I reckon it was roughly 1,040 times — 1,040 treks to various theaters, 1,040 fumblings to find a seat, 1,040 moments when everyone hushed up for that golden interval of silence, of pure potential, before the first body did the first thing to trigger the action on stage.
And that’s just in the past decade.
Even though it sounds embarrassingly Pollyanna-ish to admit, I can’t deny it: Over the decades spent (mostly) in the dark, watching other people, I’ve slowly come to the conclusion that every performance, even the dreariest, contains something worth our attention: a turn of phrase, a clever design choice that solved a problem, an otherwise forgettable actor giving one powerful sideways glance. Or maybe that’s Stockholm syndrome. But it feels true.
Caveats aside, and with apologies to the hundreds of other moments worth mentioning, here are a few from the past 10 years. They shouldn’t be mistaken for “the best” or any other superlative. But they stuck with me.
“Trouble in Mind,” Intiman Theatre, 2010
Everything about this 1955 Alice Childress play, directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, was very, very good. But Tracy Michelle Hughes made Wiletta — a Black actor having a crisis of conscience during rehearsals for a new “colored show” about a lynching, written and directed by white people — an indelible character. Wiletta had a lot going on: needing the job, wanting to be a great actor, wanting to be an amenable actor, inner refusal to play another white projection of a Southern Black woman, a wry sense of humor to keep her sane and, more deeply, bafflement at why our world is so broken. Tim Gouran as the condescending white director and G. Valmont Thomas (RIP) as an older, eager-to-please actor, were both great. But Hughes was unforgettable.
“Suffering, Inc.,” Pony World Theatre at Washington Hall, 2011
Let’s play a game. I’ll say a name and you see what comes to mind. Ready?
Now close your eyes and think. Take your time.
What’ve you got? Old? Dusty? Russian? Irrelevant?
Back in 2011, directors Brendan Healy and Gabrielle Schutz realized a funny thing about Chekhov. If you chopped and mixed lines from his canonical plays, it would make a lovely, melancholic, modern-workplace comedy. He wrote about the same stuff: boredom, frustration, flirting, loneliness, gnawing feelings of meaninglessness and looming bankruptcy. They artfully collaged a script, then decked out a room with rolling chairs, cubicle walls, a water cooler, etc. The result was a delight: As weird and funny as “The Office,” but with the occasional surreal flourish, like dialogue about goats and flowers.
“Bo-Nita,” Seattle Repertory Theatre, 2013
The set for “Bo-Nita,” written by Elizabeth Heffron and designed by Jen Zeyl, was a trick — no moving parts, no gimmicks, nothing flashy. But it was still a shrewd trick. At first, it looked oppressively stark, like the back wall of a run-down U.S. high school: monolithic concrete wall; sad and sagging basketball hoop; slabs of paint, like a color field study in baby-poop yellow and white, as if someone had used a roller to cover up graffiti; no signs of life. But huddled in one corner, like a baby bird camouflaged against a bush, was our narrator, Bo-Nita, a charismatic and ragamuffin teenage girl who is about to tell us a long, horrifying story in an even more horrifyingly matter-of-fact way. The set was really her blank canvas — Bo-Nita turned it into whatever she needed it to be — and its portrait of decay was the perfect base for her story about how life can thrive under bleak conditions.
“Shoot,” Saint Genet in an undisclosed forest, 2013
On the morning before the closing night of Saint Genet’s delirious, hourslong “Paradisiacal Rites” at On the Boards, director Ryan Mitchell invited a small group of people to a secret wooded location at dawn to watch him be shot through the bicep with a .22 rifle. Then, after getting bandaged up, he and his wound walked all the way to the theater. (He explained it as a re-creation of artist Chris Burden’s 1971 “sculpture” — that’s what Burden called it — of the same title.) It’s not the kind of thing you forget.
“Untitled Feminist Show,” Young Jean Lee at On the Boards, 2013
Young Jean Lee’s “Untitled Feminist Show” was an empty stage with six naked people and zero words. The result was an improbably funny, soul-searching comedy about the body and what it signifies — and what it doesn’t. Lee has said she begins new work with one question: “What’s the last show in the world I would ever want to make?” If the answer makes her nervous, she goes there, making some of the most honest work (about Asian American identity, Black American culture, feminism) you’ll ever see. Some moments in “Untitled Feminist Show” were so naked, it was easy to forget the nudity.
The “Hamilton” effect, across Seattle, 2018
As expected, “Hamilton” was great — but its effect on people was even better. In the weeks before the Seattle tour stop at the Paramount Theatre, I talked with folks (teachers, students, actors) whose lives had been improved in unexpected ways by the musical. Along the way, I met Katera Howard, a dynamic Rainier Beach High School senior. Listening to “Hamilton” lit a fire in her — or, actually, stoked the fire that was already there — for her studies and her anti-racism, food-justice activism. But she knew there was no way she could afford to see it. After Howard’s story ran, ticket offers poured in, some from across the country. Howard saw “Hamilton” after all.
“Pass Over,” ACT Theatre, 2019
Antoinette Nwandu’s play was excellent in all sorts of ways: part “Waiting for Godot,” part Book of Exodus, all about the tragicomedy of two young Black men trapped (literally and figuratively) on a violent corner in an economically and racially oppressed neighborhood. But putting “Pass Over” on an in-the-round stage added a whole other visual symphony: the audience members, almost entirely white, watched each other watching Nwandu’s indictment of American racism. What moments made people laugh? Wince? Try to hide their emotions beneath a mask of stone? It was theater at its best — collective, conflicted, powerful.