American Prom: A new play by Idris Goodwin, Directed by Lisa Marie Rollins
World Premiere • Jan 24–Feb 10
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The Politics of the Popular
We often underestimate the value of the popular. We think of the songs on the radio, the latest blockbuster, and the newest fashions as cheap and ephemeral. The new always seems to lack the substance of the old. We dismiss the popular as the lowbrow recreation of the youth, who can’t possibly be interested in or even able to recognize art of quality. However, when examining a past era, historians excitedly scrutinize the popular as the primary voice of any moment. They understand that the popular captures the spirit of a period and that it is a reflection of highly complex attitudes and experiences. The popular manifests what we want in a particular moment, as well as how we feel about where, when, and who we are. Consider — durability is the opposite of functionality. That which lasts forever is likely clunky and innocuous, and good art is never innocuous. A flash in the pan might be quick, but it could start a big ole grease fire. Who wants art that only simmers?
Idris Goodwin is a playwright who recognizes fully the power of the popular. He understands that that which is trending has tremendous influence on the way we see the world. It’s a conviction he shares with artists such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Spike Lee, Alexander McQueen, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Goodwin has demonstrated this maxim in more than one play, including his American Prom, which is soon to have its world debut at Theatreworks. Writing in what I think is fair to describe as a hip-hop aesthetic, Goodwin explores how young people (and we were all young at some point regardless of much evidence to the contrary) negotiate the complexities of the world through contemporary pieces of art, especially music. Popular music makes for a powerful force because, at its best, it is both accessible to all and contains a depth of meaning. It is through this kind of music that young people can affirm their existence in a world that constantly reminds them that their youth is a deficiency. “You’ll understand when you’re older” means that to be underage is to be unformed, only part of a whole person.
In plumbing the power of the popular, Goodwin has delivered to Colorado Springs a story of change. The theatre is always about change (save perhaps for the work of Samuel Beckett which argues that nothing changes). The stage is an effective place to rehearse change. It’s a kind of social laboratory where we test what could be.
In American Prom, Goodwin seems to be asking where change comes from. It makes me wonder what kind of change we believe is possible. Do we still believe in revolution by divine intervention? The crashing of the Red Sea upon the Egyptian oppressors? The grand idealism of the 1960s is today a punch-line, but social upheavals do still occur. Do we make a difference when we post our opinions or click our vote on an online petition? I’m skeptical. I can’t speak for Goodwin, but his play seems to remind us that change can come from unlikely sources and for unlikely reasons. It doesn’t always take an MLK. We don’t always need an Abbie Hoffman raging against the establishment. Sometimes change comes from a quiet place. The simple desire to be yourself is a powerful motivator. Sometimes it’s happenstance, sometimes it’s even selfish. But Goodwin also recognizes that change almost always takes guts. Bravery is essential at some point because while change might be one of the only constants in life, it’s joined by its cousins: tradition, convention, and small-mindedness.
The other reason the theatre is always about change is that it’s exciting. Who doesn’t like a triumph? The righting of wrongs?! Rooting for the underdog?! It’s the American way. The concept of poetic justice made melodramas the most popular form of theatre in the nineteenth century, and, as I said, the popular is not to be underestimated. Goodwin’s work is neither as didactic nor as sensational as the melodramas of old, but it brings morality, music, and an optimism together in a way that is so often lacking in our modern theatre.
I will add to this—as Theatreworks settles into its new home in the Ent Center, and Colorado Springs settles into the seats, nooks, and crannies of that building, we must ask, “What kind of stories are we going to tell?” Dedicating a building to the arts is noble in ideal, but defining the character of that building requires that we draw a different kind of blueprint. Commissioned by Theatreworks, Goodwin literally wrote this play with us in mind. And it’s worth remembering that, up until his recent move to Louisville, Goodwin was far and away Colorado Springs’ most successful playwright. Our neighbor has invited us over for a party to discuss the state of our community. Who would turn that down? No need to bring a casserole, your attention and humanity are all we require.