On Revision:

Oh, revision. How dreadful it can be.

I don’t know about you, but I hate revision——or, at least I used to. Until recently, I would despise “revising” my work because it felt like editing something I already wanted to be done with. “Revision,” in an academic sense, usually happens by force, typically so you can achieve a better grade.

But what, really, is revision? Let’s define what it means to revise something (you know I love definitions): “to re-examine or make alterations to.”

To re-examine or make alterations to.

I love the first part of this definition: “to re-examine” because it feels much deeper and more significant than editing does. Editing is surface-level——it is grammatical or organizational. Revision, on the other hand, is deeper——it demands that the core of your piece (your primary question, your thesis, etc) be re-examined. Revision demands you take a step back from your writing, inquire deeply about why you are returning to your work, and then set out on a new path that will drive your piece forward.

When returning to your writing, I think it is helpful to consider the following questions:

  • Why am I returning to this piece? Is it to edit, or to revise?
  • If it is to edit, you might consider:
    • What are the areas that need attention?
    • Are my title and opening sentence engaging?
    • Is my argument both provocative and clear?
    • Is the flow of the piece effective?
  • If you are revising, you might consider:
    • Since last reading this piece, what has stuck with me? Do I remember feeling like something was missing?
    • Is this piece still as relevant now? Or perhaps it has lost or gained relevance? Why?
    • Are there areas I can go deeper here? How can I engage with my own story to invite empathy and reciprocity from my reader?

Allow me to let you in on my own recent experience with revision.

Dr. Essin asked me to write a final post in my semester series entitled “On Revision.” I really should’ve written this post a few weeks ago, but I couldn’t find a hearty reason why I needed to write about revision… (because, really, I was thinking about revision as editing.)

But a few days ago, devastatingly, a friend of mine from high school, Dylan, passed away. Dylan’s passing sent me back to an all-too familiar feeling I had when I was a senior in high school and another friend, Malcolm, died. For me, Malcolm’s death will always be tied to the musical Rent, which I wrote my final blog post on last semester. When this tragic similarity stirred up in me, I knew I wanted to revise my post on Rent. With a new sense of urgency to tell the redemptive story of Rent’s power to heal communities in tragedy, I got to writing.

Below is the revised version. You can read the first version of this post here. Pay special attention to the way this post engages a personal story (to encourage empathy and reciprocity from the reader) where the first version does not.


In the winter of my Senior year of high school, one of my friends tragically died of a brain aneurysm. At only fifteen, Malcolm was full of joy and life until the very moment he passed.

Throughout the entire winter semester, I was in rehearsals for a blackbox performance of Rent where I would play Mimi Marquez. On the morning of our only performance, Malcolm’s death was announced during our chapel service. I remember the deafening silence of the building ringing through my ears. I couldn’t tell if I wanted to scream, cry, run, puke, or hide so I just froze. When we all stood up to leave the chapel, it felt like the whole school let out a collective cry.

It was obvious that we could not perform Rent that night, but we were faced with the decision of whether to perform the show at all. 

That night, sitting in my room as I thought through the options, I couldn’t help but acknowledge parallels between the moment I was in and Rent’s very own premier. Months before Malcolm’s death, when we chose Rent as our show, I did some research on the creation of the musical. I learned that the night before Rent was set to premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1996, Jonathan Larson, the creator and composer of the musical died suddenly.

I took to Google to learn more about Larons’s death and discovered he also died of an aneurysm. I also discovered that the cast of Rent decided to continue on with their opening night performance the next night. I sat in this tragic similarity wondering how they did it. In an interview with Playbill, NYTW director James Nicola said, “Life was imitating art in more ways than one, and the group of angst-ridden bohemian rockers danced in celebration of Larson’s life and work.” After the first performance, it was clear that a Broadway transfer was imminent for the show. Producer Kevin McCollum said, “We had no choice… Everybody had a higher purpose, and it was to get Jonathan’s work heard and seen. And there was no looking back. … We were breathing life into the voice of a young man who had much more to say … There was no room to be afraid.”

In that moment, I knew we had to perform Rent for the school—not in spite of Malcolm’s death, but because of it. Like the original cast of Rent, we had a higher purpose, and we had the opportunity to “breath life into the voice of a young man who had much more to say.” There truly was no room to be afraid. It was a beautiful and powerful performance that led our community toward healing. In that performance, I discovered Rent’s ability to move across time and across tragedy to address timeless questions of life and death, uniting communities through the paradox of joy and sorrow along the way.

