Picture this: it is 1932, and just like many of us did only a few weeks ago, Agnes Eggling (Krista Forster) is ringing in the new year over cocktails with her beau Vealtnic (Alex Smith) and her three best friends. They’re laughing, singing, celebrating, toasting to one another, while outside the windows of Agnes’s Berlin apartment, the far right is increasing its presence around them. Adolf Hitler is rising to power.
There is much to unpack here. A Bright Room Called Day is a play by Tony Kushner that first debuted in New York City in 1985, during the Reagan administration. Trustus Theatre stays loyal to the original concept of the play; a large part of their stage is Agnes’s apartment. A separate set to the side is a New York apartment wherein resides a young woman named Zillah (Avery Bateman). When the lights shift to that apartment, it is the 1980s, and Zillah is a fiery, impassioned, and boldly clever young woman who writes letters to President Ronald Reagan every day.
Kushner’s original play showcases parallels between Hitler and Reagan, which to the uncritical eye in 2018 may seem like a far-fetched endeavor. After all, every one of us likely has a conservative relative who still tries to convince us that Reagan was the “greatest” president in United States history. But there are others who look back at the lasting effects of the Reagan era and can see Kushner’s points. As an example—although Nixon may have started the “war on drugs,” it was during the 1980s that we saw many African-Americans and Latinos disproportionately arrested. In spite of composing a smaller percentage of the population and having similar rates of drug use per capita to Caucasians, African-American males were taken into custody at 13 times the rate of whites for drug offenders. Indeed, the resurgence of conservatism in the United States gave way to the social ostracism and legal destruction of multiple groups—not only the racial and ethnic minorities in the justice system, but also targeted groups affected by the HIV/AIDS crisis, namely gay and bisexual men. Reagan’s conservatism created fear, unrest, and a loss of hope for populations who did not fit the demographics of the desired social norm.
Watching A Bright Room Called Day, it’s hard not to cheer Zillah on during her political rants. This is largely because Bateman is a stunning performer—if you want to feel your heart slowly melt with joyful warmth inside your chest, you’re in luck: she actually sings in one scene, and it’s beautiful. It would be as touching as an Ella Fitzgerald record, if Trustus Theatre did not run a montage of Hitler videos behind her. Yikes. Did that make you wiggle uncomfortably when you read that? It was intended to do so. And much of A Bright Room Called Day creates that same feeling—an audience member must perpetually ask herself, “How should I be feeling right now?”
A perfect example is our protagonist, Agnes. As the play begins, we really like Agnes. She’s accepting and loving of her friends. She’s talented, passionate, motivated. She drinks vodka straight. She’s an actress and a writer, and she grows interested in having a more political voice. Left-wing activists visit her apartment and encourage her to get more involved as they try to prevent the Nazi party from coming into power. Her friend Annabella (Becky Hunter, in a role she plays so well you’ll want to be her new best friend) paint signs and posters to help the left’s campaigning efforts. Increasingly, though, Agnes’s hope goes away. We see her becoming more and more silent. Not only that, but Agnes becomes angry and resentful of her friends who choose to leave Germany or express opinions against Hitler. About halfway through the play, you start to want to shake Agnes. It isn’t necessarily because Agnes is wrong or bad—it’s because Agnes represents the silent observer in all of us. She watches buildings burn outside her apartment window. She hears that people are going missing. She holds her breath as Vealtnic staggers, bloodied, into her apartment after being gang-beaten by Nazi party members. And she does nothing.
But isn’t there an Agnes in you, too? Agnes’s constant inner turmoil and guilt and quickly self-hushed fits of rage are emotions many of experience each day when we read the news. When we hear about present-day political efforts that further marginalize and discriminate against certain populations—immigrants, LGBT individuals, racial and ethnic minorities, women—and we do nothing, absolutely nothing, to stop these things from happening, we’re all Agnes. And one by one, Agnes’s loved ones are gone.
Depressing, yes—and unspeakably tense. The tension you feel watching A Bright Room Called Day is thickened by your own inner dialogue. In 2018, the play has regained perhaps even more relevance than it originally held. There are lines in the play that you are certain have to be referencing President Donald Trump, because they just seem so…fitting to the modern day.
But there are moments of comedic relief, and there are likable people. Baz (Jonathan Monk) is one of Agnes’s closest friends, a gay male who, in spite of his left-wing views, revels in the company of conservatives until he becomes too fearful to remain in Germany. Baz’s departure from Agnes’s apartment is one of the most heartbreaking moments of the play—you just want her to run after him and hug him, rather than begrudge him for not staying in the hell that Germany is becoming.
And speaking of hell, the devil actually makes a guest appearance. I won’t give away too many details, but, yes, Lucifer is a character, and his presence builds one of the play’s most interesting, off-the-wall, and impactful scenes. Paulinka (Jennifer Hill) is another close friend of Agnes, Baz, Vealtnic, and Annabella. There are several references to Paulinka being an opium addict, but she holds herself as a beautiful movie actress who just wants everyone to like her. When Paulinka makes an off-hand remark expressing her opinion in front of Satan, he rises up and bellows at her so loudly, so ferociously, that it will scare the living daylights out of you. I actually gritted my teeth and felt my breath catch in my throat as I watched Paulinka shirk and fight back tears, afraid of what may happen to her for saying anything. As Satan scolds her for speaking against him, he uses his staff to lift the skirt of her dress up, revealing her bare legs to the audience. The moment is harsh, cold, and downright brutal to watch in 2018. We see women like Paulinka attempt to express their truths today, and in spite of all our efforts, many of these women are still shunned, ridiculed, doubted, or encouraged to stop speaking. The metaphorical weight of the devil’s scene will leave your heart heavy as you exit Trustus Theatre.
Apart from the political themes of the play, Trustus Theatre built quite a bit of excitement about A Bright Room Called Day because of its director, Erin Wilson, the daughter of Trustus’s founder and local arts legend Jim Thigpen. Wilson took on an incredibly difficult, sensitive play, and one that has such chilling relevance in 2018, but she navigated its darkest moments with grace and wisdom. As you leave A Bright Room Called Day, you realize you have just seen something of greater importance than you anticipated. The play is a call to action—an incredibly artistic and overwhelming look at what injustices silence will allow to happen.
There are only a handful of opportunities left for you to catch Wilson’s genius direction in A Bright Room Called Day. The remaining showtimes are: 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 26; 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27; 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 28; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 1; 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 2; and 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 3. Following Saturday, Jan. 28’s matinee performance, Trustus Theatre will offer a talk-back session with the cast and a small panel after the show ends. Tickets and more information can be accessed online here.