production, it was the women who did the killing,” he notes of the climactic moment when the oppressive commander is taken down. Instead of the male villagers attacking him, it was the women, who endure terrible acts throughout the play, including attempted droit du seigneur.
It was an eerily timely update; during rehearsals, movie producer Harvey Weinstein was publicly accused of being a serial sexual predator of actresses, news that launched the #MeToo movement and electrified the country, as well as Isser’s student cast, illuminating the play’s themes of the sexual oppression women too often experience.
He recalls the process being “emotional, cleansing and cathartic. There was a lot of energy, a lot of anger, so by the time this show opened on campus we were all really wound up. The production was an artistic outlet.” As a result, Isser calls the play: “one of the most fulfilling productions in my career. The young women in the ensemble really bonded — they were incredibly empowered.”
This unique ability to confront adversity and inspire collaboration and conversation is the impact of theater, especially in a divided era. As such, Isser notes — through bold, topical productions — that “we have an ever-greater responsibility to enlighten.”
Written by Billy McEntee for the Summer 2019 issue of Hole Cross Magazine.
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