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  • America in the Round: Capital, Race, and Nation at Washington, DC’s Arena Stage by Donatella Galella
  • Harvey Young
AMERICA IN THE ROUND: CAPITAL, RACE, AND NATION AT WASHINGTON, DC’S ARENA STAGE. By Donatella Galella. Studies in Theatre History and Culture series. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2019; pp. 314.

There are certain things that are sufficiently obvious and necessary that you wonder how the world managed to get by without them. The wheel is one such example. It took an innovative—and community-minded—genius to realize that that round contraption could improve our lives and indeed forever change our present as well as our outlook on the future. Donatella Galella’s America in the Round just might be the “wheel” that American theatre history and criticism has needed all along.

In focusing on Arena Stage, a highly recognizable and influential regional theatre located in the United States’ capital, Galella gifts her reader with the opportunity to rethink the American theatrical landscape anew. It is on the too-often neglected (by scholars) regional theatre stage that the ideas of national theatre emerge and the complexities of race and inclusion play out. Galella reveals how progressive ideas of inclusive community face the fraught histories of racial segregation and prejudice within the regional theatre. She shows that it is the regional theatre, not Broadway, that structures the present and the future of the theatre industry. Galella’s book is therefore a reminder that academic and popular criticism of American theatre needs to take regional theatre seriously. America in the Round models theatre history done right: engagingly written and informed by rich archival discoveries.

Galella essentially tells the story of Arena Stage, from its founding in 1950 to approximately 2010. She traces its evolution over the decades under the leadership of Zelda Fichandler and later Doug Wager to its current artistic director Molly Smith. Rather than present a traditional chronological re-telling, Galella makes history perform. She divides her study into three sections—Capital, Race, and Nation—and presents the history of the theatre company through each lens. As a reader, it feels a bit like seeing the same play three times, but from different vantage points. There is a familiarity in the return of select figures and plays, even as the insights and discoveries gained are refreshingly new.

Galella is a writer who understands the power of words and the imagery prompted by thoughtful phrasing. It is not an accident that the three lenses— Capital, Race, and Nation—offer a compelling way to engage the specific location of Washington, D.C. while exceeding the limits of geography. Washington is the capital of the United States and so, as the political center of the country, is synonymous with “nation.” Colloquially known as “Chocolate City,” Washington also has a rich history premised upon African American artistic, cultural, and political contributions (race). And in America in the Round, “capital” refers to money: the initial financing of Arena Stage as a for-profit private initiative, its later reconstitution as a nonprofit theatre, and its ongoing efforts to balance budgets through season subscriptions, foundation funding, and complicated contractual agreements related to Broadway transfers of new works (such as Raisin, the musical inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun; and Howard Sackler’s drama The Great White Hope).

“Race,” the second section, spotlights Arena Stage’s half-century-long efforts to be an inclusive theatre company. Galella points out that Fichandler’s commitment to creating an integrated theatre audience and an integrated acting company—at a time when Washington’s National Theatre elected to stop producing rather than invite in Black audiences—was the first of numerous efforts to engage the majority Black citizens who resided in the city. At the same time, Galella underscores the challenges and lightly questions the sincerity of the dedication to this mission by noting Arena Stage’s efforts to maintain a core white-suburban subscriber base while also seeking to welcome in Black theatre patrons. Nevertheless, she is explicitly clear that Arena Stage’s efforts toward inclusion was leaps and bounds ahead of similarly aged regional theatres, most notably Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.



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pp. 264-265
Launched on MUSE
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