When Karl Marx wrote that history repeats itself, “first as tragedy, then as farce,” he didn’t specify what came next. A 2018 production of Tony Kushner’s 1985 play A Bright Room Called Day feels like an anxious stab at determining that next phase.
Written during the AIDS crisis, Kushner’s fragmented, dreamlike work is a primal howl toward Ronald Reagan’s callous indifference and an attempt to contextualize the then-present by looking back at Nazi Germany. It’s also more than a little heavy-handed, with characters who say things like, “History repeats itself, see, first as tragedy, then as farce.” (It’s worth noting that Kushner is currently at work on an updated version of the play.)
In a well-acted production by the Williams Project, our current leader’s dispositions toward fascism are layered on—literally, in one character’s overhead projections—and the play’s political anger is strained further. Comparisons of the president to Hitler may have been controversial then; these days, that’s just another stroll through Twitter.
A thin membrane between reality and nightmare and past and present runs through Kushner’s play, which juxtaposes a group of friends in 1930s Berlin with an offstage present-day narrator of sorts, Zillah (Elise LeBreton), who vacillates between historical documentation and wild paranoia, constantly arranging and rearranging images on her overhead projector. She remains from the 1980s in this staging but might be prescient about what’s to come.
In the main events of the play, Kushner pointedly underlines the naïveté: “We live in Berlin. It’s 1932. I feel relatively safe,” says de facto protagonist Agnes (Lateefah Holder), an unaccomplished actress in Germany’s studio system. Her lover, Hungarian cinematographer Husz (Nick Edwards), feels the same, while fellow actress Paulinka (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako) has tasted enough success to be inured to the coming political storm. Communist artist Annabella (Dedra D. Woods) and openly gay Baz (Grant Chapman) have more reasons to feel uneasy.
Visits from Communist party members (Brandon J. Simmons, Lexi Chipman) temporarily instill some urgency, but the overwhelming feeling is of stasis. Every scene is set in Agnes’ apartment, and the conversations turn more and more to navel-gazing as the world burns outside.
Directed by Ryan Guzzo Purcell, the production has an inescapable lethargy—appropriate given the characters’ dispositions, but particularly interminable during Kushner’s leaps into fantasy, like the appearances of a ghostly woman, Die Alte (Nako). The play meanders and lulls, and then jolts suddenly with scenes like Baz’s recollection of seeing Hitler in a movie theater or a visit from the devil himself (Simmons, whose lithe seduction turns to booming terror in the production’s most indelible moment).
Zillah’s interjections don’t jolt the play like that. Though the contrast between her passion and the Berlin characters’ indecision couldn’t be clearer, every one of her scenes feels like an unsuccessful graft, a small moment of didacticism alongside the complexities of the drama. But in some ways, Zillah is complicated too, particularly when her soberly righteous anger fractures and reveals ideas harder to identify with, like a bit about Hitler and Reagan’s names lining up with 666.
A Bright Room Called Day does feel relevant in 2018, but it’s not only because Zillah tosses photos of Trump or Brett Kavanaugh or Charlottesville white supremacist marchers onto the projector. It’s because her organized, measured recollection of history collapses into helpless grasping when she tries to reconcile it with her present—a familiar feeling these days. History may come in cycles but it doesn’t do so neatly. If only confronting the unique horrors of today were as simple as looking toward the past.