When it comes to theatre, I’m not very empathetic. You probably aren’t either.
I’m not trying to offend you. Heck, until last week I would’ve considered myself an exceedingly empathetic viewer. When it comes to musical theatre, in particular, I’m an emotional liability. I can’t remember the last musical I watched that did not make me cry, which I thought indicated my empathy. I was wrong.
Here’s why: I used to think empathy just meant sharing in the pain of someone else——walking with someone through their hurt. But is that really the full definition?
As I began to consider this question——to reassess my definition of empathy——I thought of an author I love, Brené Brown, who speaks on this topic. She says, “Expressing empathy or being empathic is not easy. It requires us to be able to see the world as others see it, to be non-judgmental, to understand another person’s feelings and to communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings.”
I re-read this quote and I literally thought phew. Score. I’m off the hook, I’m definitely empathic. But, to my momentary disappointment, the quote continued. Brown writes, “Empathy is a choice. And it’s a vulnerable choice. Because in order to connect with you I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”
So if empathy is a choice, that means it is active. As viewers of theatre, we must be active to truly engage with the material, which I am. But my tears are not active. My tears might erase some makeup, but they leave me relatively unchanged by the time I finish my post-matinee dinner. And that’s where I think you and I are probably the same. If my “empathy” only extends so far as outwardly expressing itself with stained cheeks, it probably isn’t true empathy. Sympathy, perhaps. But not active, engaged, sacrificial empathy.
My——probably our——lack of empathy may already be overwhelming you. Maybe you feel guilty right now. Or perhaps even shameful. Before I proceed to deepen that wound, I want to affirm that shame is never the goal. But once I started down this rabbit hole of self-assessment, I couldn’t stop.
What is distressing to me is that this “empathy” I thought I possessed varies between shows, between people, and——dare I say——between races. I know. I went there. I’m kinda scared, too. But hang with me, okay? I need moral support.
Last week——back when I thought I was an empathic person——many students in my Theatre class expressed that sure, Nick Arnstein sucks, but Chris sucks more. I agree with this. I was far more angry and disappointed in Chris than I was at Nick. At first, I reduced this to the fact that Nick Arnstein presents himself from minute zero as a pompous a**hole whereas we first encounter Chris in a considerably more virtuous state (yes, I am aware he is in a brothel, but he does step in to “protect” Kim) which makes him more attractive.
I thought I was more angry at Chris, then, because I had higher expectations of him than I did of Nick. However, when I really thought about my anger, it was rooted in a deep sadness for what these men did to Kim and Fanny, respectively. If I have greater anger toward Chris, this reveals that I harbor more “empathy” toward Kim than I do Fanny. But why?
After hours stuck at this very spot in my blog, I’ve come to this conclusion. Ready? Me neither!
Here it goes: my inability to directly connect with Kim’s life makes her more foreign to me——more needing of my “empathy.”
Miss Saigon wedges space between its white viewers and Kim from the very beginning. We enter Saigon to meet Kim as she has just fallen to the ground in the middle of an airstrike. A moment passes and we have transitioned into the Engineer’s brothel with women singing “one of us will be Miss Saigon.” At the first sight of an American soldier, it is clear how opposite these two camps of people are. I watched with a knot in my stomach as the Engineer slapped a dancer and soldiers boasted their money and citizenship. Saigon did not know freedom. Saigon is maybe the furthest thing from my life in Nashville, TN.
In many ways, Funny Girl, however, draws the (white) audience close to itself through its location. New York City is the emblem of freedom. Fanny Brice endures her own struggles, of course. I am not in the game to compare traumas, rather the act of viewership. And the act of viewing Funny Girl is significantly easier than engaging with Saigon, in part, because New York City is just so overwhelmingly normal to me. And that’s the bottom line. Most things in Funny Girl feel normal to me. The most critical being… yep, you got it. Race.
In Funny Girl, white is the norm, so it goes unnamed——it’s not seen as racial, because whiteness just is. Miss Saigon is the polar opposite. The entire musical——for better or for worse——is undeniably a performance of race. Kim’s “otherness” to me only deepens her victimhood. I feel sadness for Fanny losing Nick; I feel complete and utter agony as I watch Kim kill herself for her son.
Hard as it is, here’s the truth. In many ways, I am Chris. I am the character I hate because it is my whiteness that begs me to express empathy toward Kim. In selfish catharsis, I cry for her.
Chris sings, “I saw a world I never knew / And through her eyes I suffered, too… So I wanted to save her, protect her / Christ, I’m American? / How could I fail to do good.” I’d be lying if I said this was dissimilar from my reaction to Kim. Through her eyes I suffer — the beginning of empathy. But, like Chris, I fall short.
My failure to truly be empathetic, then, holds a much higher cost for Kim than it does Fanny. Where my “empathy” is higher, I am being asked more of myself. So when my tears dry and my life returns to normal, I’ve done a greater disservice to myself and others by failing to act. At this point, you might be expecting me to wrap all of this up in a nice little bow. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I can’t do that. I don’t have an answer to this. I think radical empathy begins with acknowledging that you’re not there yet. I’ve done that part. But what next? I haven’t come up with a way to fulfill the last step of empathy——to put forth genuine effort to act upon that which I feel sadness. But for now, maybe Miss Saigon isn’t asking me to do that. For now, I think I just need to sit in this development. For now, I think I need to study the ways that I am Chris.
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