Three years later, I would be reminded of this unique ability as I watched Rent again and felt an eerily deep connection between the musical and the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Rent opens with the title song and imagery of New Yorkers shouting on balconies, living in the tension of paradoxical celebration and mourning. In a similar way, today’s New Yorkers meet each other on balconies and fire escapes every night at 7pm to sing communal praises to the medical workers fighting COVID-19 on the front lines. With shouting, cheering, and crying, New York exhales a collective acknowledgement of the joy that exists—particularly the joyful reality of a shared experience—and a plea for better. While the connection between Rent and COVID-19 is related to New York City, it goes far beyond just geography. 

The musical begins on Christmas Eve in 1989 with a simplistic film reel shot by Mark who is played by Anthony Rapp. Mark is filming a documentary about New York City—specifically about the lives of the homeless population and those affected by HIV/AIDS. The reel shows a shot of Radio City Music Hall, moments of extreme poverty, people experiencing homelessness, etc. These shots—which you can watch below—felt all too similar to what I can picture NYC looking like right now, absent the masks. Mark sings, “How do you document real life when real life’s getting more like fiction each day. / Headlines, breadlines blow my mind, and now this deadline: ‘Eviction or pay’ Rent.” I did a double take thinking about the transcendent reality of this lyric. Not only are Americans struggling to pay rent, but breadlines have returned, except this time people have to stay in their cars.

Rent tells the story of watching an illness unfold with no ability to stop it. Its characters find solace in the community of those around them, particularly those who share the same experience as them. This community is most emphasized in the “Life Support” scenes where the characters who have AIDS meet as a support group. Some of the most beautiful moments in the film are when characters take a moment to acknowledge their illness—both Angel and Collins and Mimi and Roger share sweet sighs of relief as they recognize their shared reality.

The illness that unites this community, though, is also what ultimately shatters it (before coming back together, of course). Back in Life Support, Mimi begins to sing “Without You” as she grieves the end of her and Roger’s relationship, but we start to see the people in Life Support lose their lives and fade away. The shot fades into the Subway where Collins is holding Angel, who is dying. That image is harrowing as it once again brought my mind to the COVID era. Collins and the rest of the friends watch Angel lose her battle, unable to do anything to heal her. We see the same fate begin to unfold for Mimi, too, who takes her last breaths in the final scene of the movie. Roger holds Mimi in his arms as he sings the song he’s been writing for a year, Your Eyes, and Mimi is revived by his love. In this final moment of the movie, we feel the weight of Angel’s death and the harsh reality of life with AIDS wash over us, while simultaneously celebrating the life that we have. The cast sings “No Day But Today” as Mark plays his finished documentary in the background.

Rent doesn’t present a perfect parallel to COVID-19, I know that. But that’s the beauty of it. Rent can speak to us in its original form because the questions it asks about life transcend time. Rent can speak to me in the wake of a friend’s death, in the midst of a global pandemic, or just on a random Tuesday.

I think, now more than ever, the question of how we measure our life is incredibly important. In the middle of quarantine, maybe we did measure our life by cups of coffee… but as we continue to navigate this pandemic, I challenge you to consider what Rent’s central question—what would it look like to measure your life in love?


Thank you for tagging along with me all semester. If you ever have a moment of renewed passion to revise one of your pieces, I encourage you to do so! Most importantly, I hope you don’t let this class end today. Press on discovering, friend.

-B

On Voice:

Consider yourselves lucky. 

Dr. Essin has spared you from watching The Little Mermaid Live on Disney+. You can thank my section of this course for that. You’re welcome.

I was not so lucky. Not that the live television version was bad, necessarily, but it certainly didn’t compare to the other shows we watched. It wasn’t a total loss, though, because Disney succeeded in leaving me with a question to consider when the movie ended: What, really, is voice? 

To some degree, I think I’ve always been a writer, but I didn’t always consider myself one. I remember being in the sixth grade and writing a poem for class and thinking it was terrible. My mom found that poem during quarantine and I was genuinely surprised when I realized it was pretty good. In high school, I always had good grades in writing courses. I learned how to write a stellar analytical essay and that’s definitely important, but it was the blog-style writing I did on the side that I loved. Freshman year at Vanderbilt, I started writing a blog called The Girl Next Dore (yes, I think I’m very funny), but eventually I got too busy and put my blog on the back burner. By the time I enrolled in Dr. Essin’s class last semester, I felt like I’d lost my voice. (And just to really bring home The Little Mermaid parallels, let’s remember that Ariel, too, loses her voice for a time. Also, I feel like Meghan Markle stole my thunder with this parallel on Oprah last night. Whatever, it’s fine.)

