Thankful: A Theater Lover's Guide to Empathy

11/23/2016 06:50 pm ET
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Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. The stress is minimal (no gift giving and receiving etc), and for me it is about being together with friends and family, eating good food, and being grateful. This has certainly been an “interesting” year in so many respects, and many people, including myself, are concerned, anxious, and fearful about the state of the world at the moment. Many people feel flat out helpless and hopeless, and moving toward feelings of gratitude is both daunting and overwhelming.

However, I was recently at a meeting in which the always thoughtful Brian Stokes Mitchell spoke movingly about the importance of empathy at this moment in time, and I have been reflecting on empathy ever since. In such divided times, I don’t think anyone would argue that we don’t need more of what the Cambridge Dictionary defines as “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.” And, who is more capable of creating empathy than the theatre community? Empathy is our core business. We tell stories, and when we do it well, we transport audiences into the middle of these stories, and they feel what the characters feel and experience what the characters experience.

As I reflected, I found myself thinking about a few of our key empathy inducing moments in the theatre.

I thought about Arthur Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE. Miller wrote this play as an allegory of McCarthyism at the height of the Red Scare, and helped us see how paranoia can lead to the kind of mass hysteria that can cause innocent people to be persecuted.

I thought about August Wilson’s PITTSBURGH CYCLE, and how these 10 plays each covering a different decade of the twentieth century allowed us to “bear witness” and gain vivid insight into the African American experience.

I thought about David Henry Hwang’s FOB, which revealed conflicts and contrasts between established Asian Americans and “Fresh Off The Boat” newcomer immigrants.

I thought about Anna Deavere Smith’s “documentary theatre” works. FIRE IN THE MIRROR and TWILIGHT: LOS ANGELES 1992 in particular. Both of these works are about real events (the 1991 Crown Heights Riot and the 1992 Los Angeles Riot respectively), and are constructed entirely from interviews with real people. She literally becomes the people she interviewed and tells their story with bracing honesty and deep empathy.

I thought about Larry Kramer’s THE NORMAL HEART and Tony Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA, both of which brought the AIDS crisis to scorching life, and ensured that AIDS and the AIDS crisis were a permanent part of our national narrative.

I thought about RAGTIME and HAMILTON, both of which remind us that we are a nation of immigrants and that’s what actually makes America great.

All of these works (and so many more!) have been pivotal in creating the empathy and connection needed to help bring about important social change. However, we can never rest on our laurels, and as history zigs and zags, we need to continue to create more empathy inducing work. And, we need to revisit and revive some of our most powerful works from the past to give ourselves an empathy tune-up from time to time.

Just this past August, for one night only, the theatre industry registered at Ellis Island just as 12 Million immigrants before them had once done, to see a new concert version of RAGTIME, which had its Broadway premiere in 1996. The site specificity along with current events made this work startlingly relevant. The American Theatre Wing was there, and our Thanksgiving gift to all of you is this special edition of “Working in the Theatre” where we take you behind the scenes of RAGTIME on Ellis Island.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! This is for you, Stokes!