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The four actors of You Mean to Do Me Harm at San Francisco playhouse

It’s been a very long time since I attended a talk-back at a theatre. But last night in San Francisco, after a production of a new play, You Mean to Do Me Harm, I stuck around for another 30 minutes or so with a group of 40 high schoolers. I’m really glad I did.

Here’s the plot of the show: Two inter-racial couples (American and Chinese) have a dinner party. Throughout the course of the evening, certain topics of conversation become cultural triggers for others in the room. This then devolves into full onset paranoia about each other’s intents and underlying motives. It touches on race, gender, culture, identity, inclusion, and belonging. Now, more than ever, I try to seek out reminders to consider these perspectives as often as I can.

But the best part was seeing the students in the audience, all part of a local high school. For the girl next to me, it was her first ever play that she’s ever seen and she was anxious about whether or not she would like it.

By the end, she couldn’t stop her stream-of-consciousness reactions and impressions to the play. I asked her what stood out to her about the play, curious to see the show from the eyes of a first-time theatre-goer. What she pointed out was incredibly astute: “It was the little moments of the characters. How she took off her shoes in that one scene, and how he turned his wedding ring every time he talked about his wife.”

Whoa. I hadn’t noticed that. “That’s incredibly perceptive of you,” I told her.

During the talk-back with the actors after the show, she raised her hand and called out exactly that. Was it intentional, she wanted to know. Or had it been scripted that way? As it turned out, each of the actors had precise reasons for how they used the props around them — why one actor tugged on her scarf a certain way or how another did use the wedding ring as she described, even though it started as an unconscious thing.

Over the course of the 30-minute talk-back, the questions from the students got progressively more nuanced. What started off simple: “Do the sound effects on stage bother you?” morphed into complex social issues: “What do you think the writer is trying to convey about inter-racial marriages? Are they progressive at all, or are they the opposite if people fail to acknowledge and learn from the cultural issues that make them different?”

It felt really special to watch learning in progress like that, and the whole thing wound up being a helpful exercise in perspective-building for me too.

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