What this class allowed me to do was forget the “rules” of academic writing and view writing as exploration. The thing about authorial voice——or writing that is very “voicey” or “bloggy”——is that it isn’t simply writing the way you would speak. It may feel more similar to that than your analytical papers would, but it’s not a transcription of your natural speech. Developing your voice takes an acute knowledge of your own personality as well as an understanding of what you want your reader to gain from your work.

For me, I want my reader to feel like they know me and trust me——that I am their friend; I want them to get a glimpse into my real life and journey; and I want the questions I ask or the themes I present to challenge them. Since last semester, I’ve sent my posts for this class to a trusted friend, and I always hope for the same response: “this is very Brooke.” 

As your first blog post approaches, I’m going to leave you with a few takeaways to consider:

  1. To gain confidence in your voice, start by writing about something you’re already confident in. Confidence begets confidence. (Think back to your post on Authorship and Authority. What did you write about? How did your voice shine through?)
  2. Let go of the words and allow yourself to discover. You are allowed to take the reader on a journey of discovery with you. (You can read my post on Miss Saigon which models this.)
  3. Think about your opening statement. How can you grab the reader’s attention? How does the first sentence reflect your voice and style?
    • I am big on short and punchy first lines. “Consider yourselves lucky.” Or in my Miss Saigon post, “When it comes to theatre, I am not very empathetic. You probably aren’t either.”
  4. If it matters to you, it matters to someone else, too. Pick a topic you care about. Don’t force something because you think it is “right.” Enjoy yourself!
  5. Remember to gain the trust of your reader. Confidence + Humility + Demand = Trust. (I acknowledge there is a significant lack of nuance in that formula, but you get my drift.)

Finally, it is okay if this blog is out of your comfort zone——it should be. Good luck, friends!

-B

PS: Comment on this post if you have any questions about your upcoming blog piece due! I will try to answer them or point you to a post from last semester.

On Trust:

Trust. Assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.

Hi, y’all! I’m Brooke! I’m originally from Delaware, but I went to high school in New Jersey. I’m a junior here at Vanderbilt double majoring in Theatre and English with a minor in American Studies. On campus I’m involved in both student-run and departmental theatre, as well as a sorority!

This is the standard introduction of any Vandy student (especially Vandy Guides, ily but just saying). But isn’t it kind of boring? And what does it really tell you about me as an author?

If you read the title of this piece (always read titles, people) and my first sentence, you know that this post is going to be about trust. Based on what you know about me so far, do you trust me? I wouldn’t.

What if instead I said:

Hey friend! My name’s Brooke! I’m a junior at Vandy working with Dr. Essin on some projects related to THTR 3333, but don’t worry, I really am here as a friend. There are some things that all of my real-life friends know about me, so I want you to know them too!

  • I can eat a GoGo-Squeeze in under 3 seconds.
  • My parents are divorced but they’re still best friends.
  • My entire inner-monologue is narrated in the voice of Alexis Rose from Schitt’s Creek.
  • If my personality could be described in a color it would be hot pink.
  • I have a private Snapchat story called Cry Cry Birdie.
  • I learned to drive when I was twenty.
  • I have an incredibly chaotic energy but, remarkably, people who don’t really know me think I’m very put together.
  • I can’t ride a bike.
  • I think about food 80% of the day.

I know we haven’t met, but at least now you know that I’m more than just a screen name. Hopefully I’ve developed for you a rough “character sketch” of who I am. Besides all of those things, though, I want you to know that I have at least two things in common with you: I also go to Vanderbilt, and I also took this class with Dr. Essin. Around this time last semester, I was reading one of Dr. Essin’s infamous Read and Consider pages and I had the realization that I could approach this class in one of two ways:

  • I could engage in a less than half-hearted way, writing surface-level discussion posts and not really watching the musicals.
  • Or I could invest in this class, really consider the questions Dr. Essin and my classmates posed, and answer them in a way that not only challenged my reader but myself.

Considering I’m back again, still posting on The Writing Stage, I’m sure you can guess which path I chose.

So why am I back? Good question. I’m back because I think (and Dr. Essin did, too, hehe) you can benefit from some unsolicited, friendly ~advice~ from me. I use the term advice loosely because by no means do I have all of the answers; I’m here to discover with you.

