Why We Need Theater Now More Than Ever

Peter Brook's The Suit, in residence at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is another reminder from the master director that theater is more capable than any other art form of inducing empathy.

In 1968 Peter Brook wrote: 

In New York, potentially, there is one of the best audiences in the world. Unfortunately, it seldom goes to the theatre. It seldom goes to the theatre because the the prices are too high. Certainly it can afford these prices, but it has been let down too often.  

Brook was 43 at the time. A visionary director of stage and screen, he was growing too “experimental” for the classical Shakespeare company in which he’d done much of his groundbreaking early work. Soon he would found the International Center for Theater Research, seeking a raw, immediate theatrical language in which to express universal human themes.  

44 years later, as Brook’s luminous production of Can Themba’s The Suit plays at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the economic situation of New York theater hasn’t much changed. Aside from Chicago, New York may be the most theatergoing town in America. Yet the small percentage of New Yorkers who ever attend a play fall mainly into two camps: the once-a-year Broadway tourists and the friends of actors, playwrights, or directors.  

Brook was right about the economics – Broadway is staggeringly expensive, off-Broadway is practically non-existent these days (due to high rents?), and the quality of work in hole-in-the-wall off-off-Broadway spaces (mostly in Brooklyn these days) is wildly uneven, making a night at the theater a gamble few are willing to take. For the cultural intelligentsia of 2013, movies like Django Unchained and epic cable shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men tend to dominate the conversation instead. 

In The Empty Space, Peter Brook’s classic quoted above, the director argues that bad (or “deadly”) theater is a powerful force for ill because when it fails, you’re there right along with it, enduring every excruciating moment with no possibility of self-distancing or escape. “When we say deadly,” Brook writes, “we never mean dead: we mean something depressingly active, yet for this reason capable of change.” 

For the same reason theater, when it works, is capable of awakening and connecting us in ways that the screen arts can’t quite manage. Brook, who is now close to 90 years old, proves this yet again with The Suit – a play about a South African wife’s infidelity that the director transforms into a playful yet powerful meditation on love, friendship, and the barely contained violence that squirms beneath the surface of our daily lives. 

The Suit is in residence at BAM, which represents a kind of third rail of New York theatergoing. BAM curates theater, dance, film, music, and children’s programming from New York and all over the world, presenting the innovative edge of the performing arts on a sliding scale. How such a venue can sustain itself in the cultural and economic climate of New York, 2013 is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, BAM is a glorious anomaly. The BAM Harvey Theater, a space renovated in 1987 specifically for Brook’s masterpiece The Mahabarata, is the only place in New York you would find a production like The Suit 

The Suit is not a sweeping, epic tale. The production doesn’t blow you away with ingenious mechanical sets or highly stylized scenes of mass slaughter. Its power lies in Brook’s unparalleled mastery of the art of playing pretend and bringing you, the audience, right along with him. The set is a collection of colorful wooden chairs and coat racks scattered at various angles. Throughout the play, these serve as bus stops, doorways, and sometimes even as chairs and coat racks. Like any great conjurer, Brooks shows you the seams and still manages to seduce you. The night I attended, the audience chuckled as the onstage band put on colorful ladies’ church hats. A moment later, they were simply three old village ladies attending a party. 

The narrative, while remarkable, says very little about the experience of seeing this play. It takes place in South Africa during apartheid, and though that country’s trauma crystallizes here and there – for example in a heartbreaking monologue delivered by the magnetic Jared McNeill about a black guitarist whose white attackers cut off his fingers, and who dies singing to them – it’s mostly about Philemon and Tilly, a young married couple. Tilly has an affair. Philemon finds out and surprises the lovers at home. The man runs out, leaving his suit behind. For the rest of the play, Philemon acts as if nothing has changed, with one exception – he demands that Tilly treat the suit as a guest in their home, at their dinner table, in their bed. 

In one of the production’s more brilliant twists, Brook pulls off the kind of theatrical trick that would be disastrous in less capable hands. Tilly and Philemon have a party. Cast members go out into the audience, spontaneously inviting three people to join them on stage (in an even more breathtaking twist, one of these was my wife, Demet). 

Why does this even work? Why is this not embarrassingly kitschy and awkward? I think it goes back to the element of danger that makes theater unique among art forms. When theater succeeds, the audience collectively enters the alternate world of the play. We become like a single organism, responsive to the slightest change in tempo or tone – childlike in our capacity for surprise and wonder. I call this dangerous because the experience temporarily strips us of everyday defenses. In this new space, anything is possible. 

Having united the audience in this way in its first half, The Suit is able to share with all of us the fun and danger of that party (spoiler alert: it ends badly), through the experience of those three volunteers. In doing so, it elevates an unusual and potentially gimmicky breach of the "fourth wall" into a profound emotional event. 

This, for me, is the message of Peter Brook’s life work, embodied in The Suit as fully as in any of his productions – that theater is more capable than any other art form of inducing empathy. In these days of instantaneous yet (I’m sorry, but it’s true) superficial interconnectedness, we’re more in need than ever of the unique experience theater can provide. 

The Suit is playing at Brooklyn Academy of Music through February 2

Follow Jason Gots (@jgots) on Twitter

What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
  • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.

First solar roadway in France turned out to be a 'total disaster'

French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.

Image source: Charly Triballeau / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • The French government initially invested in a rural solar roadway in 2016.
  • French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.
  • Solar panel "paved" roadways are proving to be inefficient and too expensive.
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Why Slavoj Zizek thinks political correctness is dumb

Zizek is on the left and dislikes political correctness. How does that work out?

Matt Carr/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Slavoj Zizek is a well-known opponent of political correctness and has often critiqued the concept.
  • He doesn't suggest anybody should go around uttering slurs for the sake of it though.
  • His stance led him to agree with Jordan Peterson at their famed debate.
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