San Francisco's Magic Theatre-the Bay Area's prime purveyor of new plays-is on a roll with a series of popular "festivals" that showcase the work of important, often marginalized playwrights. This month, the 33-year-old mid-sized theatre takes on its most ambitious project yet: a Festival of Playwrights in Danger. Collaborators on the event-a high-octane two weeks of staged readings, post-show discussions, and musical celebrations-are PEN USA (which suggested some of the playwrights and helped track them down), Amnesty International, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The Magic likes to explore, through workshops, foreign writers whose plays we might want to produce," explained Laura Hope Owen, the Magic's literary manager and the festival's coordinator. "Festivals are also a good way to highlight neglected writers, and to provide a development arena for playwrights."
Among the festival's featured playwrights are two Nigerians: Wole Soyinka (now living in Atlanta), who was jailed from 1967-'69 for alleged political activities, and once again after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986; and Ken Saro-Wiwa, hanged by order of the military dictator of Nigeria in 1995 for his outspoken efforts to safeguard the rights of his people, the Ogoni, whose oil-rich land has been exploited by multinational corporations.
Other playwrights include: Algerian Abdelkader Alloula, who like Saro-Wiwa, was killed in his native country, shot by Islamic fundamentalists in 1994; Egyptian feminist Nawal el Sadaawi, imprisoned from 1980 to 1982, as a critic of the regime of Egypt's then-president Anwar Sadat, and Chay Yew, whose plays were banned in his native Singapore because he presents gay characters as normal people. At home, Yew was followed and his phone was tapped. He now lives in Los Angeles, where he directs the Asian Theatre Workshop at the Mark Taper Forum.
Also represented is Eduardo Pavlovsky, a psychiatrist who played a part in Argentina's independent theatre movement until the 1976 military coup. Forced to leave, he returned in 1981 with a group of Argentine playwrights determined to defy the regime.
There's also Bosnian Serb Goran Simic, who dared to remain in Sarajevo with his Muslim wife when fighting broke out in 1992. He wrote poetry and news there, even as many artists fled. He now lives in Toronto.
Finally, there is Dublin-born Margaretta D'Arcy, who was imprisoned in Armagh in 1980 for opposing the British government's treatment of political prisoners in Northern Ireland.
In this festival, as Owen pointed out, the writers, and the context in which they wrote, are more important than the plays themselves. "In other parts of the world," she noted, "there are different forms of storytelling that might be hard for our audiences but that caused a stir in their land of origin. So our artistic criteria [for this festival] had to be different. For example, Alloula's play, Lajwaad (The Good People), is a parable-a different type of play than what we're used to here." To make the readings as authentic as possible, the Magic hired directors who know the country or the playwright, or who have expertise in the politics of the area.
Thus San Francisco's Arab-American theatre company, Golden Threads, will perform el Sadaawi's autobiographical Twelve Women in a Cell, under the direction of Torange Yeghiazirian. And San Francisco's Iranian group, Darvag Theatre Company, will take on Alloula's black comedy Lajwaad, which was written in Arabic; Bella Warda directs. Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, who has lived in Nigeria, will direct Soyinka's The Swamp Dwellers, set in a rural village. Members of the comic, politically radical San Francisco Mime Troupe, under the direction of Greg Tate, will appear in Saro-Wiwa's comedy The Transistor Radio, which won the BBC African Theatre Prize in 1992.
Other directors include Magic artistic associate Kent Nicholson (Goran Simic's latest work, an absurdist comedy called Wind in Uniform); Mary Coleman, a longtime Magic associate (Chay Yew's lyrical A Language of Their Own); Roberto Varea (Pavlovsky's dramatic monologue Potestad (Impunity)), and festival co-coordinator Virginia Reed (D'Arcy's satirical The Little Gray Home in the West, written with British dramatist John Arden).
As Magic Theatre artistic director Larry Eilenberg explained, it is no one play that has endangered any of the writers; rather it is the way they have chosen to live and write. The writers' commitment to their principles is matched by the Magic's: Facing a paucity of grant funds to stage works by foreign writers, the artistic staff lowered their sights somewhat-mounting less costly staged readings rather than more fully developed workshops-but remained firmly committed to the project.
Although the focus of this festival is on foreign writers, the Magic views the plight of playwrights in danger worldwide as quite relevant to American artists and audiences. After all, American playwright Terrence McNally's play Corpus Christi, depicting a homosexual Jesus-like figure, created a furor recently when the Manhattan Theatre Club tried to mount it. Religious right-wingers issued serious threats to the playwright and to some of the theatre artists involved (MTC, initially wavering, proceeded with the production, and San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre will produce it next season).
"It's easy to become cynical and not believe that what you write matters," observed Owen. But the Magic Theatre believes it does indeed matter.
Playwrights in Danger Festival runs Apr. 21-30, with matin e and evening performances, discussions, music, and other events, including a "Playwrights in Danger Slam" on Apr. 28, featuring readings from plays, prison correspondence, and other materials written by playwrights in danger. Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason. (415) 441-8001.