As I thought about this post, I developed a working thesis of how to gain trust as an author. 

Confidence + Humility + Demand = Trust

If we want the reader to believe in us, we need to have confidence in our voice. But if confidence is all we have, our reader may stop at thinking “oh this is well written.” Beyond confidence, we need to humble ourselves——if we write with a sense of superiority, we may alienate our reader. Finally, and most importantly, I believe trust requires demand——both of ourselves and of our audience. We might be a likeable reader if we only have the components of confidence + humility, but to be truly trustworthy I believe we have to move beyond the words on the page. What is our writing demanding of ourselves? Growth, change, empathy? What is our writing demanding of the reader?

Let’s put this formula to the test with this very post. At what point in this post did you decide to trust me? Or have you?

I would suspect you might not fully trust me yet. I’ve shown you my confidence in my own voice——I am unapologetically informal in my blog-style writing because I really do treat my readers like friends. I humbled myself to let you in on some of my quirks and personality traits, even some that were weird or deep. And I also told you I do not have all the answers and used “we” to include myself in the learning process.

But there’s still one component left. Demand.

Just as I had the choice to invest in this course, you do too. If you commit to this class, you will not leave unchanged. I’m serious. I really am. I wouldn’t be writing this to you if I didn’t know that this class offers a space to develop all of the components of trust I’ve mentioned.

So, friend, do you trust me? Will you invest in this class, and more importantly, in yourself, your cultural journey, and the world around you?

I hope so.

-B

The Musical For Our Moment: “Rent” In 2020

Every night at 7pm, New York City sings communal praises to the medical workers fighting COVID-19 on the front lines. For the past several months, New Yorkers have walked out onto their balconies and fire escapes to shout, cheer, and cry together. While this tradition has died down recently, the videos and images of this City-wide phenomenon from the early months of COVID will not be forgotten.

This phenomenon caught my attention from the very beginning because it represents the paradox between celebration and mourning. When New York City erupts with sound every night it is both a collective acknowledgement of the joy that exists——particularly the joyful reality of a shared experience——and a plea for better. 

The imagery of New Yorkers shouting on balconies, living in the tension of paradoxical joy and sorrow, is not new. In fact, I see this same iconography in Jonathan Larson’s hit musical Rent. 

At this moment, you might be skeptical, and that’s okay. After all, Rent is probably one of the most heavily debated musicals in Broadway history. People either love Rent like no other, or they absolutely despise it. Critics of the 1996 musical have called it outdated, said it is stuck in the ‘90s, and some have even called it a “relic.” Vox writer Caroline Framke even asserted that Rent had no ability to evolve over time, saying, “if you want to move generations beyond the present, you have to tap into more than current trends as a means of communicating,” criticizing Larson’s heavy reliance upon alt-rock and grunge.

But I find these arguments lackluster and surface-level. To be honest, critics who cling with passion to the commentary that Rent is stuck in its own time lack imagination and vision. Maybe that seems harsh, but I really believe that it’s true. Yes, Rent was written in response to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, but that is not the only experience it can speak to. If directors, production teams, actors, and even audience members believed that period pieces could only thrive in the moment they were created, why would we produce revivals? One could argue that Oklahoma! is too “outdated” for production, and yet it won a Tony for best revival because it approached the musical in a new, innovative way.

The best musicals are those that have a capacity to engage an audience——in any given moment——on things far greater than catchy, repeated melodies. The best musicals are those that can transcend time by asking the audience timeless questions that often have very timely implications. Rent does this. I’ve watched this musical so many times, but recently it’s hit me differently. At this very moment I feel Rent speaking on a core level to the COVID-19 pandemic and the current American experience. Not only is the musical centered around New York City, but it emphasizes the importance of community in a place so potentially isolating. Perhaps most importantly, though, Rent tells the story of watching an illness unfold with no ability to stop it. This is the musical for our moment.

The original Broadway musical opened in 1996, but the movie——which features most of the original Broadway cast—— premiered in 2005. The musical begins on Christmas Eve in 1989 with a simplistic film reel shot by Mark who is played by Anthony Rapp. Mark is filming a documentary about New York City——specifically about the lives of the homeless population and those affected by HIV/AIDS. The reel shows a shot of Radio City Music Hall, moments of extreme poverty, people experiencing homelessness, etc. These shots——which you can watch below——felt all too similar to what I can picture NYC looking like right now, absent the masks. Mark sings, “How do you document real life when real life’s getting more like fiction each day. Headlines, breadlines blow my mind, and now this deadline: ‘Eviction or pay’ Rent.” I did a double take thinking about the transcendent reality of this lyric. Breadlines in America have returned, except this time people have to stay in their cars.

