I shared during our last class that I sensed my leadership challenge was to write and speak as more of a public figure than I’d like to be. My choice was to not contribute – and I didn’t plan on doing that. My source of hope was the fact that the lives of those who gave their lives unto death to pursue truth and justice still speak today.
That being the case, when I heard about Of Gods and Men, a highly acclaimed French film about eight Trappist monks in Algeria who ultimately gave their lives to stay with their poor Muslim neighbors under threat from fundamentalist terrorists – I immediately thought to write about that for my final paper. This would be the capstone. So, in the midst of a busy week preoccupied with the usual activities, and my husband John preparing to leave for a work conference and major job interview – we somehow managed to watch it together on Wednesday evening.
With all this going on, when my colleague Bola emailed our household about a play she had a minor role in, I barely skimmed the email, thinking it unlikely we’d make the time to go and watch. But John wanted to support Bola, and so off we went Thursday night – grabbing food at the new restaurant just across the street, and smuggling it into the theater because we were running late. The play began just as we sat down.
Perhaps having no idea what The Story was about and zero expectations about the quality of the performance made it such a powerful experience for me. I know part of it was seeing our housemate and friend in such a different light – a spotlight, no less! – and imagining all the ministry she did behind the scenes, literally, with students and alumni while preparing for the show. (She had totally misled us, incidentally, and had quite a major role in the production. But this was a key part of the play’s surprising twist.) As an English literature major whose favorite classes had been about post-modernism and modern drama, I had also forgotten what it was like to be profoundly impacted by an excellent play. It captured so much of the real texture of life in our contemporary era and was simply incredible; I’ll say more about how and why soon enough.
When I got home, I immediately emailed our house, our co-workers, mutual friends, and even called my boss to tell them that they all had to see Bola’s show. I used jumbo font and all capital letters for certain words and lots of exclamation points. And then I sat and wondered why this gritty, modern play – not about sacrifice or service—but rather about the seedy underside of our noblest impulses, hit me so much harder than that beautiful foreign film about real martyrdom in the 1990s. Why did I long to re-examine and write about this experience as opposed to the other one?
My best sense is that the gritty texture and the subtle evocations of so many major issues in The Story – first captured and set down by a brilliant playwright, then enacted and embodied by others – reminded me that my life and my life’s work could speak through me and others (without necessarily having to die in the effort). And that playwriting, which I had once appreciated as a significant form of art, I might also consider again as a very powerful form of communication. In addition to setting down words in writing and in preaching, with both accuracy and potency, here was a new means for me to consider. And perhaps my life would continue to unfold before me a multiplicity of means to use to engage others with a message for them to consider.
The Story by Tracy Scott Wilson was staged at the New College Theatre, directed by Benny Sato Ambush, and described briefly by the Office for the Arts at Harvard in its promotional materials here:
“The Story takes a close look within the publishing world at the blurred lines between journalistic integrity, sensationalism, and race/class relations. Following the murder of a white Teach America volunteer, a privileged young black journalist goes over her editor’s head and uncovers a source inside the world of girl gangs that could lead to the story of the decade. It’s a violent and fast paced chase amongst competing journalists to separate fact from fabrication in the race to be the first to break the story.”
Now, a synopsis may tell the facts but do no justice to the true “work” accomplished in this play and its performance. The Story presents a narrative of 7 people whose rapid-fire dialogues and post-dialogue debriefing sessions depict the above situation, but in the context of the ever-present challenge within the black community to establish itself as equal, respectable, and trustworthy.
Tension mounts between African-Americans who have “made it” materially and professionally – and those who threaten to undermine their precarious social status with immaturity, ingratitude, and irresponsible behavior. In a brief 90 minutes, with stunning insight and pithy elegance, the play reminds the audience of the hardest things to get right in life: honesty and truth. Relational trust and unconditional love. Genuine service and fearless compassion. Academic excellence now and professional integrity later. Racial reconciliation and inter-racial relationships. Empowerment of the disadvantaged. Communities strengthening the younger generation.
Part of what I loved, as a person of faith who is in professional Christian ministry, is that The Story did not deal much with religion or faith – yet spoke the truth about our humanity. That we want to get those above things right – but sometimes we simply don’t, because we cold-bloodedly choose not to. Those core values of moral living that we generally agree upon at a societal level not only get challenged daily by broken systems or trampled upon by corrupt individuals, but cut against the fundamental personal desires we each have to only look out for ourselves.
Hillel’s three questions ask us, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? When I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” In the play, the main lead is a Harvard-educated African-American elite whose one ambition is her success as a journalist. After a horrible crime is committed in the hood, she discovers a dark world of black girl gangs – through a chance meeting with a young black girl who is responsible for the murder of a very well-intentioned, well-educated white teacher who works in her school district. It is the story of a decade, and yet, in an incredible turn of events – it is an utterly fabricated sham. The girl isn’t real, the reporter herself turns out to have built her career on false resumes and fake credentials, and her community has only judgment for her venomous selfish ambition. Their hard work in establishing good reputations as African-American journalists has been destroyed, her white boyfriend can’t believe she’s lied to him throughout their entire relationship, and the black community is left again with a pile of blame, scandal, and condemnation – without cause.
But why did this story speak to me? How does it connect to my personal challenges and our class’s view of moral leadership? Because immediately after watching it – powerful in its own right – I read the dramaturgical notes in the program, and discovered that it was based on not one, but two true stories.
