Two weeks ago, I received news that a boy I went to high school with—I will call him Elliot—had been tragically killed in a car accident in our hometown. Elliot was 17. I knew him because we had done theater together during my senior year.
In the days following Elliot’s death, I found myself trying to define exactly what role he played in my life. I recounted seeing him every day for a year of high school, visualized the personal quirks that I knew well, but realized that I had not spoken to him once since my graduation. I can still hear the rhythm of his voice, visualize his glowing smile, but I don’t even know that I would think of us as friends. In truth, I did not know him outside of the space of theater—a space that meant a great deal to me during that part of my life. And so, in hopes of clarifying the way to best honor him in grief, I began to think about how that space connected me to Elliot—what it could tell me about him, the capacities in which I knew him, and the weight of his death. I searched for some voice—in a song, a poem, a film, or a friend—who understood my thought landscape, and could perhaps reflect it back to me in more concrete ways than I could articulate it to myself. It was not long before I found that voice in James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work:
For the tension in the theater is a very different, and very particular tension: this tension between the real and the imagined is the theater, and this is why the theater will always remain a necessity. One is not in the presence of shadows, but responding to one’s flesh and blood: in the theater we are re-creating each other…we are all each other’s flesh and blood.
“One is not in the presence of shadows, but responding to one’s flesh and blood.”
Our director used to tell us before every show that theater mattered because it was a singularly human experience. In a world governed by technology, the act of standing on a stage and baring your own flesh and blood to an audience was an extraordinarily brave and essential action. Our theater was small enough so that every audience member could see the naked emotions, mannerisms, and slight mistakes of every actor. The joy and pride we took in our work was rooted in this intimacy, both to the audience and to one another. I suppose it has comforted me to house memories of Elliot in that theater, to be assured that we walked together in a space that fostered risk, vulnerability, and immense joy.
“We are all each other’s flesh and blood.”
The shared risk of performance is inherently selfless: it is upheld by each and every person for each and every person. The fate of our bodies on that stage depended on the actions and reactions of the bodies that surrounded us. It was not only that me and Elliot happened to share in creating an experience that mattered; it was that, inevitably, we did so for each other. He had made my body his priority, I made his mine, and, implicitly, we both promised not to let the other fall. In The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin gave a name to the way I related Elliot to theater; just once, through theater, I had not taken Elliot’s breath for granted, but had rather cherished it, loved it, made its support my task.
“The real and the imagined”
As I mourned his passing, I worried I might turn Elliot into a martyr in my mind, remember him as something or someone other than what he truly was. I didn’t want to construct a relationship that had not truly existed, and did not want to appropriate a grief not my own. I spent a lot of time evaluating the real and imagined roles that Elliot played in my life; I thought about our very real shared passion for theater, but also the possibly imagined personal significance of his friendship in my life—a significance that was difficult not to construct after his sudden and tragic death. I hear Baldwin honoring the fluidity between these spheres, rather than attempting to define their boundary. In fact, this tension between the real and the imagined is, for Baldwin, the basis for the beauty of the theater itself. When we see an actor play a role, we cannot define exactly how much of the performance is the character, and exactly how much is the actor. Elliot performs this way in my memories, and I have spent a few weeks trying to navigate this tension: Baldwin affirmed that one can appreciate it.
“We are re-creating each other”
In the days after Elliot’s death, I struggled to accept the fact that he was gone. What can one do when you realize that someone you spoke to every day will never breathe, kiss, dance, or cry ever again? How could someone much closer to Elliot than I navigate that uncertain space? Baldwin lent a place to start. When students back home mount the stage this month without Elliot, they will be paying a great homage to his soul. For when death takes one of ours, we must search for a way to carry him with us—to recreate him, and to tuck him into some small pocket of our life. In the wake of Elliot’s passing, Baldwin affirmed for me that theater may do just that—it may help us, heal us, force us to be vulnerable in the face of tragedy, lend us visceral moments of joy, and, indeed, honor those who have now passed on.