The shot transitions to a scene where Mark and his roommate Roger, played by Adam Pascal, are singing on their balcony. We see the image my mind was originally drawn to in comparison to the COVID-19 pandemic where all of the tenants of Avenue B on their balconies, singing “How we gonna pay last year’s rent.” While New Yorkers today aren’t lighting screenplays on fire and dropping them off the side of their building (or maybe they are, who knows??) the imagery and lyrics feel all too real, especially given the calls for Governor Cuomo to cancel rent.

There are many other moments when New York is specifically mentioned in the lyrics, like when Angel begins the song “Sante Fe.” She sings, “New York City, center of the universe. Times are shitty, but I’m pretty sure they can’t get worse. It’s a comfort to know, when you’re singing the hit the road blues that anywhere else you could possibly go after New York would be a pleasure cruise.” In that moment, Mark says “I hear that,” but if the movie were transplanted into 2020, he would’ve said the same thing. To me, though, it’s not the specificity of the lines about New York that make Rent so centered in this place. Rather, it’s the emphasis on setting in the film. If you took the film and transplanted it to another location, I don’t think it would hold the same weight because the grungy fire escapes and celebrations in city streets draw the audience to a familiarity of the iconography of NYC. Furthermore, there’s a deeper meaning to the emphasis on community and shared experiences in a city more so than there would be in a suburban small town.

The importance of community is most emphasized in the “Life Support” scenes where the characters who have AIDS meet as a support group. Some of the most beautiful moments in the film are when characters take a moment to acknowledge their illness——both Angel and Collins and Mimi and Roger share sweet sighs of relief as they recognize their shared reality.

The illness that unites this community, though, is also what ultimately shatters it (before coming back together, of course). Back in Life Support, Mimi begins to sing “Without You” as she grieves the end of her and Roger’s relationship, but we start to see the people in Life Support lose their lives and fade away. The shot fades into the Subway where Collins is holding Angel, who is dying. That image is harrowing as it once again brought my mind to the COVID era. Collins and the rest of the friends watch Angel lose her battle, unable to do anything to heal her. We see the same fate begin to unfold for Mimi, too, who takes her last breaths in the final scene of the movie. Roger holds Mimi in his arms as he sings the song he’s been writing for a year, Your Eyes, and Mimi is revived by his love. In this final moment of the movie, we feel the weight of Angel’s death and the harsh reality of life with AIDS wash over us, while simultaneously celebrating the life that we have. The cast sings “No Day But Today” as Mark plays his finished documentary in the background.

Rent doesn’t present a perfect parallel to COVID-19, I know that. But that’s the beauty of it. Rent can speak to us in its original form because the questions it asks about life transcend time. I think, now more than ever, the question of how we measure our life is incredibly important. In the middle of quarantine, maybe we did measure our life by cups of coffee… but as 2020 comes to a close, I challenge you to consider what Rent asks its audiences——new and old——what would it look like to measure your life in love?

“In the Heights” is Not Revolutionary: How the Ordinary Story of Washington Heights Uncovers “Home”

At the end of the seventh grade I acquired the nickname “Mexico.” Actually, it wasn’t really a nickname at all, or at least not one that I approved of. I can’t remember the exact insult that led to the birth of this name, but I know one of my “friends” made some probably unoriginal jab at Mexicans, to which I replied, “uhh… I’m Mexican…” What followed was a series of comments like “no way,” “no you are not,” “are you serious?” Yes. I was serious. I am serious. And just like that——in one rare moment of me owning my ethnicity——a message was thrust upon me. A message that said “this part of your identity is laughable,” “being Hispanic is not something to be proud of,” and probably most damaging, “if you are White-passing, why expose yourself as Mexican?” As a result of that “nickname” and many other interactions and moments in my adolescence, I have never sought to unpack that part of my identity. I think I convinced myself that it just wasn’t worth it——that I wasn’t missing anything at all.

In the Heights proved me wrong. It was here——in a story seemingly very distant from my own——that I found pieces of my identity I didn’t know were missing. Through the spectacularly ordinary lens of three days in Washington Heights, the audience faces the challenge of learning more about themselves——each viewer either sees parts of their identity mirrored in the characters, or they see the absence of such.

