Sunday, January 17, 2016

Hope in the Absence of a Happy Ending

"Where is the hope in the story?" my step-dad asked at the talk after a Tuesday night performance of Ayad Akhtar’s play, Disgraced. Unlike most popular dramas, Disgraced doesn't give us a clean lyrical moral to sticky-note on our mirrors. Instead, one of the most memorable quotes from the play is when the Muslim lawyer Amir, who rejected his religious roots to advance his career, admits he felt a sense of pride on 9/11. A black woman participating in the talk-back after the show affirmed that these conversations amongst minority groups happened after 9/11––the sense of pride that the culturally oppressed finally found a way to "punch back" at those who had tried to impose their cultural values on them. That's not a quote I would put on my mirror.

But it's honest––frighteningly honest. It's a statement that might be held only in a living room, where the entire play is set. What starts out as a celebratory dinner for Amir's white American wife, Emily, in recognition of her Islamic-inspired art (including a portrait of Amir), soon turns uncomfortably political, religious, and personal. The guest list at the dinner party is religiously and ethnically diverse, between Amir (an ex-Muslim), Emily (a white American), Amir's colleague Jory (an African-American), and her husband Isaac (a Jewish art dealer promoting Emily's work). With the help of too much booze, the realistic New York apartment setting transforms into a room of mirrors, as every character's inner prejudices, bottled resentment, and naivety is reflected before their eyes. What they find is a distorted form of the put-together individuals they try to portray.

Despite all this, the play uniquely makes no apologies for its bluntness. Shakespeare's Hamlet explains that actors must hold "a mirror up to nature" (III.ii). This often distorts how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. Disgraced rejoices in the theatre's ability to hold a "mirror up to nature."

The absence of apology and obsession with "political correctness" is the hope in this unsettling play. There's hope in the honesty of the script and the five actors who are brave enough to embody these discussions. There's hope in the talk-back sessions after the show, where audiences have a public forum to discuss the issues raised in the play. I find hope in the black woman who was brave enough at that talk-back session to affirm the reality of Amir's pride in 9/11. There's hope in the high school attendees in the back corner of the theatre. There's hope in the shared silence and stillness of the audience, and in the standing ovation at the end. I find hope in the support of and engagement in this cross-cultural discussion.

Brené Brown, a writer and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, writes about the importance of conversation in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection.

Most everyone reading this book knows how to eat healthy. I can tell you the Weight Watchers points for every food in the grocery store. I can recite the South Beach Phase I grocery shopping list and the glycemic index like they're the Pledge of Allegiance. We know how to eat healthy.

We also know how to make good choices with our money. We know how to take care of our emotional needs. We know all of this, yet...

We are the most obese, medicated, addicted, and in-debt Americans EVER.

Why? We have more access to information, more books, and more good science––why are we struggling like never before?

Because we don't talk about the things that get in the way of doing what we know is best for us, our children, our families, our organizations, and our communities. (36-37)

We know the only way to achieve coexistence and communicate across cultural borders is by practicing tolerance, immersing ourselves in diverse communities, and being open-minded to self-reflection and change. To quote Brown, "We know all of this, yet..." (36)

Our Congress’ parties can’t come to a consensus about gun control in the United States, even in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook and San Bernardino shootings. American citizens vote for the familiar and therefore “electable” candidate, rather than the one who presents something new. A woman like black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde writes an essay titled, Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference, explaining how “white women have such difficulty reading Black women’s work…because of their reluctance to see Black women as women and different from themselves.”

Why? "Because we don't talk about the things that get in the way" (Brown 37). We don't talk about our universal fear of a way of life different from the one we already know.

Jonathan Lear, a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, explores this universal fear in his book, Radical Hope. Following the story of the devastation of the Crow Native American tribe through the eyes of Plenty Coups, “the last great chief of the Crow nation” (Lear 1), Lear explains how Plenty Coups was able to courageously lead his people in abandoning an old way of life to make room for a new one. Plenty Coups’s courage, Lear argues, comes from his radical hope, a hope that allows the Crow to identify their anxiety over an uncertain future.

