Dec 14, 2011

Seconding Coates

An extraordinary post by Ta-Nehisi Coates, urging us to take account of our own ordinariness when contemplating moral quandaries, happens to include a resonant illustration from my area of consideration:
Some weeks ago I met a student who was specializing in economy and theater. She said that what she loved about both fields was that she had to presume a kind of rationality in studying her actors. She had to surrender herself--her sense of what she would like to think she would do--and think more of what she might actually do given all the perils of the character's environs. It would not be enough to consider slavery, for instance, when claiming "If I was a slave I'd rebel." One would have to consider, for instance, family left behind to bear the wrath of those one would seek to rebel against. In other words, one would have to assume that for the vast majority of slaves rebellion made no sense. And then instead of declaration ("I would do..."), one would be forced into a question ("Why wouldn't I?").
That, in a nutshell, strikes me as both a description of, and a mission statement for, an ideal social theater--one which confronts us with our humanity even, or especially, in extremity, and asks us, without the promise of easy comfort or catharsis, not only what we would do in a given situation but why we wouldn't do otherwise, or why we think we'd do much better than the characters we're invested in. That's the moral force behind the best Brecht productions I've seen, for one, but it's also not very far from the surface of any play that's moved me or gotten under my skin, from Shakespeare to Sondheim, from Albee to Nottage.

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