Mama circa 1966

For me, that’s how my discovery started. I saw the absence of myself in a narrative that, ethnically, I should have fit into. But I don’t. Lin-Manuel’s lyrics in the opening number pushed me away because they tell my mama’s story, not mine. Mama, who is 100% Mexican, always told me that she felt “too White for the Black kids and too Black for the White kids” during her childhood. Even when she entered the Marine Corps at eighteen, her enlistment forms only had the options “Black” or “White.” I’ve heard this sentiment my entire life but I cannot relate to it. Personally, on the one hand I feel like a Hispanic imposter, while on the other hand, I feel like maybe I should take my White-passing skin and economic privilege and run with it as fast as I can. But where does that leave me? Honestly, sometimes it leaves me feeling utterly unknown. 

Grandpa, Mama, and Uncle Phil

That’s what I felt in the first number: unknown and frustrated. I was so close to dismissing the whole musical because——like usual——my untapped ethnicity and my Whiteness couldn’t find anything to latch on to. But instead of giving up, I started watching the Chasing Broadway Dreams episode on In the Heights. For the first time, I heard someone say the words I’ve felt my whole life, “I felt like a fake Latina.” It probably sounds crazy, but hearing Karen Olivo, who plays Vanessa, say these words unlocked a part of my being that I’ve ignored for so long. I felt like someone had finally given me permission to explore who I fully am.

That is what In the Heights is capable of: personal discovery and cultural celebration. Unlike most Broadway shows, In the Heights does not win the audience with grandeur and flashy spectacle. Even within Lin-Manuel’s own discography, In the Heights is incredibly different. Hamilton, for example, hinges on its ability to subvert the narrative of history and has often been called “revolutionary.” In the Heights is not that. In fact, it is the very opposite. At the core of the show, In the Heights is a story about a real neighborhood, real jobs, and real people——being told by actors who carry their identities with them as they step into these nuanced characters. The beauty of In the Heights is its ability to be at once engaging and incredibly ordinary. In that space of engaging and ordinary I saw the faces of people I’ve known my whole life.

Mama embracing the curls!!

I started finding myself even in the one-off, seemingly unimportant lines like “What happened to these curls?… You have to accept hair gel into your life!” In the sixth and seventh grade (it was a rough time, y’all) people loved to make fun of my big curly hair. So at the age of twelve, I started straightening it every day and I lost my curls. That moment in the salon between Nina, Daniela and Carla validated my own lived experience. When I recognized that I related to that line, I realized——on an intimately personal and visceral level——how important representation in theatre is. I am hyper aware that this small gesture toward my hair pales in comparison to the challenges faced by non-White-passing Latinx folks and other BIPOC. Nonetheless, In the Heights both validated me and called me to a higher cultural awareness toward representation.

Grandma Maria. No, I do not call her Abuela because I don’t speak Spanish, hence part of me feeling imposter syndrome

In the song “Everything I Know” I found myself close to tears (you can read more about my crying habits here: https://thewritingstage.com/2020/10/21/i-am-chris/) when Nina sings about how Abuela Claudia could barely write her name but always made sure she did her work. Every time I call my Grandma she asks me about school and says, “Good, you study hard because education is the one thing no one can ever take away from you” and it breaks my heart because she didn’t even finish high school. I’d really like to think that I’ve never taken my education for granted, but this moment demanded I stop and think about how I can better honor my family with my schooling. I even realized that I will be the first woman in my family to graduate from a four year university. My chest physically hurt when Kevin sang, “I always had a mind for investments. Nina Rosario, Bachelor of Arts. When that day comes, we’ll call it even.” In my head, I didn’t hear “Nina;” I heard my dad saying my name.

Many times throughout the recording I thought about how much my parents have given up for me. I think I arrived at the conclusion that part of my tendency to ignore my heritage is likely rooted in Mama’s efforts to make sure it was never something that held me back. I don’t resent that. Again, I will be the first one to admit that my parents provide incredibly well for me. But In the Heights illuminated the nuance of identity for me. In hearing Nina sing about searching for “home” at Stanford, I realized I didn’t even know I was searching for a more complete sense of “home” at Vanderbilt——at least not in this way. And yet, I found it. I found pieces of myself in In the Heights that I didn’t think mattered. I found home here.

I Am Chris: An Exploration of (White) Empathy

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.