Somewhere early in Act 1 of Chay Yew's play "Porcelain", the young man at the center of the plot tells his psychiatrist "We're not so different."
John is a young, gay, Chinese man. He is addressing an older, straight, white man. And his point is that he has been made to feel like an outsider because of those differences. This is especially true in early 1990s London, where the play takes place. He cries out for empathy and for understanding, but because he's human he struggles to make himself vulnerable.
I saw the production by Caduceus Theater Arts Company last night, and this scene struck me as a clear message in the show. There were several other scenes that returned to this topic. Near the end of Act 1 John complains about being either ignored or fetishized for being Asian in a world of white men. Or when a TV interviewee pushes back against the reporter's attempts to paint gay men as perverts, unacceptable in society.
It's an incredibly intense show. This intimate production was physically exhausting to watch (and I was actually shaking at times). I encourage anyone who has a chance to see it. But consider it rated R for its intense portrayal of sexuality and violence, and for a lot of swearing.
We're All Human
One topic that is on my mind a lot these days is empathy. Empathy is the ability to not just understand, but identify with the situation another is in. It is difficult to do, but it's very important in being able to relate to others.
In this day and age, we look for categories. We look for ways to find people we are similar to, and to be away from people who are different from us. We categorize ourselves as "us" and "them". These divisions, whether they be sexual, racial, or political, allow us to feel good about ourselves and judge others.
The problem comes when we decide that not only are we better than "them", but that something about them is fundamentally wrong. It's easy to slide from "I don't like you" to "You are worthless". This slide isn't obvious. But when we use dehumanizing language, when we compare people to animals (pig, dog, or monkey are common), when we describe people in terms of their traits (impugning someone's weight, race, or sexual orientation), we minimize them. They're no longer human.
When someone is no longer human, they are no longer deserving of respect. And when respect goes, so does the ability to talk to each other. And when we can't talk, we can't agree. And when we can't agree, society collapses. It's every man for himself.
How do we develop empathy? We can only do it by observing others and seeing how they are similar to us. Theater gives us a unique insight into people in a way other media doesn't.
Art as a Teacher
Seeing shows like Porcelain, experiencing the trials and pains of someone like John Lee, helps to build empathy. Yes, he's gay, Chinese, and young. Yes, we may be none of those things. But when he describes feeling lonely, we know what loneliness feels like. We share in that. We can share his anger, his pain at being rejected by the man he loves.
And when we are stuck in a room with him, we are forced to confront those emotions along with him. We don't have a barrier to protect us. When he tries not to cry, we have to hold back tears. When he curls up in the arms of his lover, we can both understand his joy and see the visible discomfort in the other man's body language.
This is a strength of theater that's unique. Television has time constraints that prevent it from getting too deep (though it can develop character arcs over the long term of a season or series, if it's not cancelled). Movies often have to have mass appeal, and the sense of scale is a different kind of distancing mechanism.
In a live theater, you have a real, life-size human in the same room experiencing feelings in real time. A good actor or a good play confronts you in a way you can't avoid. A powerfully projected emotion cuts through the facade and the distance that we'd like to create. There's just no denying a man breaking down crying in front of you. Or a woman raging against the injustice just done to her. He is just a man. She is just a woman. No more, no less. Just like us.
In short, what I'm saying is that good theater helps build empathy. And empathy is sorely needed in this day and age. More on that in a future post.
For other empathy building media, check out Queer Eye on Netflix.