By Madeline Fabricant, Assistant Dramaturg O Beautiful
Although the phrase “history repeats itself” may sound like rubbish, I am constantly amazed by how often it rings true. Theresa Rebeck’s play, O Beautiful, was written in 2011, but today’s current events make it more relevant than ever. This includes conversations on abortions, religion, race, gun control, cyber bullying, suicide, and many others.
O Beautiful opens with a high school student, Alice, trying to determine whether or not she is going to terminate a pregnancy that resulted from a nonconsensual sexual encounter. She consults her friend, Jesus (yes, the actual Jesus), who gives her a surprising answer. This starts Rebeck’s discussion of whether the historical figures in this play really stand for what people say they do.
Abortion continues to be a huge topic of conversation in the media. Planned Parenthood, an organization whose main purpose is not abortions, continues to be under attack in particular. According to their website, only 3% of the work that Planned Parenthood performs is abortions. The other 97% are services that are used to keep women (and men) safe such as STI/STD testing & treatment, contraception, cancer screening, and other essential services. At the recent GOP-controlled House Judiciary Committee meeting about Planned Parenthood entitled, “Planned Parenthood Exposed: Examining the Horrific Abortion Practices at the Nation’s Largest Abortion Provider,” the organization itself was not even invited to defend themselves. Without Planned Parenthood and other abortion clinics in the country, many girls and women will seek other, more harmful, ways to procure abortions. Essentially: men who are much older than many women this will affect, like Alice, are making decisions on their behalf. The men claim this authority comes from a religious and moral superiority.
Jesus’ appearance in the first scene indicates that issues of religious dogma will be investigated in this show — and shortly thereafter, the appearance of a conservative TV show host makes it clear that Rebeck is questioning dogma in politics as much in religion. And Jesus isn’t the only historical, quasi-mythic character actively protesting the misrepresentation of his words. What is ironic is that if most of the Founding Fathers were alive today, they would not agree with the majority of the ideas that the Tea Party is spewing out to the public. Rebeck conveys this in her characterization of them – Benjamin Franklin in particular challenges dogmatic interpretations of the Founding Fathers.
This debate reaches a boiling point in the high school history classroom of Ty, the only black teacher in this small town, who wants to help students understand that what they read in their textbooks might not be the whole story. As the town’s suspicions swirl around Ty and his supplemental classroom handouts about the Founding Fathers, Rebeck’s characterization of these men, both onstage and through Ty’s lessons, makes clear that they were not perfect; they were human. They were no different from us. Although many characters in this play believe these men were the conservative ideal, most were not.
This is relevant in 2015 when it comes to the presidential race and gun control. Just one example of this comes from Ted Cruz. He wrote in a recent email “It is a Constitutional right to protect your children, your family, your home, our lives, and to serve as the ultimate check against governmental tyranny — for the protection of liberty.” The Second Amendment does not protect one’s right to rebel against the government; particularly a government that is not a tyranny. The Second Amendment was written in 1791, when the army was not what it was today. The men in the show are not going to war with the guns they keep in their homes, their basements, and their garages.
Rebeck also grapples with issues of cyberbullying, racism, and covert racism and sexism particularly as characters’ actions tie back to characters’ claims of divine (or political) precedent. The events in the world just in the past few months make this contemporary play feel more incisive and relevant than ever. I think this is a piece that has the ability to get people desperate for change. It is also funny, sweet, and devastating. I feel so blessed to be able to watch such a beautiful, game-changing story unfold.
Thanks for sharing your insight, Madeline!
O Beautiful comes to the Greene Theater October 1-4. Get your tickets now!