Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival offers look at future of American theater

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Entertainment reporter Sandy Kenyon has the latest details.

Over the past 13 years, the New York Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival has highlighted cutting-edge performances featuring diverse voices.

And one of those performances resonates with the honoring of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose legacy resonates throughout "The Bitter Game."

The late Dr. King's words took on new meaning for writer/actor Keith A. Wallace after violence erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown in police custody.

"What I'm trying to do as a playwright with that particular line is to create a sense of empathy in the audience members," he said. "A sense of understanding about why people in certain communities exhibit this behavior in certain situations (and) act the way they do."

"The Bitter Game" was performed as part of the festival, an annual celebration of the avant garde.

"The Public (Theater) represents for me so much of what's happening in contemporary American theater, right?" Wallace said. "Pushing the envelope."

His play was inspired by his childhood in Philadelphia, and festival director Mark Russell said it was made originally to be played to groups of people on a basketball court.

"As I thought about my community, the basketball court kind of encapsulated that entire experience of growing up in north Philly for me," Wallace said. "With the revelry and celebration, but also the devastation and despair."

The Public Theater acts as an incubator, a place where new work can be developed, just as the hit musical "Hamilton" was born there before it reached Broadway.

"We really want the audience to lean forward and participate and feel active, because the political messages that Keith is trying to get across is that we can't sit by passively, feel sad, watching things happen on the news," director Deborah Stein said. "We actually have to lean forward, stand up and take action."

Under Russell's direction, the festival has become a look into the future of the American theater.
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