’Is This Going To Be Depressing?’: Intercultural Theater, Empathy and Conversations in Pirira
in TheatreForum International Theatre Journal, 45
La Jolla: University of California San Diego
I first met J.Stephen Brantley in New York the summer of 2012. He was cowriting a script for a theatre project about Caribbean identity, DNA testing and the ways in which human beings are connected. From my California outpost, I was serving as a sort of outside contributor. I traveled to New York a few times to work on the project and on one of these occasions I remember standing on a subway platform with some other artists involved in the project waiting for a train, making small talk. At some point, Brantley described a position he once had working with an NGO that provided aid in Malawi. He had been doing some fundraising, and had created a campaign around the concept that we are all African. He had hoped to convince Americans that by donating money for Malawian relief they were not giving aid to the distant "other"-some stranger-but to people more intimately connected to them than perhaps they realized. As an academic well versed in African American, African Diaspora, and Performance Studies, I caught myself smirking as I asked, "How'd that go?" He acknowledged the naiveté he had had around the complexities of race and empathy-the campaign had been a disaster. We discussed the possible cause that many people don't feel connected to people who don't look like them or who live in a different country or who suffer in ways they can't imagine. But, at the same time, we both acknowledged the crucial stakes around finding a way to communicate the moral responsibility and possibilities for preventing the suffering of fellow human beings. How best to do that? How to get people to care? How to get people to understand that fundamentally we are connected, however clichéd that may sound?