prophet motive

Thomas Bradshaw’s new work Prophet also opened last week at P.S. 122. The folks from Gothamist came to see it and wrote:

“It’s supposed to be humorous, and we hope that’s the case, otherwise it might be a little too alarming…”

Which is a pretty understandable reaction. One of the interesting parts about watching this show, much like Bradshaw’s previous show Strom Thurmond Is Not A Racist, is watching the audience struggle with how to respond appropriately. Bradshaw’s work is humorous in a very accessible way, but at the same time incredibly offensive. As an African-American Male playwright addressing issues of race and sexism (and religion), he pushes many buttons. Like Neil Labute, he presents the audience with some distinctly unpleasant characters and distasteful scenarios. But unlike the shock-jock tactics of a Howard Stern, Bradshaw presents stereotypes blatantly and without comment, making the material funny, while implicating the audience with its laughter. When we laugh either at or with the show, the audience becomes complicit in the offensive behavior, the audience is implicated as being a part of the problem, not part of the solution.

This is tricky ground to tread. Much contemporary theater – or entertainment in general for that matter – is predicated on the idea of empathy. We go to the theater to have our sense of the world confirmed or to have our sense of goodness reinforced. We watch shows like The Exonerated or even Hairspray and feel that our sense of morality and righteousness is reaffirmed. “Because I am watching this,” we think, “and because I agree that these social issues are wrong, therefore I am good.” Bradshaw undermines that expectation, just as he undermines certain elements of the performance aesthetic of conventional plays.

As I listened to audiences exit the theater I heard many different opinions. People were torn and deeply divided about the work and their reactions to it. The relative merits of a given production will always be open to debate, but the fact that audiences are challenged to make a decision, that they must discuss the work afterwards and assess the experience, means there is something there. See the show and judge for yourself.

Prophet runs Wednesday-Sunday at P.S. 122 until December 17th.

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