Celebrated actor and activist James Cromwell hopes to see theater head in a different direction, in light of social injustices and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Traditional community theater has very, very little relevance to people of color, to the young, to the progressives, to address the issues that are engaging them, that are important to them.”
Portable theater, he hopes, will rise from society’s ashes to address global warming, the broken health care system, the soon-to-be broken Social Security and Medicare, broken society and a broken post office.
Cromwell will discuss this and other facets of theater during the next installment of the Robey Theatre Company’s online series of Evening Conversations at 6 p.m. Friday, September 11, presented via Zoom. The Millena Gay-moderated event will be followed by a Q&A session with the audience. The event will be recorded and available for viewing on the Robey Theatre Company’s YouTube channel starting Friday, September 18.
The Broadway veteran starred in “American Horror Story: Asylum” and movies like “Babe.” He’s been an activist for progressive causes for decades, ranging from his support of the Black Panthers in the 1960s through his recent advocacy for environmental conservation and animal rights. He appeared onstage for the Robey Theatre Company in its presentation of Discovered Voices in 2004.
The Downtown theater is a nonprofit organization founded 26 years ago by Danny Glover and Ben Guillory. The company is named after actor, activist and humanitarian Paul Robeson. Its emphasis is on telling stories of the global Black diaspora.
“It’s an important theater,” he said of the Robey Theatre Company. “It’s a great theater, and it’s a theater directed at an audience that usually doesn’t get to experience plays from a Black perspective with Black casts and issues concerning Black people and any kind of inclusion as in color-blind casting and dealing with subject matter that the commercial theaters will not deal with.”
He supports communal theater without a hierarchy that would meet as a company and decide which issue it wants to address. For example, a joint-stock company in England worked with potato farmers in northern England before improvising vignettes and scenes from their points of view.
They called in the playwright and director, who were there to smooth over the performance but not make any factual changes.
“If the director should say, ‘Will you sit in the chair at the head of the table?’ The actor would say he’s the head of the household. He doesn’t sit at the head of the table. He eats first, alone, in front of the fireplace.
“The actors know what happens in the scenes, because they were there in the actual event. They bring a knowledge and sophistication that is superior to the director. The whole hierarchy is reversed.”
Cromwell is frustrated because “the lie is the truth and everything is fake” and “we don’t take responsibility for anything we do. We’re out for ourselves.”
“This applies not only to the idiot in the White House but corporations, and it seeps down to corporate media down into America. Roughly one-third of this country is bamboozled and misguided by the elites for their own purposes. Their best interests aren’t being served.”
The 1960s, he said, was the beginning of a revolution in this country, and it didn’t work out. However, it led to fights for civil, women’s and gay rights because of the tenacity of the supporters, which included traveling theaters.
“They went from venue to venue, playing in the street, a garage, anywhere,” he said. “They had a platform. They had a backdrop and multiple characters and costumes.”
Cromwell said theater like this impacts the community. If street theater actors head into Gelson’s Market and start a conversation about the earth’s destruction due to the consumption of meat, that’s going spark conversation among the shoppers. They may not realize actors started the conversation, but the key phrase is “conversation.”
“People are surrounded, listening to this argument,” he said. “You do get thrown out of the market, but they make a big impression. They don’t know it’s theater. They haven’t paid $40 to sit in a seat somewhere. They think they’re ordinary people having a conversation about topics that are desperately important. Animal agriculture is at the center of our global climate crisis. The complexity of it becomes simplified when you see it in a play.”