This fall, the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) is raising its curtain to welcome audiences back to the electric connection one can only experience at a live theatrical performance. Simon Godwin, STC’s artistic director, says the title of the company’s 36th season is Play On!, calling back to the famous opening phrase in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”
“After such a long pause, we are ecstatic to safely welcome audiences back into our theaters for live performances,” he says. “Play On! captures this playfulness and this urgency for theatre, for community, for being together again.”
Godwin, who took on his position at the STC during the 2019–2020 season, hopes to remind people just how thrilling theater can be by breathing new life into a traditionally classic-focused company. His goal is to create programs that are young, fresh and diverse by scheduling shows with contemporary themes, as well as putting a modern spin on beloved classics. The STC’s upcoming lineup does exactly that.
Kicking off the highly anticipated 2021–2022 season is Broadway-bound musical “Once Upon a One More Time,” a feminist’s fairytale featuring the chart-topping anthems of pop-princess Britney Spears, including “Oops!… I Did It Again,” “Lucky,” “Stronger” and “Toxic.” Godwin says he’s especially excited to open the season with such a fun and refreshing production that perfectly aligns with his vision.
“In my first season at STC, I made a promise to offer shows for all ages for the holidays, and ‘Once Upon a One More Time’ is a jubilant, funny and rousing update on classic fairy tales that will delight all audiences,” Godwin shares. “Britney Spears is an American pop icon, and the team of this musical has worked with her to craft a story that captures her joie de vivre and her indomitable spirit. We are beyond thrilled to have our first Broadway-bound production, and for it to be this inspiring, empowering musical.”
Spears herself even gave a comment, saying she is looking forward to the show’s premiere.
“I’m so excited to have a musical with my songs — especially one that takes place in such a magical world filled with characters that I grew up on, who I love and adore. This is a dream come true for me!”
Other productions in the 2021–2022 season include “Our Town,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Red Velvet.” Season tickets may be purchased at shakespearetheatre.org.
Even STC’s preseason features works that align with Godwin’s vision: “The Amen Corner,” directed by award-winning STC Associate Director Whitney White and “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski,” co-written and directed by Georgetown University Professor Derek Goldman. Both feature topics that are relevant to the current societal climate of rejuvenation and perseverance.
Written by James Baldwin, a prominent Black author and playwright of the 20th century, “The Amen Corner” returns to Sidney Harman Hall from September 14–26 for its second run after the original showing was cut short in March 2020. Baldwin’s classic are very poignant and timely, as described by White.
Set in the 1950s, the play explores the struggles that come with deep-rooted faith as the main character, Pastor Margaret, faces opposition from her congregation and experiences family troubles. Black spiritual music combined with Baldwin’s enchanting prose portrays a beautifully moving “portrait of a Black community in Harlem that is trying to find safety in its own way,” as described by White.
“When I was first asked to direct ‘The Amen Corner,’ I thought about how much the words, the wisdom, the fire of James Baldwin has scored my entire life,” she says. “And yet, ‘The Amen Corner’ has only become more important, more relevant over the last 16 months. STC really stood behind this work, supporting my decisions and conception of this play, allowing the cast and creative team the space to make this production of ‘The Amen Corner’ soar.”
Godwin agrees with White that it is important to hear the voice of one of America’s greatest social philosophers as the world of theatre slowly begins to restart after being shut down for over a year.
“‘The Amen Corner’ was a transformative experience for staff and audiences alike,” Godwin says. “We couldn’t imagine any other event reopening our main stage.”
White credits the cast and crew for the production’s critically acclaimed success, noting their flexibility and tenacity as vital attributes during such a tumultuous time.
“I feel incredibly inspired by the artists who are working on ‘The Amen Corner’ and by their ingenuity and willingness to pivot,” White says. “We’ve found ways to keep theater alive and that is a testament to the ingenuity of artists.”
White says she hopes theatergoers will experience a connection with the actors on stage, but mostly she’d like people to leave the show with a renewed interest in James Baldwin and his contributions to American culture.
“He’s one of the greatest writers we’ve ever had,” she says. “He did so much work, and the number one thing I hope people take away is a reengagement with Baldwin’s work.”
Because “The Amen Corner” premiered at Howard University in 1955, White felt it was important to reach out to local actors. Appropriately, the cast includes several members from Howard University and the surrounding DMV area.
Personally, White says “The Amen Corner” speaks to her childhood experience of being raised by a single Black mother. She describes the play as not only a beautiful story between a mother and her child, but also as a multi-faceted portrayal of a Black woman.
“I want people to come out and see themselves reflected on stage,” she says. “It’s a stage of the people and for the people.”
In the same spirit, “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski,” showing at Shakespeare’s Michael R. Klein Theatre from October 6–17, tells the story of a man local to D.C. who had an international impact.
Jan Karski, a courier for the Polish Underground, traveled overseas from Poland to alert the White House of the destruction of Jewish people during World War II, a disaster he witnessed through his own eyes. A press release published by the STC describes “Remember This” as an exploration of “the life and legacy of a revered Holocaust witness, diplomat, activist, and Georgetown University professor who was imprisoned, tortured, and almost broken before becoming ‘Humanity’s Hero.’”
Goldman says that as a co-writer and director of this play, his passion for the story comes from the immediacy of its resonance in the present moment.
“It’s about bearing witness to injustice, individual responsibility, empathy and a sense to be responsible to other human beings,” Goldman says. “To me, it’s a story about the power of truth at a time when the whole question of truth has become so contested.”
Goldman originally wrote “Remember This” for a campaign heralded by Georgetown University alumni to celebrate Karski’s 100th birthday, which was April 2014. The director says while the play has evolved since its inception, it is still culturally relevant.
“Every time we’ve done the play over the past seven years, there are new resonances of what’s happening in the present moment and how Karski’s story speaks to that,” Goldman says. “Coming back from the pandemic and being back in the theater, I’m excited for a play that is so much about the power of bearing witness and community.”
As such an intellectually provocative play, Goldman says “Remember This” purposefully asks questions he wants audiences to mull over and contemplate. Therefore, there is a post-show discussion after every performance.
“In our experience, everyone stays for the discussion,” he says. “We really think of [the play] as a living lesson that people are left grappling with and talking about.”
“Remember This” features Academy Award nominee David Strathairn as Jan Karski, and only him. Goldman says this one-man-show format gives a more conversational ambiance to the performance and allows audiences to feel as though they are having a one-on-one dialogue with Karski himself.
This kind of connection between onlookers and actors is lacking in film and television, and is special to the theater, according to Godwin. With the upcoming season and pre-season, the artistic director’s goal is to reach out to as many different people as possible, encouraging the ideology that theatre is for everyone.
There’s something unique about the energy in the room, about the bond only a live performance can create, that makes theater so precious. After a long hiatus and the isolation brought on by a global pandemic, Godwin, White and Goldman are all elated to get people back together in person again for the communal experience the theater offers.
As White puts it, “I always say I’ll never take another audience for granted after this time.”
“The Amen Corner” is showing at Sidney Harman Hall from September 14–26. “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” is showing at the Michael R. Klein Theatre from October 6–17. Tickets to both shows are priced from $35-$120. “Once Upon a One More Time” officially kicks off STC’s 2021-2022 season on November 30 and runs until January 2. Season ticket bundles are available now; single tickets will go on sale in late summer. For more information and to purchase season ticket bundles, visit shakespearetheatre.org/events/2021-22-season.
Enjoy this piece? Consider becoming a member for access to our premium digital content. Support local journalism and start your membership today.