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Why I Love Theater [Single White Nerd]

About an hour ago, a play handed me my ass. “Here you go,” it said, “have your ass.” In this case, “ass handed” means inspired, galvanized, surprised and moved. It reminded me why I love theater.

Here’s the thing–this show, the one I just saw, I shouldn’t have liked it. It’s not for me. It’s about the integration of baseball. Specifically, it’s about a fictitious meeting between Mr. Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Paul Robeson, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson to discuss moving Jackie Robinson from the minor leagues to the major leagues.

I’m not a baseball fan. Nor am I Black. This play shouldn’t have spoken to me.

Well told stories are rarely about what they’re about. In this case, a story about a meeting–literally five guys talking in a room–regarding race and baseball became about something much more universal. Everything about the play from the set to the performances–some of the bravest performances I’ve seen in a long time–told this story with specificity, elegance and efficiency. And through that specificity, the story became about so much more.  The cost the compromises we make in the name of our own careers or of the greater good. What happens–the damage we do–when we lose sight of what we’re fighting for in the heat of battle. The swirling emotions and impulses that come with any accomplishment or decision. The lengths we go to to determine our own identities.

Theater, to an even greater degree than art, literature or film, has the incredible ability to tell these specific, universal stories and galvanize an audience with them. It’s immediate and ephemeral and when it works, which isn’t that often, it touches the audience in a visceral way that lasts long beyond the duration of the show. The actors and audience dance together, each feeding off the energy of the other, the actors transporting the audience, the audience going with them on a journey. A great performance–or, in the case of the show I saw today several great performances–strips away human nature to its bare elements, reveals the vulnerability at the core of a character, and inspires the audience to see that kind of honesty in themselves.

Today, when many of our interactions are technology mediated, over-considered, and dependent on social masks, any time that people can sit in a room together and experience a shared humanity is sacred. It’s magical. Theater, when done right, creates a space where that magic can happen.

And that is why I love theater. Good talk.

(If you’re in Chicago, head to Lookingglass Theatre to see Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting.  If not, consider flying in to see it. I did. But, then, I love theater.)

featured image credit: AndyRoberts