The quiet weeping. The convulsive laughter. The surge of sympathy for a character that suddenly turns to empathy when you realize it’s your story they are telling. Beauty. Intelligence. Grace. Courage. The capacity for surprise.
I love the theater. Art is one of the distinguishing capacities of the human— both to make it and to be reached by it. And, in the theater there is a doubling of its power. The art is live, in the room with you, and your presence and your response affect it. And you are in a room with strangers- neighbors who are also affected by it, impacting it, swept into it. You are in communion for the length of the performance. The live arts breathe the same air as the audience.
As the director of Mala, I’ve been thinking about the special power of the theater throughout this rehearsal process with Melinda Lopez.
Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel wrote a song that Roberta Flack made famous in 1973. In 1997 a new version launched the career of Lauryn Hill with her hip-hop group The Fugees. ‘Killing Me Softly’ was about the experience of being in the audience when a live performance started to tell the story of the its narrator.
“I heard he sang a good song, I heard he had a style
And so I came to see him and listen for a while…”
Melinda has read this play aloud half a dozen times in the past year we’ve been working on it. In each case, the audience has come to listen for a while. They’d heard something of Melinda, or the subject matter, or they were subscribers to the theater that was presenting the reading. Their decision was as casual as the narrator in the song.
“Strumming my pain with this fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song
Telling my whole life with his words
Killing me softly.”
At some point in every reading, the quality of listening in the room has shifted as audience member after audience member realizes Melinda is telling their life. And at the end of each reading, audiences have been moved to tell their own story, whether to Melinda or the person sitting next to them or the usher or the artistic director.
We’ve hit a moment in our society where the things that bind us are largely being drowned by the coarseness of an historically ugly election season. Throughout the process, ArtsEmerson has been intentionally programming opportunities to remind ourselves and our audiences that we are capable of extraordinary things. That the hard edges of our current politics don’t define our potential or our spirit. With Mala, Melinda’s taking aim at the human capacity to be ordinary. She’s opened her heart and her private grief to share her experience in communion with strangers out of a deep faith in us, in art, and in the power of empathy to call us to our higher selves.
There will be laughter. There will be tears. There will be beauty. There will be grace. And there will be a story told that weaves with your story, and with stories of those around you, knitting us back together as a community, as a city, as “we, the people”. Still searching for a more perfect union. But awake to our shared humanity.
I hope to see you at the theater
David Dower, co-artistic director