Powerlessness, Neo-Nazis, and Musical Theater

“There are Nazis marching everywhere, and I’m kind of panicking.”

I’ve heard some variation on this sentiment from a lot of clients over the last several weeks, and it’s been really paralyzing – not just for them, but for me. This isn’t the first time I’ve held a safe space for a lot of people who are worried about the state of the country.  November 9th, for example, was a doozy.

But shit, I just want to fix it.

Usually a once-a-week blogger, anyone who follows my posts may have noticed that it’s been almost a month since I’ve written something.  And it’s because I haven’t known what to say.  I knew I couldn’t post about “6 ways to fix your adult relationship with your sibling” while my friends in Boston are marching the streets with signs condemning white supremacists.

And then, in the most unlikely place – or perhaps the most likely one – I found the words.


Life is a Cabaret?

Every year, my family takes a vacation to Ashland, Oregon for the Oregon Shakespeare festival, which is a theater festival with a few Shakespeare plays and a wide variety of other shows.  In their performances, they take a lot of daring risks, and diverse casting is often one of them.  In my 8 years here, I’ve seen a deaf man signing his lines in As You Like It, a female-fronted Two Gentlemen of Verona, and an amazing black woman playing Cinderella in Into the Woods.  Last year’s plays alone tackled abortion rights and the immigrant experience.  This is a theater company that promotes ideals of love and kindness, and is not afraid to push the envelope.

Each year, they do a fundraiser for AIDS research, and as part of it they perform a show – usually a musical – that’s peripherally related to these topics.  I was very excited when they announced that this year’s reading would be Cabaret.  I love this show – I’ve seen it at least twice on stage, and I was in the ensemble of my high school’s production.  It’s edgy and envelope pushing, the songs are great, and it’s easy to see how the theme – it’s about Nazi Germany – are relevant to our contemporary issues.

I settled into the theater and enjoyed the first act, but with the distance that comes with having seen a show many times before.  “Man, Miriam Laube is killing it as Sally Bowles!” I thought.  “That’s some creative staging,” I thought.  Then came the last scene of the first act.

Here’s how this usually goes: In the scene, a middle-aged Jewish man and a non-Jewish middle-aged woman have decided to get married and are hosting an engagement party.  One of their guests takes off his coat to reveal a swastika arm band.  Upon learning that the groom-to-be is Jewish, he sings a chilling Nazi anthem: Tomorrow Belongs to Me.  (Click the link if you’d like to hear it.  It’s truly chilling.)

After a verse, he invites another character to join him, and together they sing the second verse of this Nazi anthem.  Then, he declares “everybody!!” and most of the characters on stage are joyfully singing this chilling song.  It gives me goosebumps every time.

Except that’s not how Sara Bruner staged this production.  When the self-identified Nazi said, “everybody!” it wasn’t just characters on stage singing.  It was also about a dozen people in the audience, scattered throughout the seats, standing and joining in.  The message was clear: “These people aren’t all in some town far away.  They’re not safely nestled behind a fourth wall.  They are among us.  They are our neighbors.  They are our fellow audience members.”

I felt the wind knocked out of me, escaping in a single breath with the words, “Jesus Christ!”  My heart was pounding.  I understood for the first time in my life what the phrase “bile in my throat” means – and I genuinely thought I might vomit.  My father burst into tears in the seat next to me – big, gasping sobs.  Through all of intermission, I did not feel better.

Even sitting here in my hotel, typing this the next day, my hands are still shaking and I feel my heart rising into my throat.  The feeling is fear.  The feeling is powerlessness.


What to Do With Feelings of Powerlessness

I just stopped typing this blog post for a moment.  It was too overwhelming to think about that feeling from yesterday again.  I put my feet on the floor – literally grounding myself.  I put both of my hands over my heart and took deep, full breaths.  I said out loud, “I am in a hotel lobby in Oregon, and I am safe.”  Then I rubbed the spot right under my collarbone, which people who practice acupuncture describe as an emotional reset spot on the body.

These are all things you can do.  You can also engage in self-care, especially by setting media boundaries.  You can ground yourself in the here and now and focus on your breath and be kind to yourself and find a therapist to talk to.  You can read my blog articles about enduring the Trump presidency and learning how to let your stress motivate you rather than stagnating you.  You can go to protests and rallies and mobilize your support system.  You can read up about how to be a good ally and own your privilege and use it well.

But also, take a moment.  Slow down.  Give yourself time to feel.  Feel the fear.  Feel the sadness.  Feel the anger.  Feel the overwhelm.  Feel the powerlessness.  You are so very human, and having big emotions is part of that.


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