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Theater adapts 'An Enemy of the People' to address public health after the pandemic


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: Actors, experts and community members are turning to a classic play to address contemporary trauma and tensions from the pandemic.

Jeffrey Brown has this look as part of our new series Art in Action, exploring the intersection of art and democracy. It's part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.

Actor: Yesterday, you said that the water supply was contaminated by impurities in the soil.

David Strathairn, Actor: Yes, exactly. The source is undoubtedly the toxic swamp up in Mildale (ph).

Jeffrey Brown: A major health crisis has been discovered. The water in a local spa is contaminated. Lives and the economy are threatened. The public must be told, or should it?

Actor: We must bury it for the good of the people.

Jeffrey Brown: Who decides, and who decides what actions, if any, to take? At stake, public health and democracy itself.

Bryan Doerries, Artistic Director, Theater of War Productions: This play is about a public health catastrophe that was in the late 19th century, in 1882. It's made up, but it could be today.

And it creates the context where we can talk about not just what just happened over the last four years, but how do we ensure that it doesn't happen again?

Let's do the first couple pages.

Jeffrey Brown: Bryan Doerries is founder and artistic director of Theater of War Productions, which turns to ancient and classic plays to explore and spur discussion of contemporary issues and trauma.

Actress: He has the thousand-yard stare.

Jeffrey Brown: We watched in 2010 as he used Greek tragedy that still speaks to the rise in suicide rates in today's military, presented at a base.

And, in 2016, in a Missouri community torn apart after the killing of a young Black man, Michael Brown, in "Antigone in Ferguson."

Actress: Because there is nothing shameful in loyalty to a brother!

Bryan Doerries: I see it as a form of mediation. These ancient texts that we perform or the texts of the classical plays we perform create a kind of vocabulary for people to talk about hard things.

Protesters: No more shots! No more shots!

Jeffrey Brown: Now a pandemic that took well over a million lives in the U.S. alone, uncertain, at times chaotic government responses, masks weaponized, public health officials threatened.

Frankie Faison, Actor: Concoct all those conspiracies you can think of.

Jeffrey Brown: Here seen through the lens of an enduring 19th century play, "An Enemy of the People" by Henrik Ibsen about a doctor named Thomas Stockmann who wants to protect his community...

David Strathairn: They will all have my back if things get ugly.

Jeffrey Brown: ... but who in the process reveals his own biases and flaws and becomes both hero and enemy.

It was presented recently in what Doerries referred to as a temple of experts, the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., in reading by top actors, including David Strathairn...

David Strathairn: This might just do nobody any good.

Jeffrey Brown: ... known for such films as "Good Night, and Good Luck," which brought an Oscar nomination for best actor...

David Strathairn: That's Jason Bourne.

Jeffrey Brown: ... and for the blockbuster Bourne movies, here playing Dr. Stockmann.

David Strathairn: He's a hero. He's -- he could be a civic servant, civil servant, a doctor, and do no harm, and that's what he's trying not to do.

Jeffrey Brown: You're calling him a hero, but then, in the play, many see him as...

David Strathairn: As an enemy.

Jeffrey Brown: As an enemy.

David Strathairn: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Did that resonate for the way you see things today?

David Strathairn: Yes. Yes, in a word. I mean, yes. I mean, there's so many more issues than just him being an enemy. It's about the press, the media...

Frankie Faison, Actor: The money.

David Strathairn: The money.

Frankie Faison: Politics.

David Strathairn: The politics of the situation, which are -- it goes without saying how present those things are in our lives today.

Frankie Faison: The Barksdale case was a successful prosecution.

Jeffrey Brown: Like Strathairn, actor Frankie Faison, best known from "The Wire" and the Hannibal Lecter films, has joined many Theater of War projects over the years.

Frankie Faison: I got a chance to work with amazing actors and amazing texts, I mean, scripts that are just brilliant. You got a chance to exercise that vocal thing without any pressure. You don't have to worry about critics being on top of us, and you do this. It's a sharing.

