Speaking Out on Shutting Up

It’s Super Bowl Sunday and I think I’m legally obligated to make some kind of football-oriented analogy. Perhaps I could posit that the HamilTunes event we held yesterday at the Virginia Historical Society is to “normal theater programming” as the Super Bowl is to “a regular football game:” both a whole lot more and a lot less at the same time.

But I’m a scofflaw and will not stoop to that.

Instead, I’d like to talk a little about a kerfuffle in the fairly insular world of the local theater community. There was a discussion on a private Facebook group about a Hungarian production of the opera “Porgy and Bess." The production has stirred controversy because, even though it was expressly stated by original composers George and Ira Gerswhin that the opera should only be performed by an all-black cast, this production featured a predominantly white cast.

This spurred a great deal of conversation, by which I mean, dueling Facebook posts. I’m not going to rehash the tenor of the conversation but the word “racist” was used quite a lot.

It reminded me of back in November and December when there were a lot of holiday-focused gatherings just as the #MeToo Movement had exploded. I had a few conversations that ended up getting heated or awkward, understandably, because of the emotions involved.

I’ve ruminated since on how things went awry in those conversations. One of the things I came to was that I was sabotaging myself. As a part-time writer, I think about the production of words, about putting language out into the universe. What I don’t concentrate as much on is listening.

Also, I am a white male in a society that has traditionally elevated the opinion of white males above those of others. Given that this is the water I’m swimming in, I’m used to being listened to. What I’m less used to is shutting up.

Conversation is an interactive process, a give and take. But I know that too often I spend part of any conversation trying to come up with my own comment or counterpoint. That takes energy away from actually listening to what the other person is saying. Online conversations on social media can be even worse as saying the most clever or audacious thing gets rewarded with “likes” and other reinforcements.

A few decades ago I read M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled” in which he talks about listening. He describes concentrating so hard on listening to what a lecturer was saying that he was sweating from the effort. As the fractious nature of our discourse grows in the world today, I’m starting to think that making that kind of effort is more important than ever.

There are theatrical tie-ins to these thoughts: it’s my opinion that people who got frustrated with TO DAMASCUS, our last production at Firehouse, couldn’t stop trying to impose order or structure on what was happening instead of just listening and observing. I know that was my struggle when I first watched it.

Our next production, WINGS, is all about language and the struggle to be understood and to understand. In the show, the lead character’s brain is interfering in the process of communication. What’s ironic is that, even for those of us whose brains have not been addled by stroke or other injury, there are constant struggles to communicate succinctly or to understand clearly.

Perhaps the best thing many of us can do, particularly those of us who are used to having our voices heard, is to dedicate more energy toward understanding the experience of those largely ignored or marginalized, maybe even seeking out opinions from those that tend to stay quiet out of frustration with going unheard in the past. The #MeToo movement dramatically brought to everyone’s attention the stunning variety of people whose struggles have been trivialized for years and years. As these people continue to emerge from silence, rather than rebutting or debating or analyzing, maybe for now we owe it to them to simply shut up and listen.

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