Hannah Yelland in "Intelligence" photo by C. Stanley Photography, Kyla García as Sarah Polson in "Sovereignty" photo by C. Stanley Photography, Fina Strazza as Faina in "Snow Child" photo by Maria Baranova.

Hannah Yelland in “Intelligence” photo by C. Stanley Photography, Kyla García as Sarah Polson in “Sovereignty” photo by C. Stanley Photography, Fina Strazza as Faina in “Snow Child” photo by Maria Baranova.

Arena Stage is a leader in U.S. regional theater, specializing in presenting and producing American voices. One of the ways we accomplish this goal is through our Power Play initiative. What is this initiative, exactly? 

Launched in 2016, Arena’s Power Plays is a plan to commission 25 works from both established and emerging playwrights over 10 years. These projects explore the people, events, and ideas that have helped shape our country’s narrative and identity, with each one representing a different decade of American history, from 1776 to the present day—making it the largest commissioning program in Arena’s over-70-year history.

It makes sense that Arena, led by Molly Smith and based here in Washington, D.C., would focus on telling political stories:

"Power and politics are the red meat of Washington, D.C. We eat, sleep and drink politics here from early morning coffee to late night conversations. Every city has its own language, its own nuances, its own history and our language is politics. D.C. audiences are hungry for these stories, and there is no other place in the country where these plays could have such an impact. There is no better time to launch this massive commissioning cycle, the largest in Arena’s history. The more we understand our American stories of politics and power, the more informed we become as a democracy."

— Molly Smith

Power Play Cycles

Power Plays are categorized as being in one of five cycles, aiming to provide a point of view through a specific voice:

  1. Presidential Voices — Plays about exceptional presidents and remarkable events in their lives.
  2. African-American Voices — Plays that herald African-American stories in our country’s history and politics.
  3. Insider VoicesPlays that delve into an exclusive perspective on the complex workings of American institutions or cultures.
  4. Musical Theatre Voices — Musicals that celebrate political ideas and events.
  5. Women’s Voices — Plays that shine a spotlight on women in our country’s political life.

Power play history

To date, Arena has premiered nine of the 25 planned works :

  • John Quincy Adams (representing the 1790s, produced in 2018/2019 Season)
  • Sovereignty (representing the 1830s, produced in 2017/18 Season)
  • The High Ground (representing the 1910s, produced in 2022/23 Season)
  • Snow Child (representing the 1920s, produced in 2017/18 Season)
  • Change Agent (representing the 1960s, produced in 2011/22 Season),
  • Camp David (representing the 1970s, produced in 2013/14 Season
  • Celia and Fidel (representing the 1980s, produced in 2021/22 Season)
  • Intelligence (representing the 2000s, produced in 2016/17 Season)
  • The Originalist (representing the 2010s, produced in 2014/15 Season)

We have so far announced productions for the tenth and eleventh Power Plays: Exclusion (representing the 1880s) in May 2023 and Tempestuous Elements (representing the 1890s) in February 2024.

It’s interesting to note that the Power Plays do not need to necessarily be set in the same decade by which they are inspired. Two of the Power Plays premiering in our 2022/23 Season happen to fall into this category; firstly, The High Ground alludes to the “Black Wall Street” that flourished in 1910s Tulsa, Oklahoma (prior to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921), but the play jumps through different periods of time. Secondly, we have Exclusion, which focuses on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, but takes place in the present day.

The Future of Power Plays

There are currently 11 other commissioned writers working on their Power Play, leaving just 3 more writers and decades to be selected. Who knows what exciting new take on U.S. history will come around the corner?

Arena Stage is dedicated to telling dynamic stories that propel us into the future. Power Plays allow us to convey past decades’ values, comparing them to America’s present-day values. We developed the Power Plays initiative to highlight the complexity of the American experience. It just so happens that since America is a melting pot of cultures, there are a lot of stories to be told that come from different walks of life. No matter the case, a Power Play coming from Arena Stage will always be impactful.

A Challenge

Try to think of any play, musical, or piece of media that you have seen that can be considered a Power Play. What themes stuck out to you? How did it impact you? Would you share it with anyone else?