Even nurses dedicated to kindness have their breaking point. Connie Britton portrays a nurse forced to care for a COVID patient who had worked at a risky job never wearing a mask, and then partied on the Fourth of July with some two dozen of his friends, again without wearing a mask, possibly infecting some of them. When the equipment broke down in his hospital room, and she had to spend much more time in it, she asked herself: “’God is it really worth dying…Am I going to die for this person?’ I just built up this resentment.” Finally, she tells us, she asked for a different assignment. “I want to save the world…but I could not bring myself to step into his room.”
Britton’s monologue is one of the longest and most absorbing stories in “That Kindness: Nurses in Their Own Words,” put together by Eve Ensler (who now goes Prince-like by the name V) for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, based on her interviews with a range of nurses, and performed by a starry cast of 11. The story was all the more devastating to me for two reasons: The nurse prefaces it by saying: “I recently lost a patient that made me question my profession, made me question my humanity. I don’t want to share it because I don’t want you to think bad of me.”
It also hit home. Years ago, my aunt, Vivian Segerman (nicknamed Vivi, not V), worked as a nurse, and died at the age of 43 from a disease she contracted from one of her patients in a New York City hospital. At a young age, my cousin Bruce was left without a mother.
I wrote about her in the post I kept in memoriam for the healthcare workers in New York City who died from COVID – which, overwhelmed, I stopped updating after Memorial Day.
Given this background, and the fact that the video (which is available until November 3) is a fundraiser for The Brooklyn Hospital Center’s COVID-19 Fund, it would strike me as at best beside the point to assess “That Kindness” solely as just another work of theater.
Still, whether it’s because of my connection to the material, or despite of it, I confess to having been unable at times to avoid feeling a bit..impatient.
“That Kindness: Nurses in their Own Words” comes some three months after the Public Theater’s “The Line,” which it resembles in many ways. “The Line” was an hour-long video in which a starry cast tells the real-life stories of seven New York City’s frontline medical workers in a range of occupations, three of them nurses. “That Kindness” features eleven performers as nurses; it’s not clear where they all work; some are in California.
As with the previous video, “That Kindness” offers short, interwoven monologues. They are divided into topics announced with title cards.
In What Is A Nurse?, Marisa Tomei says “A nurse is someone you see after you say ‘Here, hold my beer’” Later, about mask-wearing, Tomei says: “We’ve been the most trusted profession in the last 20 years; why not trust us now?… I don’t want to see people die out of stupidity.”
In Becoming a Nurse, Rosario Dawson tells a story of how horrified she was on her first day as an Operating Room nurse at pulling out the plug from a patient by accident; she locked herself in the bathroom and wouldn’t come out, telling her medical colleagues trying to coax her out that being an OR nurse was not for her. That was 20 years ago. “I love it.”
In That I Did Not Sign Up For, Billy Porter says “I signed up for the military knowing I might kill or be killed, but as a nurse I did not sign up without the proper gear to take care of people who are sick…I’ve never seen anything like this… But people still think it’s a hoax.”
There are triumphant stories of saving a life, comments about the importance of nursing unions, recollections of bigoted nursing schools, and complaints about avaricious corporate management. About halfway through the video, all eleven go into simultaneously clinical and heartbreaking detail about the illness of a colleague named Jenny.
There are many memorable moments. But each topic is also crowded with mostly quick-hit answers by more of the cast than feels necessary. I’ve seen almost all the cast members in other works give superb performers — besides the ones I’ve just mentioned, they include Ed Blunt,Stephanie Hsu, LaChanze, Liz Mikel, Rosie O’Donnell, Dale Soules, and Monique Wilson. But in this work, the performers generally aren’t given the time or the material to nail down a sense of individual characters.
I think I understand the dilemma. Using as many stars as possible, each only able to perform in isolation because of the pandemic, is more likely to draw in an audience. But having 11 different characters weaving alternating monologues into a 75-minute video winds up feeling at times both diffuse and repetitive.
Eve Ensler (ok, V) offers a prologue to her play about why she more or less worships nurses – they saved her life. “My prayer, my hope is that their testimony will remind us all of what it means to be good, that their giving will inspire us to give when giving is not counted, calculated or even seen. We are coming up on probably the most important election of our history. May these words, these stories, these warnings of these nurses, get you to vote health over profit, care over cruelty, well-being over all the people over the extreme power of the few.” She concludes by bidding us to cherish “these radical angels of the heart.”
It’s a testament to the power of these nurses struggles, sacrifices and joy that even a cynic can overcome the sentimentality of V’s words and be moved to take the action for which she prays.