The Story draws inspiration from many historical events, including the Janet Cooke scandal and the Charles Stuart murder case. In 1981, Janet Leslie Cooke of The Washington Post won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in recognition of a piece on an eight-year-old heroin addict in Washington DC. The piece, entitled “Jimmy’s World,” elicited such concern from city officials that they began to comb the streets for the child. Cooke refused to reveal his location in order to protect her sources and herself from angered drug dealers. In response to mounting pressure regarding the veracity of both her story and purported academic background, Cooke admitted to fabricating Jimmy’s existence and her resume. Having both ruined her journalistic career and disgraced The Washington Post, she quickly returned the Pulitzer Prize. (emphasis mine)
For the sake of focus in this paper, I won’t detail the second appalling true story. It’s enough to say that in both situations, frail humans by their actions responded to Hillel’s first question with fear and self-oriented duplicity. In other words: “If I am not for myself, no one will be for me, and so I must cheat in order to succeed.” In response, others in their community responded to them and Hillel’s second question with “When [you] are only for [yourself], you disgrace us, your community.” But it is to Hillel’s third question regarding action that I would like to turn.
“If not now, when?” asks Hillel’s third question, and the redemptive action that was so necessary after such grave error finally came in the real story, when Cooke confessed the whole truth and returned the Pulitzer Prize. At the end of the play, it isn’t clear whether the main lead will come clean or continue to weave a web of lies, even before the police, and this is what makes the play so powerfully tragic at its conclusion: it leaves the audience heavy-hearted and saddened at human stubbornness and selfishness.
For me, I have to confess that the temptation will always be there to grab the bull by the horns and take power and control into my own hands – in what may masquerade as noble virtue and community-centered service. And I may hurt my community in so doing.
With all the possible transitions before John and myself, my human heart can’t help but fear that if no one is for me, including God, John, and my employers, no one will take care of me, and I must fiercely assert my needs and make demands to get my way. But my sense is that Hillel’s first question actually calls forth a healthy self, undergirded by a framework in which God is loving and real. And each individual being he has made is cared for by him, and imbued by the Creator with agency and free will to live for good, and given the choice whether or not to believe that and whether or not to live as though that is true. Will I, unlike the main lead, believe that I can be for myself in doing rightly? Will I believe that I can exercise moral leadership in my own life and still succeed? This is my first hope. May I not cut corners, con the system, or ask for exceptions in order to advance in my career.
Secondly, Hillel’s second question about Other and about community, as it came through in The Story, struck such a chord in me. When the main lead was only for herself, her whole community – in this case, the broader black community within American society – suffered.
As a Chinese-American woman married to a Caucasian American, we’ve often been surprised at how much of our relationship has deepened through our shared affection for black history and life. Our first three dates all centered around black culture in the United States: “Banished,” a documentary about post-Reconstruction de facto segregation and expulsion, “Stomp the Yard,” a movie about street dancing at a historically black college, and a campus Martin Luther King Jr. Day interfaith service. We met at a multi-ethnic church with a significant black contingent, and we got married at a black African Methodist Episcopal church in Central Square.
So for me, watching this show out of friendship to Bola, our Nigerian-American housemate, colleague, and friend – together and at the initiative of my husband John – reminded me in an unexpected way about this past thread of connection between us. And made me wonder at the new community God might raise up around us.
As we’re considering a big move away or remaining in Boston, our value on community has been discussed over and over. We love our community in Boston, which we have helped to nurture, and which we’ve invested a great deal in. They’re sorry to see us potentially leave, and our hearts are torn about possibly leaving, knowing how hard it is to start over and build real friendships in a new place. But I know God will provide for them if he sends us elsewhere, and he may be distancing all of us for larger purposes we do not yet know. And I wonder at the possibility of moving to Washington DC and potentially living in neighborhoods that are predominantly African-American. We’ve always loved the unexpected bond we’ve shared with our close black friends; might God have more in store for us up ahead? So when I hear the question, “when I am only for myself, what am I?” I am not very worried. I know John and I both err on the side of loving our communities better and more than we love ourselves. I know that we’ll continue to make decisions that genuinely bless our community – past, present, and future.
Finally, Hillel’s third question, “If not now, when?” raises the question of timing for me. I recently applied for a sabbatical from my work, which seemed to make sense given the natural transitions in store for this summer and my changing work interests. If my brief account of last week’s amount of activity is any small window into our lives, John and I are often stretched thin with loving our communities, getting by in the day-to-day, and trying to meet our individual needs – such that we don’t often get the rest we need. I found out today that my sabbatical application has been rejected, and even if I were to apply in a few years, it may still not be approved.
All this makes me realize that I must live today the way I really want to. I may not ever have loads of undisturbed quiet time and space to write creatively, think reflectively, and pray to God as long as I would like. I cannot keep deferring until later those deep longings and desires of my heart. I hoped a sabbatical would help me change some ministry and life patterns. But I can’t wait for that.
In closing, I’m so grateful for the unexpected gift of The Story and getting to reflect on it intentionally for this paper. It is my deep gladness to be married to a man whose consistent love for God, others, and me opens our life together to new experiences and adventures. It is my enduring hope that I will live my life with integrity and courage, and steward all of the gifts God has given me for nothing less than his glory and the strengthening of humanity.
May 6, 2011