America is interrogating itself: on its streets and plazas, online and in the media. The death of George Floyd in police custody has sparked a revolution. He is not the first black man to die in such a manner, but there is a much greater intensity to the resultant protests. American ground has become more fertile for change.
Look to the theatre. In 2015, Lin-Manuel Miranda's hip-hop musical Hamilton became a tearaway success on Broadway and internationally. It tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the West Indies who was George Washington's right-hand man and one of the founding fathers. Miranda's musical style is heavily influenced by jazz and hip-hop; the casting was racially diverse and largely non-white.
The show was revisiting the American past in a way that reflected the diversity of the American present.
In November 2016, vice-president elect Mike Pence attended Hamilton. He was treated to a post-show speech by Brandon Victor Dixon, the African-American actor playing vice-president Aaron Burr. Dixon spoke on behalf of the cast and producers: "We are the diverse Americans anxious you will not protect us," he said. This was an early, friendly warning from the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre to the Trump administration about the protection of minorities. Not for the first time, America gets explained to itself by the American musical.
The following year, a controversial production of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar was mounted in Central Park's Delacorte Theatre, with Caesar played as Trump, complete with over-long ties. It sparked noisy audience protests after the assassination scene and strong blowback from conservative media outlets. Funders Delta Airlines and Bank of America pulled their financial support. Julius Caesar has often been portrayed on stage as a real political leader - there had previously been an Obama-like Caesar - but the funding withdrawal indicates how sensitive business was and is around the Trump presidency. The street confrontations in American cities will remind Irish people of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, with the debate around rubber bullets and tear gas. Brian Friel's The Freedom of the City tackled these Irish events in 1973, not long after Bloody Sunday, when 13 unarmed protesters were shot dead in Derry. Friel's play is about a trio of ordinary protesters who take refuge from the riot in the Derry Guildhall and come to a tragic end. The street battles had climbed up on to the stage.
Irish theatre has traditionally been highly politicised. The riots on the opening night of JM Synge's The Playboy of the Western World in 1907 are widely documented, neatly summarised in Lady Gregory's telegram: "The audience broke up in disorder at the word 'shift'."
Abbey plays were seen as anti-nationalist by a section of society. Seán O'Casey's work of the 1920s provoked riots because of their robust engagement with republicanism. William Butler Yeats asked the question: "Did that play of mine send out certain men the English shot?" about the allegorical Cathleen Ni Houlihan (written with Lady Gregory) from 1902, which could be seen as a recruiting tool for Irish insurgency.
In more recent times, the Abbey Theatre provided the stage for Rory O'Neill, aka Panti Bliss, to perform a post-show speech, 'Noble Call', during the run of The Risen People in 2014. Panti's description of the everyday aggressive homophobia experienced by Irish gay people went viral, attracting support from the likes of Graham Norton and Madonna. Panti used the material as the basis for her stage show High Heels in Low Places with Thisispopbaby. These events fed into the debate surrounding the marriage equality referendum of 2016.
The theatre is often maligned as a conservative space where people go to simply rattle their jewellery. But theatrical talent can be relied on to rattle the status quo. To understand the street, it is always wise to look at the stage.