“Unmasking Empathy” explores perceptions of diversity

Devyn Hebert ’17, Gideon Hess ’16 and Claire Bergey ’17 acted in the play, which posed questions about our capacity for empathy. Jerry Li/Photo Editor.
Devyn Hebert ’17, Gideon Hess ’16 and Claire Bergey ’17 acted in the play, which posed questions about our capacity for empathy. Jerry Li/Photo Editor.

Among the more unorthodox events I attended during Claiming Williams day was “Unmasking Empathy: A Staged Reading of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Play We are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South-West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika Between the Years 1884-1915.” The event was so overwhelmingly popular that students arriving to the ’62 Center to see the performance were turned away at the door. Not a single seat remained empty.

As she introduced the performers, director Amy Holzapfel, associate professor of theater, described how the idea for the event came from eager students in her fall “Introduction to Theater” class. The event’s final cast was composed of Scott Lipman ’18, Justin Jones ’16, Kimberly Golding ’16, Gideon Hess ’16, Devyn Hebert ’17, Venson Williams ’16 and Claire Bergey ’17.

The award-winning play is set in a rehearsal room where six actors, titled simply Actors 1-6, stumble their way through the task of accurately portraying the story of the Herero, a people in what is now Namibia who were targeted in a German-led genocide in the early 20th century.

Throughout the play, the well-meaning group of actors struggles to understand the events from the frame of reference of their characters – that is, they struggle to empathize. Initially, their antics, the use of stereotypical German accents and rampant misconceptions about the “country” of Africa elicit laughter from the audience. This laughter dies down to nervous tittering and, ultimately, uncomfortable silence as the offenses become increasingly vicious and physical.

On the surface, the play raises questions as to the extent to which it is possible to accurately portray human history. For the most part, despite what the rather lengthy title would suggest, the play does not capture the plight of the Herero. Apart from some online research, the actors fail to find sufficient information to provide insight into the Herero experience. As a result, they initially focus on the letters written by German soldiers and use their personal experiences to fill in the blanks. Such is the case when Actor 2, an African American who plays Black Man, claims he is better suited than the Caucasian actor playing White Man to portray the Herero because he doesn’t “need to go to Africa to know what it’s like to be black.” The attempts of the Actors througout the story to empathize with their characters by drawing from their personal experiences cast a shadow on the idea of putting yourself in somebody’s else’s shoes. This is made explicit by my favorite monologue, expertly delivered by Hess, playing Actor 3 playing Another White Man:

“You can’t take no walk in somebody else’s shoes and / know anything. … Now you can borrow somebody else’s shoes and / guess what? / They ain’t your shoes.”

The actors’ lack of nuanced understanding of the historical and social context within which their characters existed is reflected by their choice of titles for the characters. Black Man, Black Woman and Another Black Man represent the native dwellers of Namibia, White Man and Another White Man represent the German soldiers and Sarah represents the beloved recipient of letters written by the German soldiers.

The emphasis on the characters’ roles as abstract representations, generalizing across entire peoples and experiences, provides insight into the challenges of understanding and portraying history through art as well as in general. Undeniably, it is far easier to comprehend a situation once we have simplified it such that it aligns with our existing schema, but such generalizing approaches impede our capacity for empathy in two ways, as the students’ performance demonstrated.

Firstly, it is impossible to empathize through abstraction, because an abstraction is by definition removed from the particular subject of empathy. Finding our commonalities as human beings is important, but so is our responsibility to acknowledge and respect the complex diversity of our experiences.

Secondly, by making generalization across a group of people we remove their individual humanity. Taken to the extreme, the play demonstrates how this form of ignorance can lead to mass acts of inhumane cruelty. Yet on a smaller scale, we do this daily, when we laugh at offhand comments we know to be offensive, or worse, completely ignore them.

Ideally, empathy allows us to attach meaning to others’ experiences, but the play provokes certain questions: Can we truly understand that which we haven’t experienced? Is true empathy possible, or is it a socially constructed performance that allows us to feel closer to each other and better about our own humanity? In other words, if empathy is just an act, then why is it so important?

One line spoken between the actors stands out, neatly summarizing the doubts with which the audience grappled:

“Have you gone crazy? You can’t be somebody when you’re already somebody.”