Caroline Stefanie Clay and Tyee Tilghman in the Studio Theatre’s production of ‘Skeleton Crew’ (Photo by Teresa Wood)

A man took a stand for justice by taking a knee this past weekend — not on a football field, though that happened too, but on a stage in a theater just across town.

Not surprisingly, Tyee Tilghman’s act of protest at the Studio Theatre didn’t make CNN. But it has begun to make a stir:

You knew this was coming. With Colin Kaepernick’s name constantly in the wind, with NFL players and coaches and owners linking arms in the face of wrathful critiques from the White House — wrathful critiques from the White House is a phrase I’m still astonished to be typing in this context — it’s become obvious that the question of when and how it’s OK to lodge a protest in these United States is central to a speech-and-debate brushfire that’s waaaay past ready to rage.

One NASCAR owner dug a containment trench for his team in recent days, telling the Associated Press that any driver of his who chose to kneel during the national anthem would be declared anathema.

Elsewhere, though, the protest Kaepernick ignited in August 2016 has found plenty of ready fuel for its spread. On Sept. 23, Oakland Athletics rookie Bruce Maxwell was the first to kneel for the anthem at a Major League Baseball game. R&B legend Stevie Wonder took two knees at a New York music festival on Saturday. And as woke fans of the WNBA well know, some of that league’s strongest players have been making their mark— and making fewer headlines, go figure — with protests on this front since at least a couple of months before Kaepernick first took a knee.

Oh, and if the President of the United States thinks NFL players have been disrespectful, he’s in for a legitimately rude awakening when the professional trash-talkers of the NBA return to the court in mid-October.

But actors, now? Actors kneeling in the theater? At the curtain call? Isn’t that a slap at the audience, just as it’s digesting the show and showing its appreciation? Isn’t it a kind of self-indulgent virtue-signaling by one cast member — and at the expense of the others, who probably just want to take their bows and get to the bar?

Suddenly all the questions that pro athletes have been wrestling with, very publicly but at an unmistakably safe distance for most of us, are right here on our stages, uncomfortably close to subscribers’ noses.

But maybe that’s exactly where those questions need to be.

What if the greatness of the American theater, especially the nonprofit American theater, is in what it demands of audiences? Including, and maybe especially, the audiences who come looking for mere entertainment?

Forget for a moment the giant issue plays of, say, the last decade — Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Ruined, with its devastating depiction of rape as a weapon of war. Skip over Ayad Akhtar’s provocative Disgraced, a more recent Pulitzer honoree about an American-born Muslim confronting Islamophobia and his own questions about assimilation. Never mind, at least for now, the off-kilter classics about creeping totalitarianism that seem suddenly and upsettingly relevant, with their challenging reminders that it can be uncomfortable speaking up in the face of manifest wickedness. (But oh hi remember we have one of those for you! Right now, even! The Arsonists has been extended here at Woolly through Oct. 14.)

Still, ignore all those, because even the frothiest, swooniest, most popular play in the U.S. nonprofit-theater ecosystem this season smuggles an unmistakable change-the-world message between couplets. Shakespeare In Love, adapted by Lee Hall from the Oscar-winning movie rom-com, is a pure, shameless, holiday-season cash cow that’s still artful and engaged enough to push back on traditionalist notions about class, privilege, and gender.

(Of course like many of Shakespeare’s own romances, it does so with an assist from on high — a fourth-quarter dispensation from Queen Elizabeth I that cuts neatly through the knotty situation its lovers have gotten themselves into. But then what is such an assist anyway, if not an endorsement of the hope that a passionate onstage display can awaken the better natures of those with the power to make change?)

Less than a year ago, the Broadway cast of Hamilton — another gigantically popular entertainment with a biting message embedded — sparked a firestorm with a speech about a nation “alarmed and anxious,” a heartfelt plea delivered directly to then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence during curtain call on the night he attended.

The heat and range of the reactions that erupted in the wake of that electrifying moment were as revealing about who and where we are as a nation as the actual content of the Hamilton cast’s appeal.

That’s true again today, as more and more Americans kneel for the national anthem* — and as restaurants and bars, for reasons ranging from owner outrage to a simple desire to keep the peace, ban NFL games from their big-screen arrays. All of us face the question George Betterman faces in The Arsonists: Are we ready to be the guy who causes the scene? Can we step outside our safe, secure lives to acknowledge that “safe” and “secure” aren’t givens for everyone we passed on the way to work today? Or do we just want to watch our games, our TV shows, our stage plays in peace and comfort?

What struck me most about the Hamilton manifesto last year was the immense dignity of the gesture — a dignity deeply rooted in the unity of the ensemble offering that gesture up to the audience and the watching world. It was just one actor who delivered the speech, but an entire stage full of his energized castmates stood alongside, hands intertwined, as he spoke urgent truths to one of the most powerful men on the planet.

Back at the Studio Theatre, Tyee Tilghman took a similar route toward protest. Though the Westword article above doesn’t mention it, his curtain-call moment wasn’t a rogue gesture, or a solo one: Tilghman’s castmate Caroline Stefanie Clay made the same choice at the day’s matinee. And their castmates joined them, fists raised in solidarity, at the final evening bow.

As the public conversation swirling around these kneeling figures broadens and intensifies, more actors and more ensembles will together be taking the temperature of their spaces and considering the leap the Skeleton Crew cast felt compelled to make. Which leaves theaters, and audiences, in an interesting moment.

As the Vox essay above notes, there’s a singular bond that develops between actor and spectator in the theater, a singular potential for empathy in these darkened rooms where Thalia and her more solemn sister do their ancient work.

And there’s so very much work to be done.


*Unclear on what exactly the good people discussed above are protesting/talking about/making a point of saying? Hint: It is not the military, the national anthem, or the American Way of Life. This useful reminder of the actual topic at hand is available, just to keep your Thanksgiving dinner-table fights properly focused.


Trey Graham is the writer and social-media specialist on The Arsonists. For two decades, he covered D.C.-area theater for the Washington City Paper, where his work earned him the George Jean Nathan Award for distinguished drama criticism. He’s been published in American Theatre magazine, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and his arts-journalism career also included a nice long stint on staff at NPR, where he was part of the team that created Pop Culture Happy Hour.