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HBO documentary Reopening Night is raising the curtain on one historic New York theater company’s return to live performance following a year-long shutdown and national racial reckoning, both of which upended the industry.
Released on Tuesday, the over two-minute first trailer traces the globally renowned Public Theater’s 12-week journey to the opening night for Merry Wives, the company’s summer 2021 Shakespeare in the Park offering and among the first comebacks of live theater in the city. Using a combination of behind-the-scenes and performance footage, director Rudy Valdez (The Sentence) chronicles the questions, challenges and emotions that surrounded the production’s every stage — from the casting and rehearsals to the design and construction of the all-weather set — in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and one of the rainiest Julys on record. You
Featuring reflections from Merry Wives director Saheem Ali, playwright Jocelyn Bioh, The Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis, set designer Beowulf Boritt, musician Farai Malianga, assistant director Abigail Jean-Baptiste, as well as the show’s actors, crew, staff and other theater artists, the film ruminates on the professional and personal impacts of the initial shutdown and the “harrowing” effort to physically recreate a performance space.
“At what point does the show not go on? At what point do you say you try it and we can’t do it anymore?” Ali wonders in the trailer amid clips of the production’s struggles to rebuild its entire stage “from scratch” while facing a slew of weather-related hurdles.
Echoing sentiments from within the larger New York City theater community following live theater’s return, Reopening Night also explores the experience of the show’s Black creatives, cast, crew and staff following a summer that forced the country — and the industry — to begin to grapple with its history of racism.
“The summer of 2020 George Floyd was murdered. It really made theater feel like so unimportant,” Ali says. “In this moment, when we’re talking about the racial reckoning in this country, should we be doing Shakespeare?”
In the trailer, members of the production open up about the trauma and isolation they’ve experienced while being Black theater workers, with one man admitting to quitting live stage performance altogether due to racial discrimination. At another point, one woman says she was “treated horribly” while working as a production assistant in the ’90s, with a second explaining why she continues to work in sound despite being one of the only Black and queer women in that department.
Alongside these reflections are also scenes of joy and emotional healing, as the production’s Black members speak to their love of theater, the desire for its return following the pandemic and the emotional impact of telling stories centered on their own lives and community.
“We decided that art and activism can actually live side-by-side,” Ali says of The Public’s reexamined approach to storytelling.
Executive produced by Matthew O’Neil and Perri Peltz (HBO’s Axios), Reopening Night illustrates not just the efforts of the Public Theater, but the entire industry, to come back better — both for those who get to see shows and those who get to make them.
Reopening Night was produced by Meghan Schale, co-produced by Sasha Gay-Lewis, with Sara Rodriguez serving as senior producer alongside Nancy Abraham and Lisa Heller as executive producers for HBO. The 90-minute documentary will premiere on Monday, Dec. 20 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, and be available to stream on HBO Max.
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