Tony Kushner, horrified at then-President Ronald Reagan’s lack of response to the AIDS crisis and disappointed at his recent reelection to a second term, wrote a play set in 1932 Berlin that he intended as a comment on the current political climate.
A Bright Room Called Day, first staged in 1985, follows a group of artists and progressives as they are caught off guard by their fellow Germans’ support of an authoritarian ruler. This week, as progressives in the United States are still trying to understand a different surprise election result, the play is being resurrected by Emerson Stage, and is running through September 30 in the Greene Theater.
Though Emerson’s production is not meant to speak to one political party or the other, “I think from a historical standpoint, the incredible political upheaval that existed in the Weimar Republic is kind of something I think we can see parallels to now,” said Sallie Bieterman ’18, dramaturg for the show. “There’s a lot of infighting on the left, and a lot of figuring out what to do now …you also have a really strong rise of the far hard right.”
As dramaturg, Bieterman was tasked with researching not just the era in which A Bright Room is set or the era in which Kushner was writing, but also the many allusions and connections the playwright made in the piece.
“He’s a…genius,” Bieterman said of Kushner, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America and Oscar-nominated screenplays for Munich and Lincoln. “Every single word means something.”
For A Bright Room, Bieterman found herself unpacking scholasticism and intellectual abstraction and researching Moloch, a Canaanite child-eating god that Kushner namedrops.
Bieterman also worked with properties director Ron DeMarco to make sure the play was accurate to the period—down to locating a German passport that would have been issued between July and September 1932.
But all the research in the world won’t help if it doesn’t help illuminate and ignite something in the actors, she said.
“That was something, as an actress myself, I was conscious of is, ‘Take this information if it’s something useful to you and don’t overthink it,’” Bieterman said.
Sam Fidler ’19 was one of the actors who used Bieterman’s research. Fidler plays Gottfried Swetts, who is, literally, the devil in human form.
The role, perhaps not surprisingly, is incredibly intense, and in addition to the dramaturgy, Fidler worked with both a vocal and physical coach to help him embody Satan, who changes over the course of one scene from a gaunt, withered old man to a towering, powerful presence.
In the scene, Swetts/Devil recounts the various forms he’s taken over the years, Fidler said. For much of human existence, he was summoned by “scarcity and sickness,” he said. During the Industrial Revolution, it was the rampant capitalism that brought him into being. In 1932, it’s the detachment of humans from their fellow men that calls him to the stage.
“He sort of comes in and says ‘I’m defined by the evils of society,’” Fidler said.
The original production of A Bright Room has a character, Zillah, inserted in between scenes of the main story, who lives in 1980s New York and writes letters and delivers monologues about the president. Kushner wrote her to draw explicit parallels between what was happening in 1930s Germany and what was happening in Reagan’s America. She also drew criticism for comparing the administration to the rise of Hitler.
Director Scott Zigler decided after careful deliberation to cut her from Emerson’s production. Bieterman and Fidler think it was the right move.
“I think this production, even more [than the original] invites the audience to play the role of Zillah and say, ‘What do I recognize on the stage and what does that mean to me? What are the implications of that? And it puts the audience into an active role that I don’t think they’d have with [Zillah],” Bieterman said.
A Bright Room Called Day is playing at the Greene Theater in the Tufte Performance and Production Center. For tickets and show times, visit emersontheatres.org.