URBANA — During the summer of 2020, Gabriel Solis and the rest of the University of Illinois Department of Theatre saw the world changing, with racial-equality protests sweeping the nation.
But with theaters empty, actors, writers and directors weren’t able to add their voices to the fray in the ways they normally do.
“We still were able to meet our educational mission as a department, but in terms of producing theatrical work, we were really constrained,” said Solis, the head of the department. “Theater as an art really relies on live experience in groups all together, typically indoors in theaters, and that’s something that we had to mostly suspend during the pandemic.”
With crowds allowed back in theaters this year, the department is able to explore issues of representation that have bubbled to the surface in recent years. The season includes more contemporary plays than in years past and ones that explore racial and LGBTQ themes.
“Redline Classics,” which played last week, focuses on the lesbian community in Chicago during the 1980s. “Native Gardens,” which opens next week, is written by Karen Zacarías, a well-known Mexican American playwright. “Neverland,” by Mohegan playwright Madeline Sayet, explores Native Americans’ roles in the classic play of the same name.
“We’re coming back learning lessons from last year and looking for ways to do some things differently than we did in the past and to really engage the question of what it means to make theater in a world right now that’s changing,” Solis said, “and in a world that’s still affected by the pandemic and affected by all of the essential questions about America’s racial history that were raised last year, and other questions, frankly, that are part of the world we live in today.”
Focusing on work by playwrights who are still alive also has a tangible benefit.
“We’re getting a chance to interact with those playwrights, which I think is really interesting for our students,” Solis said. “That’s not always the case. You can’t ask William Shakespeare, ‘How did you think of this line?’ But we can ask these living playwrights about their work, which is, I think, really valuable and really interesting.”
Of course, by focusing mostly on new works, the students and faculty in the UI theater department are able to show a world that’s changed in the years since many of the classics were written. That allows them “the chance to imagine a different future, a better future,” Solis said.
“I think that was a significant focus, certainly, to help our students see and be part of telling this really diverse array of stories,” he said. “If you imagine, when people say ‘American theater’ … I think often that means either a collection of plays written awhile ago, mostly by White men.
“They’re great plays, and they tell really important stories actually … but we wanted our students and our community to have a chance to see that American theater means something more than that, a thing that’s vital and happening right now and that has many voices.”