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Muslim Girl Plays Anne Frank:  Empathy, Ephemerality, and the Usefulness of Making Strange

I can’t act. Strangely enough, however, my high school drama teacher once asked me to play Anne Frank. It wasn’t a big production, of course, but my scenes happened on a real stage in front of a live audience who must have wondered how this hijabi couldn’t-be-further-from-being-an-Anne-Frank-lookalike was chosen for the role. But I stood up on that stage, feeling more than a bit strange under the blindingly harsh spotlight that I thought must have been like the only light in a secret attic in Nazi Germany decades ago. I pushed past that strangeness and, to my mind, delivered the lines from a young girl’s diary so awkwardly that I shudder to remember it - one of those “most embarrassing moments” of one’s life story.

Needless to say, this isn’t a *feel good* article about how I, by playing the role of Anne Frank, was able to empathize with her plight. It doesn’t contain a moral about how the audience, by seeing a Muslim girl in the role of a Jewish one, could glean a great message of love during times of hate. Rather, this is an article in which I want to push up against the problem of empathy. And it is one in which I want to problematize the very notion of morals - the kind that don’t really promote tangible change or do more than have a passing effect on those who harbour them.

Reading Goldstein’s Teaching and Learning in a Multilingual School: Choices, Risks, and Dilemmas (2003) prompted reflection on my strange moment under a spotlight. In it, Goldstein disseminates her data after a 4 year long ethnographic study of a Canadian high school with an influx of students from Hong Kong. Goldstein’s methodology was particularly interesting and innovative in that she incorporates a play she wrote (and which some of the students performed) called Hong Kong, Canada. The play is a means to work through some of the dilemmas she found to be at the core of the linguistic and social tensions at the school. Goldstein hopes to offer an anti-racist approach for educators and students as they work towards negotiating those tensions. She offers suggestions on how to use the play in practice - so, for instance, she states that educators may ask students for personal reflections on the play. She states:

Performers and spectators are not merely observers of the dilemmas in the story, they become participants. It is possible to use the power of our emotional responses to a play Jeff locked on what we have taken away or learned from it. After the first reading or performance individually respond to any of the following questions that appeal to you. What provoked a strong emotional response for you? What made you angry? What made you sad? What made you feel bad? What was satisfying? What was not? (Goldstein 2007, pg.39)

While the value of personal reflection cannot be underestimated, I still wonder to what extent artistic endeavors *do* work towards meaningful collective change. How does empathy change unequitable circumstances? Would empathizing with the dilemmas of students/teachers in Hong Kong, Canada result in meaningful change towards solving the inequities? Does empathy for the tragedy of Anne Frank prevent people from allowing children to continue to suffer during wars? Much of the reading I’ve been doing recently seems to suggest that the there is a big problem with the very notion of empathy. In “Stealing the Pain of Others: Reflections on Canadian Humanitarian Responses” (2007), Sherene Razack argues that empathy is a slippery slope - one in which the suffering of others becomes sources of “moral authority and pleasure, obscuring in the process our own participation in the violence that is done to them” (pg.376). Drawing on Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in 19th Century America (1997), Razack shows how empathy or the attempt to “feel” an Other’s pain ourselves can help us exist in place of the Other (and we feel morally “good” about this) so that we become central in the move and don’t question our actual role in contributing to the Other’s pain. Our privilege, therefore, contends Razack, is “obscured” and our inability to actually realize that we have objectified the body of the suffering Other aligns us with s/he who has caused their suffering in the first place.

Additionally, in the same vein, I’ve been reading Sandra Sontag’s On Photography (1977) and though it is specific to its title genre, many of the questions she raises were in my mind when I thought about the medium of plays and stage productions. She writes:

Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no. Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph.

Sontag’s musings have been cited in relation to the “anesthetizing” of war photography. See, here for instance. It begs the question of how much the feeling sorry for something terrible that is happening goes to engender feelings of outrage and the need to “do something” about that something terrible that is happening. Do we feel that because we’ve acknowledged the image, witnessed its pain, demonstrated some horror or anger, that is enough? Do we feel that simply having the mental capacity for imagining ourselves with the ability to “climb into [a person’s] skin and walk around in it” (to quote Atticus Finch who may or may not have been a racist?) is enough? The continuing horrors and public outrage demonstrated by the #BlacklivesMatter movement suggests to me that outrage, much like governmental responses to that outrage, has an ephemeral quality. So, too, I think does drama. Indeed, I think I learned the very word “ephemeral” through an introductory course in drama. Here’s the OED definition of the word and scrolling down the page, one gets the impression that when tied to the idea of empathy, we can see the harmfulness of it. Empathy in relation to ephemerality might even be considered a short-term disease.

And if we write, perform, produce, act in plays with the hope that they will work towards inclusivity and social justice - that they will show us how harmful our realities are - can we be sure that they will also produce a cure? Or are our plays and photographs a temporary balm on something that requires much more? I don’t have the answers but in thinking about my own experience playing Anne Frank, I am reminded of the theatre of Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956). Brecht was the German Marxist dramatist who very much disliked realist plays - and his Epic theatre form was one in which he argued that plays should “estrange” (the German is “verfremdungseffekt” and is sometimes translated as alienation effect or distancing effect) and should not allow the audience to emotionally connect with those on stage. Aristotelian style catharsis, Brecht thought, would make audiences complacent; indeed, he desired that his audiences should adopt a more inherent strangeness in order to allow for audience critique and the realization that the stage was only a representation of reality. He desired that his plays force audience participation outside of the theatre and employed methods which underscored the constructs of the play. So, for instance, he’d get the actors to break with the play and address the spectators (Brecht didn’t want to call them audience members) - sometimes, mid performance, the actors would take breaks even. He’d employ placards to show more information or music that would neutralize emotion (rather than what’s used today to intensify it). For more information on Brechtian drama, here’s a succinct resource. The intention with Brechtian drama is to highlight the constructed nature of theatre events - perhaps to remind those spectators that their reality was also constructed. Their critical gaze and ability to recognize this might mean that they could also construct better realities in their real world situations. Maybe in Brechtian theatre theory there rests some sort of pathway to dealing with the ephemerality of empathy.

I think back to the harsh spotlight of my Anne Frank performance and realize that my thought that it was mimicking the one in her attic in Nazi Germany so long ago was just wrong. Anne Frank probably lived most of her time there in the dark.


"ephemeral, adj. and n.". OED Online (2015). Oxford University Press.

Goldstein, T. (2003). Teaching and learning in a multilingual school: Choices, risks, and dilemmas. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Hartman, S. V. (1997). Scenes of subjection: Terror, slavery, and self-making in nineteenth-century America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Razack, S. H. (2007). Stealing the Pain of Others: Reflections on Canadian Humanitarian Responses. Review of Education Pedagogy Cultural Studies. 29.4, pgs 375-394.

Sontag, S. (1977). On photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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