When Philadelphia-born playwright Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing!” begins its run Jan. 23 with Mt. Airy’s Quintessence Theatre Group at The Sedgwick, it will be not only a show of 20th century theatrical, socio-conscious finesse and force, but also proof that Alexander Burns — the out, longtime artistic director of Quintessence — knows how to merge the ideals of classic theater of the past with the necessities of the present.
DJ Gleason and Lawrence Pressman in “AWAKE AND SING!”
PGN: Why did you decide to open your company in the wilds of Mt. Airy?
AB: I was born and grew up in Mt. Airy. It is a community, an urban American Brigadoon. When I was growing up in the early ‘90s, every kid on my street would be out playing until the sun went down. It was a block that celebrated Diwali, Rosh Hashanah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, and I felt invited into every home to join in the celebration. Many years later, I was visiting home and stumbled upon the Sedgwick Theater, an old Art Deco movie palace that had been converted into an arts center and then abandoned. Walking under its vaulted ceilings, I knew I wanted to build a theater for epic stories there. Since the age of antiquity, great theaters have been located on the outskirts of major urban centers, so there is something very right to me about building a major regional theater dedicated to the classics in Mt. Airy.
PGN: What would you describe as the agenda of Quintessence — beyond great dynamic theatre?
AB: Our motto is “classics forward.” My other favorite Quintessence watch cry is “progressive classics.” Our agenda is to tell stories and speak words from hundreds or thousands of years ago and make them resonate or reflect our experience as human beings today. For me, a classic play is akin to scripture, except it is a celebration of mankind as opposed to a prophet or a god.
PGN: How does being a gay theater company director affect or influence that agenda?
AB: Philadelphia is one of the straightest theater communities in America. I believe I am the only openly gay artistic director running a theatre without a queer perspective as part of its mission statement. When I first started Quintessence, our all-male Shakespeare was called “degenerate” or “gay Shakespeare.” My intent was not to present homo-fabulous Shakespeare, but to present it as written and to demonstrate how gag-worthy good Shakespeare is. I live to create epic works of theatre that unleash the power of poetry, human emotion and beauty on an audience. I also love when artifice and exaggeration ignite the theatrical imagination, not trying to pretend that art is real, or theater is real life. This connects me with a long tradition of queer artists who use fantasy and art to upend the complacency and mediocrity of everyday life.
PGN: Putting on socio-political theater written within the purview of the WPA: brilliant. Why Clifford Odets and “Awake and Sing!”?
AB: Odets was considered the heir apparent to Eugene O’Neill. Both playwrights were passionately political while also writing extraordinary human dramas. When I was studying theatre at Northwestern University, they presented “Awake and Sing!” and I went begrudgingly as a class assignment. The play hit me so hard I couldn’t stand up for almost 10 minutes after the curtain call. I then went out and sat by Lake Michigan and cried. I don’t even think the production was that great, but Odets’ incisive humor, his unflagging attack on the free-market American dream and his relentless hope for the future erupted a fire in my soul. How was it possible that the debates happening among a family in 1933 felt so in tune with the fears of a 21-year-old trying to grapple with a pre-Facebook, post-9/11 America? The rage, fear and hope boiling under the play are even more palpable in 2019. What is America going to do about its unchecked capitalistic democracy and the millions of people who are struggling to survive?
PGN: How do you believe Odets’ drama is of the moment?
AB: In “Awake and Sing!” you are in an apartment with three generations of one family. Each member has a different struggle, a different perspective on what is working and what is ailing in America. The disagreements are passionate and the arguments of capitalism vs. socialism, bigotry, sexism, ageism in the workplace were at the center of our recent election and continue to ring with the same words in many American homes, 80-plus years later. Odets’ genius is that they are a family with deep pride, deep love and deep hope, which makes them a timeless American family. In terms of connecting the past with the future, Odets was one of America’s greatest dramatists. While we celebrate Anton Chekhov as the writer who inspired Stanislavski and modern acting in Russia, it was Clifford Odets and the Group Theatre that brought method acting to New York. Not only did he write the perfect plays for this new style of American performance, his lines of dialogue can dance with Hemingway’s poetry, incite like an Obama oration and rival a Larry David joke. This is American literature at its very best. It is a voice that must be heard again today.
PGN: The theme of children striving for their own dreams is alive in “Awake and Sing!”. Do you see parallels with LGBTQ youth looking for freedom and justice and kindness?
AB: One of the few antiquated areas of Odets’ story is the play’s moral conflict over a woman having a child out of wedlock and the “scandalous” nature of premarital sex. Watching a tight-knit religious family unscrupulously force their children to make the “right” choices or threatening them with abandonment for the sake of societal values and reputation is still sadly very close to many queer youth’s experiences today. The play, like its title, is a call to arms for self-actualization, and to abandoning systemic oppression
Quintessence Theatre Group’s “Awake and Sing!” runs from Jan. 23 through Feb. 17 at The Sedgwick Theatre, 7137 Germantown Avenue. Tickets: $15-$50, www.QTGrep.org.