Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Walseth is a scholar, (with a PhD in Theatre Historiography), an educator, an actor, a stage manager, a director, and a writer. In the run up to the 2016 presidential election, she observed the deep level of discord around our nation among factions: political, racial, generational, geographic, socio-economic, religiousit seemed every conceivable camp a person could fall into. She conceived of The Empathy Project to learn what it takes for people to reach across those trenches that set us apart and begin to understand one another, hoping that from there some common ground might appear. She zeroed in on empathy, wondering if that traitwhether inherent or learnedwas the key to positive movement.
The Empathy Project employs nine actors, several taking multiple roles, to present the responses of fourteen of Walseth's interview subjects by sharing their life histories, pivotal moments in their lives, their fears, frustrations and hopes. These individuals come from cities, suburbs, and rural areas far removed from urban life. Among them are a Native American woman, a Latinx woman, a Black police officer working in a mostly white suburb, the daughter of Liberian immigrants, a Japanese American man, and people whose ancestors hailed from European nations. They are a range of ages, with a wide range of jobs and differing degrees of education. All of them knew something about empathy, whether or not they had thought about the word itself before talking with Walseth.
Walseth constructed her play around the order of her questions. Each interview subject is introduced in a voiceover, and subsequently the focus shifts from one character to another, so that one's statements often reenforce or build upon what the last speaker said. Occasionally the interviewees reenact an interaction with others that seemed risky and wound up opening some understanding, however slight, between people from different worlds.
These brief vignettes are the most effective moments in the play. We see the give and take that allows a connection, the recognition by both parties that they may have misjudged the other, and the possibility of moving beyond discord. Even if that possibility does not yet yield results, as long as there is possibility there is hope. No one changes another's mind. What they do is to allow for one another's humanity, in spite of their differences, and we see what a major breakthrough that can be.
The most powerful is an interaction between a Black police officer who served in a mostly white suburb reaching out to a suicidal Black boy. Yes, both are Black, but the boy, cowled in a hoodie, sees himself as a victim and the cop as an arm of white authority, even if he is Black. A dramatic hospital scene between a frightened patient and an indifferent nurse, and a tense conversation a Black actor from the Twin Cities has with camo-garbed hunter and bartender at a tavern in the north woods also both leave strong impressions.
The nine actors on stage work hard to create real persons, knit together from snatches of dialogue presented over the ninety minute course of the play. Those who portray only one character have an advantage, and their work shines. Dominique Jones is crushing as the police officer who demonstrates the tremendous restraint and faith required to preserve in order to straddle a very volatile divide. Song Kim is striking as the son of a Japanese-American victim of the internments during World War II. Oogie_Push beautifully portrays a Native woman who treats her position as an outsider in a land that had been the domain of her ancestors as a mystery to unravel.
Conflicted feelings of a woman whose parents left their Liberian homeland behind are made tangible in Siddeeqah Shabazz's nuanced performance. Joshua C. Larson conveys both sides of the coin as a man raised by a self-reliant farmer, a strong work ethic drummed into him, who nurses low-grade rage against people who, as he sees it, sit back and let the government just hand everything out to them. Shanan Custer, Kim Vasquez, Peter Colburn and Marci Lucht all do fine work in multiple roles, but their characters are never as clearly formed as they ferry back and forth between them.
Claribel Gross directs this work on stageit was presented on a virtual platform a year agoand her hand surely has a role in shaping the interviews from straight monologues into a dramatic structure. The transitions between speakers are often accompanied by the cast moving across the stage, each time establishing new positions in relation to one another. These striking movements, which often appear as an angular modern dance (Mary Harding is credited as movement director), not only provide visual interest, but create different spaces for each character to inhabit on the single set.
That set, designed by Mina Kinukawa, is modeled on the oversized "Welcome to Minnesota" signs, a relief sculpture in the shape of the state that anyone entering Minnesota on an interstate highway has seen. The map is folded on an east-west axis, half on the rear wall of the stage, half on the floor so that the interviewees seem to be immersed in the context their state createscultural, political, social, economic and historical contexts that have contributed to the divides among them. Tom Mays' evocative lighting design and incidental music composed by Paul Damico-Carper add nuance and dramatic emphasis to the production.
At one point in The Empathy Project the characters respond to the question posed by their interviewer: what is empathy? All have a different answer. One, based on an academic deep dive into the etiology of the word, is least usefulactually laughable. It becomes clear that harping over a singular definition of empathy is less important than applying it, however defined, to our lives.
Walseth's play has the feel of a well-crafted training aimed at fostering increased sensitivity and/or cultural awareness and/or self-awareness and/or communication without judgementwhich, together, would be a pretty good recipe for empathy. While it surges with dramatic energy, The Empathy Project is not a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The changes that occur are small, too small by themselves to shake the world of these individuals, but we are made to understand that with enough of these small changes the world will change.
The Empathy Project, a Full Circle Theatre production, runs through November 21, 2021, at Park Square Theatre, Boss Thrust Stage, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $30.00; $25.00 tickets for seniors (62+); $20.00 tickets for military personnel with code MIL; $16.00 tickets for students (with ID) and educators; and $21.00 tickets for 30 and under with code 30U. For tickets go to fullcircletheatermn.org.
Playwright: Stephanie Lein Walseth; Director: Claribel Gross; Scenic Design: Mina Kinukawa; Lighting Design: Tom Mays; Associate Lighting Designer: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Quinci Bachman; Movement Director: Mary Harding; Composer: Paul Damico-Carper; Costumer: Khamphian Vang; Technical Director: Bill Sather; Stage Manager: Anna Pladson; Assistant Stage Manager: Keara Lavandowksa.
Cast: Peter Colburn (Bob, Richard), Shannan Custer (Ingrid, Kathleen), Dominique Jones (Michael), Song Kim (Robert), Joshua C. Larson (Jason), Marci Lucht (Andrea, Rachel), Oogie_Push (Barbara), Siddeeqah Shabazz (Hope), Kim Vazquez (Louisa, Jessica, Ann).