Learning to Weather Our Inner Storms

Note: This week Carol Smaldino explores how the new Off-Broadway work "The Play About My Dad," by Boo Killebrew, and directed by Lee Sunday Evans exemplifies the therapeutic value of storytelling. "The Play About My Dad," runs through this Saturday, July 2, 2011 at 59E59.

At a time when we have seen many disasters, some up close, many others impersonally via the media, it is easy for us to develop what Lee Sunday Evans recently dubbed "compassion fatigue." Evans is the young director of a new play by Boo Killebrew called "The Play About My Dad," a poignant and very personal attempt to heal the larger and more private wounds of Hurricane Katrina as endured most dramatically by the people of the Gulf Coast of America.

Certainly, the sense of "compassion fatigue" is something we might all recognize given the daily media bombardment of warnings, denials of warnings, and headlines of natural and human-caused disasters on global, national, and interpersonal levels. While we all have a tendency to create barriers out of fatigue and fear, experiencing this play we are somehow able to let feelings break through.

As a members of the audience, we are stirred by a sense of being hit by the storm, in a non-manipulative way, which moves us to delve into and touch our own storms within.
Simultaneously, in the context of the play, we also witness the characters build and drop barriers created desperately to defy the warnings that seemed beyond the scope of possibility. We come to understand that many in the area, according to Evans, had become used to false "boy who cried wolf" scenarios.

Playwright Boo Killebrew wrote the play for herself, and she illustrates the amazing grace one can achieve by resolving inner struggles and divisions through the storytelling; here through the telling of several stories. In a recent conversation with Killebrew, she reveals how the initial news of Katrina was coupled by not knowing if her father was alive and questioning herself as to whether she cared. It turns out that she did care, and so, through "The Play About My Dad," she captures the tendency we all have to waste so much time in our feuds and disconnects with each other.

Killebrew models for us the experience of daring to re-connect to her father and re-live the sorrows and abandonment she endured. As such we, the audience, feel less alone and are given a context in which we can experience our own pain as we feel tossed into the storms presented stage and in turn realize our own internal ones. She wrote in grief and repair, death and survival, trauma and coping with it. All of these are the stuff that haunts us most, but too often we find too little solace in community or in the kind of company that will tolerate, much less, embrace our deeper levels of pain or fear.

Therapeutically speaking, as a society, we are in need not only of these stories, but of a more present opportunity to share our own stories. We need to better understand others, and to be understood for our own meanings, feelings and contexts in our own lives. This can only happen when we share our stories, not just as headlines on Facebook or in the media we feel consumed by comparison and the artificial standards of correctness, and where we are limited from sharing the full context of our stories; where we are actually anonymous.

My phone interview with Killebrew stimulated an emotional longing in me for the kind of closeness that she sought and risked not finding on her writing journey. She shared with me the story of a day when she sat on a porch with her dad to discuss the play. Over a beer she told him, "There's some stuff." His response was, "I figured. You gotta have drama." Real tenderness was evoked as she recounted his actually seeing the play with her. He told her he was so proud of her for being an artist, but even more importantly, he said to her, "I'm so proud that we're sitting here today, that I don't care if people see how we got here."

And this is, what it's all about. Not just for the characters in the play and the real people portrayed, but for all of us. This is the therapy.

In "The Play About My Dad," the courage to get there, and to recount the story of the estrangement between her and her father is an emotional constant. As we come into contact with the multiplicity of stories, emotions, contexts, we may be reminded of our own yearning to better connect in our own lives.

Returning to the notion of compassion fatigue, it strikes me that not only are we bombarded by emergencies that we sometimes crave in our entertainment choices, but also we are missing the coping strategies and the most basic of opportunities to share on deep levels. We are so judged and so judgmental, and we are so in competition with others and at times even internally that we are devoid of true vehicles of sharing, of comfort -- the ultimate source of consolation. Killebrew and Evans and the cast of "The Play About My Dad" created a play of tragedies mixed in with redemption. They model for us a way to break the cycle of personal disasters and teach us the power of sharing and creating alternatives so we can live through our own emergencies.

We all have an appetite for an increased honesty that might -- and can -- lead to our finding and creating vehicles for our own lives. For me, this was whetted by the play. And this understanding would need to include the learning to dwell in our own context, in our own stories, behind whatever is the larger story, how we came into it and how we -- in the most personal of ways -- are affected by it in turn.

No doubt part of my own desire to see the play again had more to do with my wish to be part of the community created through the play, the performances, through the characters and through Killebrew.