The Nobodies Who Were Everybody Review: A play about the Federal Theatre Project

When the Federal Theatre Project was shut down in 1939 after just four years, the government-funded program had presented an astonishing 830 theatrical productions on Broadway and in newly created regional theaters across the United States, for an average ticket price of 25 cents. “And in just four years, about one quarter of all Americans saw a Federal Theatre show.” That’s what the character Jo (Rashad Brown), the evening’s pianist and liaison with the 21st century, tells us at the end of this ambitious play by the thirteen-year-old company Theater In Asylum about an inspiring moment in American theater history.

Then Jo reads to us from “Arena,” the book about the history of the FTP written by its national director, Hallie Flanagan: “The Federal Theatre Project was gusty, lusty, bad and good, sad and funny – superbly worth more wit, wisdom and imagination than we could give it. Its significance lies in its pointing to the future! The ten thousand anonymous men and women–the etceteras and the and-so-forths who did the work, the nobodies who were everybody…”  

That last phrase in this stirring passage makes for a title that’s resonant but unwieldy – which is a good description of the play.

“The Nobodies Who Were Everybody” begins simply enough: It is 1935, the depth of the Great Depression, and Theo and Jericho have decided to create a new theater company in an abandoned tavern in Red Hook called Rocco’s. (One of the pleasures of the production is that it takes place in an old, intimate, colorfully cluttered, red-bricked establishment in Red Hook — a combination bar, music venue, record store, music school and arts space – called Jalopy.)  A flier they’ve put up around the city announcing auditions has drawn two recent graduates of Vassar College, Ida and Catherine. We also meet Marco ( standout Arisael Rivera , who affects a Zero Mostel-like manic vibe), who once had a specialty act as a fire breather in the old Rocco’s. Eventually, Clara shows up

The theater company at Rocco’s never materializes, but these six fictitious characters,  who form a friendship circle, each serve a strategic function, providing a way to present much of the diverse history of the Federal Theatre Project, and many of its highlights. For example, Ida and Catherine had Hallie Flanagan as their professor. Theo and Clara join the Harlem branch of the “Negro Theater Unit,”  first performing in 20-year-old director Orson Welles’ famous all-Black adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy,  “Voodoo Macbeth.” Jericho, a playwright, works on the FTP’s “Living Newspaper” productions, which he describes as “a new form of theater using speeches and reporting– facts! – to dramatize current events.” Marco, who grew up in Puerto Rico, joins the Latin Theatre Unit’s production of “It Can’t Happen Here,” a theatrical adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel imagining a fascist takeover of America , which was produced simultaneously in twenty-one different theaters throughout the country. Catherine joins the cast of “The Cradle Will Rock,” and Clara is in the audience opening night when federal marshals try unsuccessfully to shut it down. 

Most of the information about this history is presented as exposition, but there are several dramatized scenes, most elaborately Hallie Flanagan’s testimony before the hostile members of the newly formed House Un-American Activities Committee, intent on “finding out whether the Federal Theatre Project is infested with Communists and radicals.” The cast also performs short excerpts from several of these FTP plays, and we are shown grainy film footage that captures actual moments in the original stage production of “Voodoo Macbeth.”

Amid urgent calls for a new Federal Theatre Project to save an American theater in crisis, Theater in Asylum’s production is timely and worthy. But “The Nobodies Who Were Everybody” needs work. 

Eighteen members of the company are credited as scripting and developing the play; together they seem to have felt the need to tell us everything they possibly can about the Federal Theatre Project, as if they assumed that nobody knows anything about it anymore. They also wanted to fill us in about the political debates of the 1930s, and the continuing debates over the arts and arts funding,  giving each of the characters contrary positions so that we can watch them argue them out. The result is often fascinating, but too much for one play; the writing is passionate but too unfocused, exacerbated by the cast’s uneven performances. Any one of the episodes in the history of the Project that the characters talk about could fuel its own behind-the-scenes story; some have done so already, such as Tim Robbins’ 1999 movie “The Cradle Will Rock.”

Most of the plays briefly excerpted are not obscure; many have been revived recently. This is not itself a problem. (I think I’d be happy to see a production that was entirely scenes from plays that were originally produced by the FTP.) But the dramatic scenes are sometimes undermined by the creative team’s urge to put everything in. Flanagan’s Congressional testimony, which is based on actual transcripts, offers some of the most riveting moments in the play, but it  is done as if it’s a rehearsal for a Living Newspaper production, with the characters keeping switching roles, and dropping out of character to engage in debates that they’ve been having in previous scenes (such as Ida and Catherine’s ongoing argument: Ida opposes the idea of getting work on films, not considering it real acting, but Catherine embraces it as the people’s medium.) This would be amusing if it were a little less confusing.

The actors also break character near the end of the play, becoming themselves, in an exchange that probably shouldn’t work, but does, because it reflects the urgency of the crisis; they rage against the inadequacy of current and recent government programs for the arts (“None of these programs, at any level of government were anything like what the FTP was. No steady employment for artists, no subsidized tickets for audiences.”) and calling out the indifference of politicians – specifically, by name. E.g:

JERICHO: You know [New York Governor] Kathy Hochul is using $850 million of state funding –that means taxes– to pay for a new Buffalo Bills stadium.15 

CLARA: The FTP was only $600 million! And that’s in today’s dollars.

MARCO: So New York State alone could fund a federal theater. 

The Nobodies Who Were Everybody
Jalopy Theater through August 20
Running time: About two hours with no intermission
Tickets: 0 to $40
Scripted and Developed by Marcella Adams, Jessie Atkinson, Paul Bedard, Sarah Biery, Rashad Brown, Christopher DeSantis, Nadia Diamond, Ali Dineen, Liat Graf, Cody Hom, Addy Jenkins, Adin Lenehan, Katie Palmer, Al Parker,Francine Pinheiro, Arisael Rivera,
Dan Stearns, and Cindy Farida Wong 
Directed by Paul Bedard and Katie Palmer
Scenic design by  Gizel Buxton, costume design by Brynne Oster-Bainnson, lighting design by Dan Stearns 
Cast: Marcella Adams as Clara, Jessie Atkinson as Catherine, Rashad Brown as Jo, Liat Graf as Ida, Addy Paul Jenkins as Theo, Adin Lenahan as Jericho), Arisael Rivera as Marco

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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