It was Tim Robbins and The Actors’ Gang in Los Angeles that first put Michael Gene Sullivan’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 on stage. That was back in 2006, and audiences considered the production to be a commentary on George W. Bush’s administration, which was thought to be corrupt and inept by many.
Now it’s 2020, and the Alley Theatre’s production will surely be considered a commentary on Donald Trump’s administration—also thought to be corrupt and inept by many.
Actor Todd Waite, a cast member in the Alley Theatre production, believes Orwell’s dystopian novel, which was published in 1949 and chronicles life in an oppressive, totalitarian society, is frighteningly relevant today.
“Really, it’s more true now,” says Waite, who is openly gay. “The year 1984 [actually turned out to be] a good time in terms of progressivism and people trying to talk to one another.”
Alley Theatre Artistic Director Rob Melrose, who directs 1984, recalls that the 1980s was a time of neon leg-warmers, big hair, and “greed is good” capitalism and excess—a far cry from the future world that Orwell imagined.
“Now in 2020, every phone, computer, convenience store, and street corner has a camera. In our homes, Siri and Alexa listen in on our conversations and suggest products and feed us ads based on them. Now we have the concept of ‘fake news,’ and we can never be certain if a story is made-up or not. I would argue that Orwell’s novel has a lot more to say to us now in 2020 than it did in 1984,” Melrose says in press materials.
The story follows Winston, played here by Alley Theatre resident company member Shawn Hamilton. When we join the action, Winston is being brutally interrogated about various offenses, including “thought crimes” and a love affair.
Along with Waite, Alley company members Jay Sullivan, Elizabeth Bunch, and David Rainey play Party Members, the loyal followers of an oppressive government. Chris Hutchison plays a revolutionary named O’Brien.
Much of Orwell’s narrative is in the form of Winston’s diary. The Party Members assume various characters and reenact the scenes from Winston’s diary.
Michael Gene Sullivan’s script is brilliant, says Waite. Sullivan, an African-American actor, playwright, and director based in San Francisco, is dedicated to activist theater.
In 1984, Party Members are expected to have unfailing enthusiasm for the party line, according to Waite. “They’re supposed to live in a continued frenzy of the victory of the party and hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors.
“Orwell says, ‘The heresy of heresy was common sense.’ That is crazy-true right now,” Waite emphasizes.
“Think of all of our [government] cabinet positions. The environmental cabinet position is being filled by a climate-change denier. The food and drug agency is being led by a deregulator. NASA is being asked to downplay its scientific [findings].”
He goes on: “Newspapers and history books have always been colored by bias, but falsification, as it is being practiced today, would have been impossible before [social media and the Internet].”
With online news feeds giving us a combination of easy access to information and absolute control over what we see, Waite calls the result “a complete silo-ization of your knowledge.
“You can become, by choice, utterly ignorant. You don’t have to hear things that go against your world view. You can just continually reinforce the opinions and views you already have through dogma, through false facts. That’s scary.”
Citing both Paul Robeson and Monty Python as influences on his writing career, Sullivan has said that he wants audiences to have a great time at the theater and be moved to action.
Waite echoes that sentiment. “Theater, when it has political relevance and yet is a great story, is so exciting to be involved with; you feel you’re fighting the good fight.
“Every time you take on a part, you want world peace to break out, and of course it doesn’t,” laughs Waite. He is hoping that Alley audiences will react to the kind of behavior and mentality seen in 1984, which is so deeply wrong, by becoming more open-minded.
“Even if only one person is opened up, that’s a success.”
When: March 6–29
Where: Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave