This year’s theater played out in three phases: the pre-vaccine winter, when digital shows prevailed; the spring and summer, when shows operated under CDC and Equity limitations (outdoor, installation, socially distanced, etc.); and the autumn avalanche of conventional stagings. What has been thrilling about looking back is finding astonishing work in all three types of dramatic creation.
This top ten’s policy is not to relist productions that have transferred, no matter how gorgeous they are. In past years, I’ve already included Danya Taymor’s gripping staging of Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, Deirdre O’Connell in the lip-sync tour de force Dana H. (my No. 1 from 2020), Tina Satter and Half Straddle’s verbatim thriller Is This a Room, and Aleshea Harris’s always-urgent, always-necessary What to Send Up When It Goes Down. As incredible as they were in their new mountings, it’s time to let some other folks on the list. (Please also note this year’s cutoff for inclusion was early December, so any ravishing works from the very end of the year are not included.)
The Wooster Group and Elizabeth LeCompte staged a bristling, oddball version of Bertolt Brecht’s so-called “learning play,” a 1932 episodic drama that educates an audience in how to take the leap into the workers’ struggle. In the Woosters’ multimedia hands, The Mother became a teaching tool all over again, though this time its lessons included the way the Group’s star Kate Valk constructs her disturbing radiance and how the now-legendary, 46-year-old experimental company has continued to make destabilizing work for half a century. (Update, December 20: This production will return to the Performing Garage for a limited run from February 18 to March 12, 2022.)
One of my favorite digital works of 2021 was Javaad Alipoor’s complex online production, made accessible via the Public’s Under the Radar Festival. Rich Kids asked audiences to leap between platforms (now Instagram, now live streaming), which turned the antic nature of internet browsing into a kind of dramaturgical snare. Alipoor’s script zoomed in (we could scroll through every detail in a real story of wealthy Iranian youth) and zoomed out to consider epic time scales. By the end, each audience member had achieved galaxy brain: We could almost picture our own place in the archaeological record.
If we’ve learned one thing from this historical romp, it’s that nothing keeps Henry VIII’s wives down — not divorce, not beheading, not a pandemic that shuts the theaters on their opening night. Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow’s cheeky pun-filled, pop-packed show may be more shiny, glitzy concert than a play, but it has been exactly the adrenalizing, glitterbomb sendoff that the returning theater needed. It helps the show’s pitch for the top spot that each virtuosic performer deserves a heartfelt high five — or, in the case of Anne Boleyn, a high six.
To tell the complete story of the L.A. uprisings, Anna Deavere Smith interviewed hundreds of people, collaging their stories into an encyclopedic, pointillist portrait of a city in trouble. When she first performed it in 1994, she played all the parts herself, but for this searing reimagining at Signature Theater, she rethought it as a vehicle for five actors, a gesture that somehow further intensifies the play’s plea for understanding, compassion, and nuance.
Modesto “Flako” Jimenez was not deterred by the weird requirements of pandemic theater; he was inspired by them. In this assured in-car performance, Jimenez drove one- or two-person audiences around his beloved Brooklyn, reciting his own poetry over the backseat and pointing out the vernacular beauty hidden in Bushwick’s graffiti and bodegas. In collaboration with his producers, Jimenez commissioned other artists, too, prompting a whole constellation of creation from behind the wheel of a livery cab. It wasn’t a tour, but it was a ride.
The long-awaited Broadway debut of the mid-century playwright Alice Childress was imperfectly executed, yet the ought-to-be-a-classic text is exquisite: a piercing indictment of Broadway’s racism, hidden in a tart backstage comedy. A white director asks his Black actress to do Method-inspired motivation work for a character whose son is lynched, but he has no clue what kind of power that will unleash within her. Soon she has torn aside her own blinders and those of the other actors, and 1955 (and 2021) American theater staggers at the resulting view.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s bluesy solo performance actually had more folks in it than any other Broadway show this season. Standing alone in his spotlight, Hudson played the dozens of gamblers, drifters, drinkers, and saints who surrounded him growing up in a 1960s New York boardinghouse. Holding this ragtag group together was his surrogate mother, Nanny, an indomitable woman without fear and with seemingly bottomless wells of compassion. Nanny seems capable of anything, especially when glimpsed through Santiago-Hudson’s eyes, which can somehow still see her, though now it’s through a drift of smoke and the haze of time.
Riz Ahmed’s elegiac digital theater work was many things: his metaphorical 2020 “breakup” album, which imagined a racist Britain as a selfish lover; a record of a lonely show in which he (seemingly) performed all alone to his cellphone; and a collection of Ahmed’s own family stories about emigration from Pakistan. All of these elements were beautiful, but the show also encapsulated our pandemic cultural moment better than anything else I saw online: In the streamed video, the theater was empty, the audience gone, but the ghostly vacancy only made Ahmed sing louder and louder and louder.
Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanzo were the perfect double act in this breathtaking cabaret-fantasia, based on the unlikeliest collaboration in the vocal universe: Costanzo, a world class countertenor, singing duets with Bond, New York’s favorite alt-cabaret chanteuse. For most of the show they’d banter about their differences, but the vibe was always glittering, sparkling, exquisite, enrapt. Back and forth they went, until they performed an encore that somehow folded together Philip Glass’s Akhnaten and Walk Like an Egyptian. It felt like climbing a pyramid at dawn: Your pharaoh could never.
History has spoken: Despite a difficult first outing on Broadway, Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s 2003 masterwork about a Black maid in Louisiana has emerged as one of the most important pieces of American musical theater this century. Rueful, honest, funny, and grave — the musical’s status alone would make this revival important, but the Roundabout production also includes a world-beating set of performances. First among them is Sharon D Clarke, who plays Caroline with a ragged power that contains all the fear, frustration, and pent-up longing of a woman — and a people — who have been too long denied.
Want more stories like this one? Subscribe now to support our journalism and get unlimited access to our coverage. If you prefer to read in print, you can also find this article in the December 20, 2021, issue of New York Magazine.
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