Lear writes, “Humans are by nature cultural animals: we necessarily inhabit a way of life that is expressed in a culture. But our way of life––whatever that is––is vulnerable in various ways. And we, as participants in that way of life, thereby inherit a vulnerability. Should that way of life break down, that is our problem” (6). This universal vulnerability is perhaps why so many individuals and groups cling to their cultural ideals; they’re ways of making meaning in an inherently uncertain world.

The Crow culture is grounded on the virtue of courage. Aristotle defines virtues as states of character that, if practiced, will lead to an excellent life (Lear 108). At its core, courage is “living well with the risks that inevitably attend human existence” (Lear 121). The changing nature of human existence therefore requires courage to be flexible (Lear 83). However, most of us have what Lear calls a “thick” definition of the virtues––definitions compiled based on our culture (Lear 59). For the Crow, they defined courage based on their performance in battle. Since virtues are a conscious practice, everything in the Crow way of life revolved around preparation for battle. They lived their lives in confidence of what it meant to succeed and fail in their world. “This is what came under pressure” when the whites began to take over––the possibilities they had counted on as remaining stable (that they would either succeed or fail in battle), were no longer applicable (Lear 26). Thus, they were forced to reevaluate what was and wasn’t courageous. Referring back to Lear’s assertion that “[h]umans are by nature cultural animals,” this reevaluation essentially worked against their inherent nature as humans, thus spurring anxiety.

Lear proposes that our anxiety about this universal vulnerability is our inability to name it (7). Anxiety is inherently unnamable, because it’s grounded in what we cannot understand (Lear 76). Lear suggests that “if we could give a name to our shared sense of vulnerability, we could [perhaps] find better ways to live with it” (7). The power of radical hope is its ability to identify this anxiety, and thus redirect it toward progressive action. The radical hope manifested in a dream Plenty Coups has about a Chickadee allows him to abandon his thick definition of courage and adapt it to the new reality of the time. Courage, now, isn’t defined by the warrior who performs nobly in battle, but by the Chickadee-person who practices his ability to listen and learn from others. For the Crow, this means learning the ways of the whites.

Radical hope is important because it allows the Crow to hold onto the core foundation of their culture: courage. However, Plenty Coups has to have hope that there is a future with a different definition of courage, a future which he cannot yet see and doesn’t yet know how to navigate. Plenty Coups is courageous in his willingness to sit with the uncertainty.

Brown writes that, like most people, she “always thought of hope as an emotion––like a warm feeling of optimism and possibility.” Her research revealed “hope is not an emotion; it’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process” (65). She cites the work of C.R. Snyder, who used to research at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. “Hope is learned!” Brown exclaims.

Snyder suggests that we learn hopeful, goal-directed thinking in the context of other people. Children most often learn hope from their parents. Snyder says that to learn hopefulness, children need relationships that are characterized by boundaries, consistency, and support. I think it’s so empowering to know that I have the ability to teach my children how to hope. It’s not a crapshoot. It’s a conscious choice. (66)

Plenty Coups’ radical hope was a conscious choice to sit with uncertainty. Disgrace manifests radical hope in its candid script and unsettling ending. Perhaps what was missing from Disgraced wasn’t hope, but comfort. One woman in the talk-back session suggested that maybe Amir would go on to explore his double-consciousness and become a better person. She was writing the comforting ending she was deprived of. But Disgraced isn’t Beauty and the Beast, where Belle finds the man within the beast. As Amir confronts Emily’s portrait of him at the end of the play, the lights go out with his back turned to the audience. We don’t get even a hint at Amir’s inner feelings, or a glimmer of comfort from a possible transformation. We’re left to wrestle in the dark room of mirrors.

The standing ovation at the end of the play was another manifestation of hope in the Boston University Theatre on Tuesday night. Maybe some of them just stood to follow the crowd, but I would like to believe that many of them stood to recognize the conversation that was had onstage. Maybe some audience members were forced to go to the show, like some of the high school students. Maybe some of the heavy silence was because people were asleep. I would also like to believe, though, that most of the audience members consciously chose to spend their Tuesday night immersed in the cross-cultural discussion Disgraced brought forth, and that most of them actively engaged and listened. I would like to believe they practiced the courage of the “Chickadee-person,” and had the radical hope to look at their vulnerable selves in the room of mirrors.

“Disgraced” runs from January 8-February 7th at the BU Theatre on 264 Huntington Avenue in Boston, MA. Discount tickets are available. Go to for more information.

No comments: