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Theater the Ineffable

By MINGHAO XU


“BELIZE: If anyone who was suffering in the body or the spirit, walked through the waters of the fountain of Bethesda, they would be healed, washed clean of pain.

HANNAH: Right. The fountain of Bethesda will flow again. And I told him I would personally take him there to bathe. We will all bathe ourselves clean.”

Tony Kushner, Angels in America Part II: Perestroika


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Words fail.


Whenever I see a play, I can’t help but feel the urge to write something about it. Be it a general comment on the production and elements of it, or rumination on themes and ideas that the play touches, there is always this spontaneity for “joining the conversation” or “being part of the story.” Little by little, I’ve also grown accustomed to flaunting my saggy bag of SAT words. “Blisteringly valiant!” “Incandescent and scintillating!” The form calls for it, I reckon. It is as if I’ve mastered the art of writing for pull quotes you would find on mailers of upcoming productions. Yet, more often than not, there are feelings for which I can’t find words or have no clue where I can begin to describe. Even the almighty Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary can’t give me a hint. Gradually, I find myself being led to the word “ineffable.” “Ineffably beautiful,” “ineffably moving,” “ineffably brilliant” and so forth. It paints a picture of the initial reaction but acknowledge how abstruse the inner workings are.  


Lazy writer, I know. Still, I can’t help but marvel at the ineffable beauty of “ineffable.” By definition, it describes something too great, too powerful, too beautiful to be described. In a sense, it is a literal symbol trying to decipher the indecipherable, beat the unbeatable. Yet like Sisyphus, who pushed the rock unabated every time it rolled down, the word never surrenders. It refuses to give in to the impossibility of the task.


Trying to search for the answer to what makes me once and again go back to the theater as if it’s a daily pilgrimage is indeed a Sisyphean task. The searching always leads me to the five or ten minutes when, after the performers took their bow and the curtain dropped, I stand alone in front of the theater, discomposed or amazed with a heady mixture of jumbled thoughts and feelings occupying my consciousness, not ready to return to reality. I tried to see it through Aristotle’s eyes. Although it focuses on tragedies, in his notion of catharsis, the play first arouses emotions and then cleanses them, from which one’s soul is uplifted.


By definition, it describes something too great, too powerful, too beautiful to be described.

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Yet I feel there’s something more profound than emotions. Many times I feel my life is forever changed by my theater-going experience. I saw the final performance of the recent Broadway revival of The Color Purple before I departed for Ghana, setting my foot on the African continent for the first time. I was, and still am, haunted by the show. This one line touched my soul--“it’s like black seeing black for the first time.” There’s something so pure, so honest about our humanity in these simple words. It might be the storytelling, the stagecraft, the live performance, or the dedication from the stage and the audience, but I had a religious experience that day, an experience that continues to inspire me to be faithful and true to myself and people around me.


Of course, going to the theater is a financial and time-consuming investment, but I’ve come to realize that it demands a lot more from the audience than just money and a few hours. I once waited in the cancellation line from 8 in the morning till late afternoon on a freezing New York winter day in hopes to get a ticket to Hamilton (Spoiler: I failed). I also remember this one time after a late class in which I had only 20 minutes to go all the way from the campus to a theater in Shibuya. I hopped on the train, blazed my way through the rush hour subway crowd, and ran from the station to the theater as if my life depended on it. The joy of finally having my butt on the cushioned seat was truly ineffable. It is magical to make it to the room where it happens. It is magical to be in the room where it happens. And then it happens.


What is “it”? Is it a brilliant vision through a multitude of discussions, trials and errors, and ultimately sacrifices finally being realized on stage? Is it performers living their dreams by pouring their hearts and souls out eight times a week? Is it backstage staff working indefatigably with attention to every detail so the show runs smoothly like a well-oiled machine? Is it people from every imaginable background coming together sharing the same journey as an audience? Or perhaps, is it all of the above?


This is a community. Whatever your role is, you make it happen. Everyone is bonded by sharing the human experience in one way or another. The interaction is often without words; sometimes just a smile. Yet it is resounding and powerful. One of the plays I always go back to is Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by Tony Kushner. The play consists of two parts, spanning nearly 7 hours in total. I saw it on a two-part day. The first part started at 1 pm, and when the second part ended it was already approaching 11. There was a lady in her forties sitting next to me. She was also seeing both parts. When the curtain closed and people were ready to go, our eyes met. We both smiled. Even if we might never meet again, we both know that someone was there for you and went through the journey together. We don’t need words for our appreciation; the smile says everything already.


This is a community. Whatever your role is, you make it happen.

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We are social animals. We yearn for the real connections. As Kushner puts it, “the smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction.” In the theater, we build a community. Through the community we confront the naked humanity together, pain together, heal together, and eventually grow together. The community is like the fountain of Bethesda, we bring people we love and bathe us all clean. Our spirits rise.


And that’s something truly ineffable.


As Kushner puts it, “the smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction.” In the theater, we build a community.