"Is This Going to Be Depressing?": Intercultural Theatre, Empathy, and Conversations in Pirira

By George-Graves, Nadine | TheatreForum, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

"Is This Going to Be Depressing?": Intercultural Theatre, Empathy, and Conversations in Pirira


George-Graves, Nadine, TheatreForum


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?

A little over a year later I went to see Pirira.

Although I'm sure our moment on the subway platform had little to do with Brantley's inspiration for creating the play, from the opening moments of the production I thought back to that conversation. The question of 'how are we connected?' pervades the play. Even scenically, the question is front and center, as the playing space occupies both a storage room at an NGO in Malawi and a workroom at a Manhattan florist. The multi-ethnic cast doesn't leave this space. And from the unfolding of the story we recognize that these people are more connected than they realize.

We're given little information about the play beforehand. Most promotional information had some version of this blurb, quoted here from Brantley's website:

As the African nation of Malawi erupts in riots around them, American aid workers Jack and Ericka take shelter in the storeroom of a struggling NGO. Half a world away, Malawian student Gilbert and his gay coworker Chad begin their day in the back room of a Manhattan florist. By day's end, they discover their lives are inextricably linked across continents, language, and time.

As we enter the experience of this play, either reading the script or seeing the production, I imagine that many of us find ourselves confronted by multiple sentiments: inspiration to make a difference; ignorance about the particular sociopolitical situation in Malawi; desire to learn more; guilt; anger; hopelessness; exhaustion; curiosity. We wonder if the play will be didactic. We wonder if the "message" will eclipse the creation of compelling characters. We wonder if the story will do "justice" to the broader concerns. According to the website of the producing company, Theatre 167, one of the frequently asked questions is "Is this going to be depressing?" to which the reply is "No, its going to be beautiful" I think it is both. All of these (and other) initial responses and questions are compounded as the play unfolds. We find ourselves enveloped in these characters' stories while we are made keenly aware of injustices writ both large and particular. The play is exemplary of performance's place in the humanities as a critical means of inquiry about fundamental questions of human nature and culture. …

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