Photo by Joan Marcus

Play-ing Politics: Miami Theaters Stage Productions Inspired by Current Events

A Broadway classic or jukebox musical can provide a couple-hour break from the divisive issues dominating the headlines, but is that all theatergoers in Miami want out of a show? Some audience members probably aren’t in the mood to watch Sandy and Danny snap their fingers to “You’re the One That I Want” while the shitstorm rages in Washington.

For this woke-ish crowd, the upcoming cultural season in Miami provides plenty of shows with political and topical subjects. South Florida is home to theater houses that serve entertainment with a dose of reality checks, and they aren’t going away just to appease the escapist crowd.

“For me, it’s absurd when people divorce the idea of theater to what happens in the real world now,” Miami New Drama artistic director Michel Hausmann says. “I feel theater cannot be separated with the reality of what’s happening in the country... Theater is a tremendous tool for change — for creating community and bridges.”

Hausmann believes Miami New Drama’s One Night in Miami — playing October 25 through November 18 at Colony Theatre in South Beach — resonates because of the controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick and other athletes who take a knee during the National Anthem to protest racial inequality. The story revolves around another polarizing black athlete, Muhammad Ali, and the segregation laws that prevented him from celebrating his 1964 win over Sonny Liston in Miami Beach. Instead, Ali (then Cassius Clay) got together with Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke at the Hampton House Motel that night and emerged from the encounter a changed man.

Coming to Colony Theatre March 7 through April 7, 2019, is documentary-turned-play Cocaine Cowboys, which is also set during an unflattering time in Miami's history. The play is about the illegal drug trade in the Magic City in the 1970s and '80s, told through the eyes of real-life hit man Rivi Ayala. Who says people in South Florida want to see only Fiddler on the Roof?

Unapologetic about its approach to theater, GableStage is opting for controversial topics at the risk of alienating some theatergoers. Joseph Adler’s theater company will take on affirmative action at a New England prep school with Admission October 13 through November 11, but in an entertaining manner that resists picking sides. The witty Actually, which runs November 24 through December 23, touches upon the gray area of consent after two Princeton freshmen spend the night together.

“[Some] want to see Mamma Mia! and forget about politics, but that’s not what we do,” Adler says. “I can’t change our mission and our DNA just because of that. I have to hope our core supporters and people who donate increases and the audience doesn’t drop off... Luckily, our audience still appreciates what we do. They want to have something to take home and think about.”

Actors’ Playhouse artistic director David Arisco prefers to put on shows that take a subtler approach to politics. The protagonists in Havana Music Hall (October 10 through November 18 at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables) are two musicians in Cuba who are no longer able to do what they love when Fidel Castro rises to power. Arisco hopes the musical — which is set in past and present Cuba and features flashy dance numbers — will move on to Broadway.

“To do a purely political play, like anti-Fidel or what have you, only speaks to a certain element of the community,” Arisco says. “To be able to have the play examine characters and a 50-year odyssey is more interesting than just talking about politics. Sometimes you build an audience more willing to take a more difficult walk in subject matter. But some shows, like mine, have to be a little more entertainment-based.

“We’ll always keep people entertained like we did with Million Dollar Quartet. It keeps people happy. At the same time, we’re a professional theater company. Part of our goal is to educate and culturally enrich.”

Memphis seems to fit that mold. The 2010 Tony winner for Best Musical, hitting the Miracle Theatre March 13 through April 7, tells the story of a white radio DJ in Memphis who plays black music when it was taboo.

Photo by Joan Marcus

There will always be people who prefer feel-good, escapist theater. Can you blame them? They won’t have to look too hard in Miami to find it thanks to the Adrienne Arsht Center. Florida’s largest performing arts center consistently delivers Broadway crowd pleasers and in the coming months will present Hello, Dolly! (November 20 through 25), the Sara Bareilles-scored Waitress (February 26 through March 3), School of Rock (April 9 through 14), and The Lion King (May 8 through 26).

“I would say our shows are more about representing the human condition than political shows,” Liz Wallace, Arsht Center vice president of programming, says. “Theater reflects who we are as a culture, as a society, and what happens to us. And, sure, politics influence that.”

The story of early American politics that became a worldwide phenomenon is set to land in Miami-Dade County next year. Wallace says Hamilton is still in the Arsht Center's 2019-20 plans. Can’t wait any longer? The hip-hop tale about Founding Father and immigrant Alexander Hamilton will play December 18 through January 20 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.

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