Pakistani author, Mohsin Hamid, says, “Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” The role of an artist is to create an experience through our work that reflects the humanity we all share. And to do that requires empathy. As we strive to tell stories that resonate with an audience, the question becomes, whose stories do we get to tell? Where does empathy end and controversy begin?
Can a single gay man write movingly about a cisgender heterosexual marriage? Should a woman write a novel from a male perspective? Is an Asian playwright wise to explore the tony enclave of New York City’s upper west side? Must we only write stories that reflect our own experiences, or come from our own narrow segment of a limited culture?
Creators and interpreters of art cross these cultural, gender, and racial lines continually in search of characters and stories that inspire and challenge. Recent Chicago productions like Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window at The Goodman and Windy City Playhouse’s staging of Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly immediately come to mind, though there are many others. These authors managed to create nuanced, complicated, racially diverse communities of characters that bravely crossed racial, cultural, and gender lines, but not without risk. These authors succeeded by deftly navigating treacherous waters in vessels borne of empathy.
Remember Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel, The Help? Stockett, herself a white author, tells the story of a community of black women working as domestics in the 1960s south, but the way in which the story was presented proved ultimately troublesome. Stockett uses these women’s lives as a plot device in an effort to teach the white protagonist something about herself. When African-Americans voiced opposition against this tone-deaf construct, they were either not taken seriously or their criticism and viewpoints were labeled as “overly sensitive” or needlessly “angry”. Stockett was given immunity by her white privilege, and her audacity to speak for an entire group of disenfranchised black women was rewarded. Is it any wonder the book and subsequent movie sparked controversy? The lesson learned is to tread carefully, and engage the very community you hope to properly represent.
The reality is, a Jewish viewer brings a different perspective to a film on the Holocaust than a Catholic will. A black man will respond differently than a white woman to August Wilson’s Fences. By the very nature of our birth and life experiences, we can’t ever completely know how the other feels, but we can empathize.
If a writer chooses to cross artistic racial, cultural, and gender lines, (and I believe writers should), then open conversation is critical. Seeking out voices and opinions from the very community on which you wish to draw your constructs is vital. And once conversation starts, we can’t be defensive. Writers, it’s imperative to close our mouths and listen. We must accept that others may not like us or our work simply because they feel we have no right to tell that particular story. Their words have no business in our mouths. And if others don’t want to engage with our work remember this; we’re owed nothing. Not help, not understanding, not absolution.
Personally, I hate confrontation the way I hate trying on a swimsuit, but if I want to get into the pool, I know I’m going to have to eventually look in the mirror. Our own American culture is now looking into that same mirror and seeing in harsh, unflattering light the hard truths that have been there all along. White privilege, systemic racism, cultural appropriation, whitewashing; the mirror demands that these flaws be acknowledged and dealt with if we’re to get in the water and exist in a society worth swimming in at all.
My writing partner and I are facing these types of apprehensions with our own new musical. It’s a small community story set in 1954 downstate Illinois that pits a black hero against a racist, uneducated wealthy member of the town. While racism is only one aspect of a play with larger themes, it’s the element of our work that demands the most attention, and certainly the most empathy. As we’ve developed these characters, we’ve tried to portray a realistic, honest relationship between these two foes, one that's authentic and in our opinion, historically and geographically accurate. However, as white writers we feel the weight and responsibility of that effort, and the need to get it “right” if we’re going to do justice to the actors, audiences, and the play itself. We must enlist the guidance of others, particularly black actors and creatives, in shaping the racial elements we recognize we’ll never fully appreciate or understand. We’re currently having these kinds of open discussions with trusted members of the Chicago theatre community.
Through empathy, we are all united in beauty and humanity. Mohsin Hamid’s words ring truer than ever in our current tenuous political times. If the artist’s role is indeed to create experiences that reflect the commonality we all share, then understanding whose stories we’re allowed to share deserves equal consideration. I continue to ask where empathy ends and controversy begins. I continue to ask if other’s words belong in my mouth or vice versa. I continue to seek empathy in myself and hope for it in my fellow creatives. I continue to long for better stories.