In a self-professed nation of immigrants, what does it mean to be an American?  Beginning in 2012 with a production of the Tony Award-winning musical 1776, Asolo Repertory Theatre dedicated its stages to an ongoing exploration of this question and into the heart of the American character. Through the four ensuing seasons, this American Character Project took audiences from the showboats of the Mississippi to the dust bowl of Oklahoma, from the folk scene of Woody Guthrie to the nightclubs of Paris (where an American named Josephine Baker took the world by storm) and everywhere in between—a stream of nation-defining moments, big and small, laid bare through the words and characters of great American playwrights such as David Mamet and Nilo Cruz.

With the iconic musical Guys and Dolls ready to kick off the climactic season of the American Character Project, the future brings with it a world premiere, three co-productions with theaters across the country and a line-up offering everything from the comically absurd world of beatnik wannabes to the tragically resonant darkness of greed run wild.

“It’s been invigorating, hugely enjoyable and profound, but it doesn’t feel like the end,” says Asolo Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards, who is already well into planning the 2017–18 season. Despite the five-season timeline, there was never really a beginning, middle and end, he continues, but rather the inception of a great conversation that could not help but continue once it began. Nor did he know what he would find in his search for “this whole idea of American-ness,” or how it would affect his own view of the theater as something more vital than ever before. Looking forward, “it feels like a launching of new ways of thinking about everything,” Edwards says. This year, the Asolo will be the only theater in the United States to stage The Great Society, Robert Schenkkan’s sequel to last season’s All The Way, exploring President Lyndon B. Johnson’s second term and his attempts at social reform, “which set into play the political, social and racial issues that we’re wrestling with today,” says Edwards. Likewise, the Asolo will be the first to stage a full production of The Originalist, a timely examination of late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia by way of a young liberal law clerk who finds the antagonist she expected but also a mentor she did not. Still, there’s time in the season for the little people—the everyday folk not ensconced in DC marble. Asolo regular Frank Galati directs Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes, outwardly a ruthless drama about paranoia and betrayal on a turn-of-the-century cotton farm but more accurately, says Edwards, a metaphor for the economic engine of America “and how that engine is constantly seeking ways to improve the bottom line.”

Part of the continuing strength of the enterprise undoubtedly lies in this deft juxtaposition of stories both grand and intimate—whereas Schenkkan’s All The Way gives a glimpse into the world of great movements by great figures in the battle for equality, Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced affords the audience a look at one night in the life of a modern day American Muslim facing the prejudices of his own world. The primacy of people in presenting the American Character begs an understanding beyond a series of events on a timeline and simultaneously the opportunity to recognize what came before in an attempt to navigate similar ground today in what Edwards calls the worldwide battle for “fairness.” The ensuing conversation is only fruitful if passionate people are willing to listen, he says, and it’s the strength and opportunity of good storytelling to make even one’s “villains” sympathetic—or at least comprehensible in some common ground: “We’re telling stories that enable people to talk about politics, social issues, sexuality, comedy—everything—in a way that would be difficult to do in any other context.”

The theater is a safe haven in Edwards’ world. Not from confrontation or challenge, but from incivility. In a time when questions of American values and who or what constitutes a “real” American dominate the national conversation and political discourse has turned toxic, characterized by online echo chambers of ignorance more than any real statesmanship, maybe the theater is the place where propriety can still stand and people will be open enough to honestly engage opposing views. “That’s what we’re doing at the Asolo Rep,” says Edwards. “We’re encouraging people to get offline, come and listen to a great story and have a conversation.”

This isn’t to say that story is supplanted by sermonizing or entertainment becomes an afterthought. This season’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, 2011 Obie Award-winner for Best New American Play, Edwards describes glowingly as “a riot of entertainment,” even as it addresses questions of racial prejudice and exploitation within the over-the-top world of professional wrestling. Rather, great art and good theater can accomplish both, particularly when presented within an overarching construct such as the American Character Project.

An undeniable running theme of this exploration of the American character has been that of conflict along racial or ethnic lines. Not only the country’s long and shameful history of slavery and exploitation of its black community, but also the immigrant story that plays out again and again, as Edwards put it, with one group turning on the most recent in an effort to get past the bottom rung in a society defined by relative lessers. South Pacific, Show Boat, West Side Story, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Clybourne Park and more—all address, in some way or another, this pulsing vein of constant conflict running down the American spine, seething and unsolved. This can be disheartening at its face, but Edwards describes the reality as “two steps forward, one step back,” unmistakably driven by the very American drive for “a more perfect union,” which seems to be a source of hope and inspiration for the man with dual citizenship who travels on the American one because he “wants the conversation.”

“We’re living in a challenging and difficult time and our politics seem not up to what the world is going through,” he says. “Art and artists have to elevate the conversation and search for common ground to build community. We have to invite everyone into the room and we need to continue asking questions.”

Director’s Notes

Peter Amster  

“The audience has been delighted, challenged and what’s wonderful when you announce something like the American Character Project is that the plays start talking to each other through the audience. They start comparing things. And the audience has jumped on board since the first day, five years ago, with 1776. These plays amass upon each other, they speak to each other and they create a very paradoxical notion of the American character. Let’s face it—we’re complicated.”

Directed Living on Love [15–16 season], The Matchmaker [14–15 season], Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike [13–14 season], You Can’t Take it With You [12–13 season]. Directs Born Yesterday in this upcoming season.

Ben Davis  

“It’s unfortunate, but you see history repeating itself. We all hold these prejudices and we don’t readily acknowledge them until directly faced with something that makes us choose. That’s the power of theater—to transport people to somebody else’s life and make them see that life for two and a half hours. Theater has played a vital role in reflecting who we are as a people and those problems but also shedding a light on what our promise can be.”

Played Gaylord Ravenal in Show Boat [13–14 season] and Emile de Becque in South Pacific [14–15 season].

Joey McKneely  

“I want to support theater that creates conversation within a community. It wasn’t until I was able to see the other shows that I understood West Side’s impact and furthermore Josephine’s impact, and Michael was adamant about understanding how one show fits into the whole season.”

Directed/Choreographed West Side Story and Josephine [15–16 season].

A. K. Murtadha   

“It was a wonderful experience, and to be considered an active part of the American experience is any African-American’s dream, especially these days. The stories are still pertinent, racism is still alive and that makes our job as storytellers to put this up as many times as possible until those things change. It’s an ambitious project and they’re a theater that’s without a doubt equipped for it.”

Played Martin Luther King Jr. in All the Way and Dr. John Prentice in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner [15–16 season].