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What Happens When a Show Hits Too Close to Home?

By: Juan Michael Porter II
Date: Sep 25, 2019
Broadway

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A theatre lover has an unexpected catharsis in the dark

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Someone in the audience was crying -- loudly. While I appreciated his attempts to muffle his hysterical sobs, what I really wanted was for him to vanish. The way the protagonist was reacting to his father's death was upsetting enough, especially for anyone who'd lost a dad like I just did. But then the man started bawling, so I took my hand and covered his mouth, suddenly aware that the person crying was me.

Watching Cody Daigle's A Home Across the Ocean, I felt as if I'd been sucker punched in the face. It was uncanny how much the play's story mirrored my own. I was adopted as a teenager, I am black and gay, my father had recently died and, like the son in the play, I wanted to rage at the world for daring to move past my tragic loss. Fascinatingly, what hurt me most was the fact that the son leaned in to his mourning -- something I had denied myself.

During the post-show talkback, I didn't even try to pretend that I was fine. I screamed at the production team for putting my personal trauma on stage and for forcing me to relive the anguish of my Papa Alex's passing. After I finished my rant, the director thanked me for communing with them. One of the actors told me that I was the person they were hoping to reach -- someone who did not realize that it was okay to process grief, however it manifested. I was confused… until I remembered my experience watching 33 Variations.

Every year I participate in New York's ALS Walk to honor the memory of my friend Em's maternal grandmother. Her entire family comes up from Texas to participate, and we all marvel that -- even after death -- Nana brings so many people together. After the 2009 walk, Em and I treated ourselves to tickets to see 33 Variations, which marked Jane Fonda's return to Broadway after a 46-year absence. Everything was golden until the closing scene of Act I, when Fonda's character went through an agonizingly detailed medical scan for ALS. As the curtain came down for intermission, I turned to my friend with tears in my eyes, begging for her forgiveness. Laughing through her own waterworks, she squawked, "I'm just glad we didn't invite my mom!"

Sitting through the remainder of the play, I watched my friend relive her grandmother's decline. It was a powerful experience that reminded me how cathartic theatre can be. In recognizing a pain similar to our own, we are able to let go of what ails us and heal. My friend Em felt guilty because she wanted Nana to die so that her pain and struggle would end. Watching 33 Variations, Em realized that it was her Nana's choice to hold on, and that she did so with no regrets.

My own catharsis was slightly crazier. I had refused to cry over my Papa Alex's passing because I told myself, "If you don't mourn him, then he isn't really dead." I did not want to deal with facing the loss of the man who told me, "There is nothing you can do to make me stop loving you." My birth father never offered me that kind of unconditional love, and yet Papa Alex, who already had a family of his own, took the time to show me that he thought I was awesome, regardless of how unworthy I felt.

During that talkback for A Home Across the Ocean, I finally accepted that it was okay to grieve over Papa Alex. He was dead, but the nurturing and affection he had bestowed upon me would never disappear. In a perverse sense, the agony I felt in watching that play was proportionate to the love I felt for him. Now, whenever I get emotional at the theatre, it feels like my Papa Alex -- a burly Mexican former gangbanger who wept while watching West Side Story and Light In the Piazza without a tinge of shame -- continues to live through me. The proof is in the tears he showed me how to cry.

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A dancer, teacher and playwright, Juan Michael Porter II has contributed articles to Ballet Review, The Dance Enthusiast, Time Out New York, Broadway World and HuffPost. Follow him at @juanmichaelii. Follow TDF at @ TDFNYC.

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Juan Michael Porter II