And we share this information. And then, through that sharing, it opens up a conversation with the audience that just blows our mind.

Jeffrey Brown: This audience included many in the public health community, several of took part in the performance from the audience, including Professor Jeffrey Kahn...

Jeffrey Kahn, Johns Hopkins University: If you're talking about me...

Jeffrey Brown: ... director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, here playing a drunken citizen.

Jeffrey Kahn: I don't think we all appreciated that public health professionals would be attacked for their views. That's never happened in our lifetime.

Dr. Vivian Pinn, Director, NIH Office of Research on Women's Health: Yes, that's right.

Jeffrey Kahn: But here's Ibsen, who wrote a play in 1882, writing about exactly that.

Jeffrey Brown: But there's a twist. Here, the health experts play average citizens angry about the upheaval to their lives that the doctor is proposing.

Jeffrey Kahn: We are taking the position of shouting down the experts. So it's a bit of a turning of the tables.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes, how does that feel?


Jeffrey Kahn: It feels uncomfortable. I think that's exactly the point.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Dr. Vivian Pinn: Yes.

Jeffrey Kahn: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Dr. Vivian Pinn, the first full-time director of the NIH Office of Research on Women's Health, has been through such battles.

To her, Dr. Stockmann was right in his science, but wrong in his interaction with the community, insulting the townspeople for not recognizing his expertise or following his demands.

David Strathairn: How in God's name can it ever be right for the wise to be ruled over by fools?


Dr. Vivian Pinn: I was really kind of concerned when I was reading the script for this play at some of Dr. Stockmann's comments about the lower class, the poor, the dirty, and I was thinking, yikes, what we're really focusing on today in public health is being able to interact with the community, get the community involved in what we're doing.

Jeffrey Brown: Still, she says, the tension hits home.

Dr. Vivian Pinn: Yes, he's not right in everything he says, but, gee whiz, don't you want to listen to the truth?

Jeffrey Brown: Such questions were then taken up by panel members, an emergency services paramedic lieutenant.

Man: During the pandemic, which this play resonates so deeply with, there was such certainty in the way people spoke that they planted the seeds of the automatic response when people speak from such certainty of, how do you know what you're talking about? I know I didn't know what I was seeing.

I saw it in front in line. I was going to, on 13 -- average, 10 to 13 cardiac arrests a day. I didn't know what was going on. How do they know?

Jeffrey Brown: Former NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins.

Dr. Francis Collins, Former Director, National Institutes of Health: I'm always looking to find a hero. I always feel like there ought to be one. I didn't find one in this play.


Jeffrey Brown: A local business owner.

Woman: But how do you gain back the trust of officials and government and people that are in charge that you wanted to -- that you believed in the beginning.

Jeffrey Brown: And members of the audience.

Woman: As much as we want a hero, heroes do not monopolize truth, capital T. They may have a slice of truth.

Man: For disclosure, I'm a Catholic priest. This idea of learning how to trust each other again, which means learning how to love each other again, and recognizing that that is going to involve humility, of people recognizing they're wrong.

Woman: I was struck by the absence of an independent press in this play. A free press is essential to a democratic society.

Jeffrey Brown: Ultimately, just as in real life, the public health crisis in the play becomes a test of democracy itself.

In fact, says Bryan Doerries:

Bryan Doerries: I think the core critique is in the public health. It's, can this kind of democracy work?

Jeffrey Brown: Right.

Bryan Doerries: And we're entering 2024 with a giant crowd scene with people screaming at a stage and chanting vile things at someone who's trying to help them, who then chants vile things back at them.

Seems like an appropriate place to start this election year and to be framing conversations.

Jeffrey Brown: Following the National Academy of Sciences performance, Theater of War Productions took "An Enemy of the People" to audiences in rural Ohio, next stop outdoors in New York's Times Square on June 12.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Washington, D.C.

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