The seats in Nashville’s Looby Theater were full Feb. 28 for “One Night of Empathy,” a powerful event created to foster discussions – instead of hate and violence – in today’s political climate.
The one-time production featured scenes from various full-length plays and musicals, like A Raisin in the Sun, Rent and Two Gentleman of Verona. Before each performance, each roughly five minutes long, there was introductory commentary about how the theme of each performance relates to the topic of empathy.
The Humanity Project, a local volunteer advocacy group, is behind the event. Daniel DeVault and Pat Patrick, actors themselves, founded it in response to the rash of national hate crimes occurring last fall.
“The night after the election in November, I went to the Public Courthouse Square to hold vigil,” Patrick said. “It was an uncertain time, and I felt compelled to do that. A young homeless man approached me and asked why I was upset. I explained, and he asked me one question: ‘What are you going to do about it?’
“I needed to be asked that question. As Daniel and I talked about the hate crimes that were unfolding in front of us, we came to understand that we both needed to be asked that.”
Patrick, who spent many years in theater administration, and DeVault, currently Production Stage Manager at Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre, both wanted to find a way to funnel their apprehensive energies into something positive, something that could make a real impact on a large scale.
“We both have backgrounds in theater, so it was only natural that we would start viewing theater (and the arts) as a catalyst for creating discussions that truly matter,” Patrick said.
One catalyst that evening was Clybourne Park, a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama (and spin-off of Raisin in the Sun), which explores racial tensions in close knit, homogenous neighborhoods. DeVault himself is directing the Clybourne Park for Circle Players, which debuts March 17 and runs through April 2.
“To use theater in this way is very apropos,” said Ethan Treutle, one of the actors in Clybourne.
Other plays included in “One Night” embraced other social justice issues highlighting an empathetic theme or moment. Topics included homophobia, economic disparity, religion, teen suicide – inspiring reactions of tears and laughter.
The production also embraced barriers to empathy.
“One of the challenges we have discussed throughout the planning process has been that empathy is a two-way street,” Patrick said. “We cannot ask someone to put on our shoes if we are unwilling to put on theirs. “
Because DeVault and Patrick recognized this, they invited Shane Morris, who gave a first person oration about being robbed for $10 at gunpoint in East Nashville, and about the empathy he felt for the man who held him up.
“Empathy doesn’t happen in a courtroom,” Morris said, “It happens in your heart.”
“The acts of empathy that resonate most with me are the silent ones,” Patrick said, “(Like) a simple hand on your shoulder in the vet’s office after a challenging visit. These acts of empathy and compassion we tend to forget. They also best show how deeply we are connected in this human experience.”
The creators of the project hoped that people would leave the event feeling empowered to have discussions of their own about empathy in their homes, at their work or on social media.
“Everyone in the Looby Theater may have a different individual response to the evening,” Patrick added, “but the fact that we all came together under one roof to explore empathy – to explore a way to heal – proves that we all have at least that much in common.”
Mayor Megan Barry, who gave introductory remarks, pointed out that (Z. Alexander) Looby himself was one of the region’s greatest civil rights activists. She supports the group's mission wholeheartedly.
"Nashville is a warm and welcoming city, a city where we cherish and celebrate differences, a place where we can see character and not just color, where we can understand the stories beyond the faces,” Barry said. “The arts are the perfect vehicle to help us all become even more empathetic because they help us to look past the literal and experience life in new and different dimensions. The more moments we have where we can understand where others are coming from, the better off we're all going to be."
Throughout Nashville, immediately following “One Night of Empathy,” is the month-long “Speaking of Empathy” series.
“There will be conversations across the city at arts performances, in libraries, through “pop-up” events, in community centers,” Patrick said. “We have created a tool kit that will help organizations and individuals facilitate these conversations.
"While The Humanity Project started as a conversation between two people, (it) belongs to everyone, and we hope everyone takes ownership.”
Photo: Pat Patrick (left) and Daniel Devault, founders of The Humanity Project. (Credit:Ashley Heeney)