I got an email last month offering two free tickets to the preview of a new play, Chatting with the Tea Party, described as “a documentary-style play about a New York playwright’s year attending Tea Party meetings around the country and interviewing local leaders. Nothing the Tea Party people in the play say has been made up.”
I asked if they could give me 3 tickets and they did, and I went with two family members.
I won’t be spoiling much if I share the plot: self-described liberal playwright talks with liberal friends during the rise of the conservative Tea Party movements, realizes he doesn’t know any Tea Party activists himself, so during his random travels around the country (as a playwright, he’s always going to some performance or workshop or another), he arranges meetings with Tea Party activists in different places. Some of these people say reasonable things, some of them say rude things, many have interesting personal stories. No issue attitudes get changed, but issues get explored.
The play, directed by Lynnette Barkley, had four actors; one played the role of the playwright, the others did the voices of the people he met. They did the different voices pretty well: each time it seemed like a new person. If Anna Deavere Smith or Mel Blanc had been there to do all the voices, it would’ve been amazing, but these actors did the job. And the playwright, Rich Orloff, did a good job compressing so many hours of interviews to yield some intense conversations.
There were two things that struck me during the watching of the play.
First, it would’ve been also interesting to see the converse: a conservative counterpart of the reasonable, pragmatic Orloff interviewing liberal activists. I could imagine a play that cut back and forth between the two sets of scenes. The play did have some scenes with Orloff’s know-nothing liberal NYC friends, but I think it would’ve worked better for them to be confronting an actual conservative, rather than just standing there expressing their biases.
Second, I was struck by how different the concerns of 2009-2010 were, compared to the live political issues now. Back then, it was all about the national debt, there were 3 trillion dollars being released into the economy, everything was gonna crash. Now the concerns seem more to do with national security and various long-term economic issues, but nothing like this spending-is-out-of-control thing. I guess this makes sense: with a Republican-controlled congress, there’s less concern that spending will get out of control. In any case, the central issues have changed. There’s still polarization, though, and still space for literary explorations of the topic. As a person who has great difficulty remembering exact dialogue myself, I’m impressed with a play that can capture all these different voices.