Could Protestors Turn Broadway Into Political Theater?

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Courtesy of The New York Times.

March 1, 2015:
CLOSING NIGHT OF BROADWAY PLAY
“DISGRACED,” PULITZER WINNER,
MARRED BY ISLAMIC ACTIVISTS
Actors Threatened During Final Bows

February 14, 2015:
FIRST PERFORMANCE OF
“THE QUEEN” ON BROADWAY
INTERRUPTED AT CURTAIN CALL
BY ANTI-MONARCHIST PROTESTORS
Dame Helen Mirren Unfazed

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Those headlines are hopefully imaginary. But what happened at the Metropolitan Opera last Thurs., Jan. 29, may serve to warn us of what could very easily take place in the future. For what happened was not merely a wild breech of civic decorum — though it certainly was that. A major, internationally recognized performance space was effectively hijacked during the curtain call — appropriated, if you like — for purely political purposes by a member of the audience. From the New York Times:

A protester carrying a sign criticizing the policies of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia climbed over the orchestra pit and onto the stage at the Metropolitan Opera on Thursday night as the diva Anna Netrebko took her curtain call after performing the title role in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta.

Courtesy of The New York Times.
Courtesy of The New York Times.

Picture that: he climbed over the orchestra pit and onto the stage. Well, of course he did. For in the theatre, there is no glass, no literal fourth wall to separate the spectators from the performers. Nothing but air, really, to keep them apart — along with the ancient tradition that actors will do what they do on the stage before the spectators, and that the spectators will respond in whatever way that they do: watching, waiting, reacting. Even the hurling of coins, peanuts or roses is not the same thing, not nearly, as climbing over the orchestra pit and onto the stage.

What happened at the Met could just as easily happen after, say, the performance of a play on Broadway. Or any public event vulnerable to politicization and controversy.

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The man who did this climbing and sign-carrying will surely go down as a minor historical figure; the Times didn’t even print his name, if they even knew of it at the time the story was published. The story transcended that man’s individual identity and instead was about the gesture — the brazen confronting of Netrebko with a sign that links her personal politics back in Russia to the homophobic and Stalinesque rule of Vladimir Putin. It certainly wasn’t the first time that the acclaimed diva was a target of anti-Putin controversy and protest, but it was the first time that such a protest was so direct and pointed and therefore dangerous.

Watch the video below. The man-with-no-name walks so calmly onto the Met’s stage that he could just as easily have been mistaken for an absent-minded supernumerary who missed his cue:

Listen to the sounds of shock coming from the audience, especially as the man-with-no-name faces them and unfurls a banner depicting, among other things, Putin as Hitler. Notice the tumult as he pivots and forces the diva to stare at the banner, humiliating her, before ambling off to the wings and being greeted by security.

From the viewpoint of that unnamed man, the stunt undoubtedly worked. He received coverage, if not name recognition, in the New York Times. And here we are, wondering why there haven’t been such stunts before.

Anti-monarchist sentiment runs low in the U.S., so the second of the two imaginary headlines at the top of this post is a fairly ridiculous scenario. But consider briefly the first imaginary headline, the one pertaining to Ayad Akhtar’s superlative play now running on Broadway, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Disgraced concerns a Muslim-American lawyer and his wife, an artist whose work is inspired directly by Islamic imagery. It’s a play about identity and ideas; its most explosive idea, perhaps, is that no matter how well we assimilate into American culture, fidelity to ethnicity, to our tribal roots, trumps our patriotism.

Disgraced features a combustible speech in which the central character, played by Hari Dhillon, challenges another couple on stage to confront their own sense of tribal pride, of social belonging. Watch the whole video (it’s worth it), but the speech that inspired my imaginary headline at the top of this post comes after 3:00:

Can you imagine a situation in post-Sept. 11 America — in our fame-obsessed, social-media-driven, selfie culture — in which the full manifestation of some individual’s pro-Arab, anti-Israel, anti-American pride might compel them to protest Akhtar’s play at a curtain call? The wonder is that it hasn’t happened yet. And if it did, it would instantly change the security calculus at Broadway shows. Ticket-holders are already accustomed to opening up their bags as they enter a theatre, a practice that began as a reaction to the bloody 2002 Moscow Theatre siege that claimed some 130 lives. But that’s nothing compared to the drama that would ensue here.