HOW WILL WE REBUILD EMPATHY?
by Janet Allen, Margot Lacy Eccles Artistic Director
Our decision to produce T.J. Young’s intense family drama NO. 6 is a decision to use our art to reflect deeply on the human impact of racial injustice in our country. The circumstances of the play are based on an actual event—a series of riots that took place in Cincinnati in 2001 as a result of a White police officer killing an unarmed Black youth—but the tragedy is that the events of this play could have occurred surrounding any number of similar events across the country over the past 20 years. Art can help us see under the surface of the news headlines: past the invective and adjectives, past the sensational pictures and footage, past the bylines and statistics, and into the hearts of people who must live through these huge traumas. While the Anderson family themselves do not suffer the loss of a loved one in this horrific event, the losses of security they sustain, the weight of past loss, and the potent fear of future loss hangs spectre-like around every interaction they have in the play. We know that the end of these riots that threaten them do not mean the end of fear, and that this kind of daily fear is not equally felt or acknowledged in this country.
Art can help us open our hearts and minds in ways that news events cannot. News is presented so sensationally these days that too often our reaction is to draw back from the reality, or lean into the adrenaline rush of mere sensation. Neither reaction helps elicit deep empathy. Given the 24-hour nature of news, we are constantly being buffeted by horror, to the extent that it breeds the opposite of its intended effect: it numbs the soul, frightens the heart, and closes down the mind. We have talked a great deal in this country about a loss of empathy, a malaise that many feel powerless to overcome. Many art forms, but theatre in particular, can stand in this breach and invite us in. Theatre elicits our empathy in layer upon layer of character investigation, without creating villains and heroes, but characters that can be both heroic and self-absorbed, generous and selfish, inspired and frightened, just as in life. At its best, theatre can ask us not to judge—because judging heals nothing—but to acknowledge our cultural inequities and seek to be healers and allies.
We are grateful, particularly in COVID times, to have assembled a team of brave and committed artists to work on this piece: they are both Black and White, and their conversations have been deep, and sometimes painful, as they seek to illuminate the heart of this play in all its intersectionalities and complexities. Leading this team is director Dwandra Lampkin, who IRT audiences have seen deliver luminous acting work in Doubt and To Kill a Mockingbird, who now brings her leadership skills into the rehearsal room to guide this production. A play like this, at a time like this, requires that artists bring their deepest moral and ethical values into their work, and we are blessed to have Dwandra at the front of this conversation, offering up revelations from her own life as a Black woman in our world. The design team, some working virtually, some live, and the actors, from both Indianapolis and New York, are working diligently to bring authentic life and fullness to this intense piece of theatre art, as they explore empathy in many forms.
COVID has only deepened our population’s empathy deficit. Encouraged to isolate from and fear others, we find it more challenging to reach across differences of all kinds and walk in someone else’s shoes. How will we rebuild empathy as a culture? NO. 6 poses us many questions about empathy and forgiveness—even questioning whether forgiveness is possible when the harm to Black families is continuous. Among the deep takeaways of this play is how little has changed since the events of 2001 that this play chronicles. What has changed—we hope—is the understanding that much must be examined and dismantled for these acts of violence to stop. Theatre can give us new eyes to see.
The IRT produces top-quality, professional theatre that engages, surprises, challenges and entertains people throughout their lifetimes, helping to build a vital and vibrant community.
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