Blindness Overcome

This is, in part, a story about my own fight to see.

My own blindness.

Just under eighteen years ago, as a junior in college, I struggled to keep my eyes open in class. It is a vivid memory, with the realization that something wasn’t right during a small seminar on Early America with Dr. James Horn. We were in Blair Hall at the College of William and Mary—one of my favorite places in the world—where I often sat perpendicular to the glorious golden sunlight streaming past the projector screen into my eyeline. At the time I thought it was due to a lack of sleep, but after few weeks of going to bed early, and covering my eyes in windowless rooms, I realized I had actually developed an intense sensitivity to light.

Doctor after doctor thought I had a corneal ulcer, or an aggressive form of a common eye virus, but one weekend, as a friend and I drove from Virginia to State College, Pennsylvania, that ulcer turned into a very visible, very painful, white ring around my cornea.

Have you ever tried to watch Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in a movie theatre while having stabbing eye pain? I have. And by the end of the weekend, I felt as if I was staring into a white fog. I felt unmoored and terrified. An experience I never want to replicate again.

If You Can See, Look

Blindness at the Donmar Warehouse 57 | Credit: Helen Maybanks

In the past few months, I’ve been experiencing a combination of guilt and stress related to reentry. Guilt over doing “ordinary” things while other parts of the world are still locked down, coupled with worry about my own movement from private to public spaces. To mitigate this stress, I have been trying to do a few short and safe excursions now that I am fully vaccinated.

So far I have: worked in the office—briefly. Attended an outdoor/indoor birthday party with a group of (also vaccinated) friends I had not seen in ages. I drove into D.C., fighting against a hoard of masked people going to a hockey game to attend a production of Blindness—a play based on the novel by José Saramago—at the Shakespeare Theatre’s Harmon Center for the Arts.

For various reasons I arrived breathless at the theatre moments before the doors closed. I did not have time to fret, I did not have time to worry about the experience.  Within minutes of parking my car I found myself sitting on stage with forty other masked souls—six feet apart and socially distanced for an immersive, actor-less (though Juliet Stevenson did voice the audio), performance.

With sound coming in through a pair of headphones, we heard from a nameless woman who is the only individual with sight during a global pandemic of sudden blindness. Using light and sound (reminiscent of ASMR) we were led through the unravelling of society when one-by-one individuals begin to lose their sight. One minute they could see, and then nothing but white fog.  

It’s clear from the beginning that this was not just a show about literal blindness. Rather, as each individual finds themselves staring into the abyss, they also lose sight of what makes us human. Of civilization.

Of right and wrong.

Blindness at the Donmar Warehouse 57 | Credit: Helen Maybanks

If you can look, observe.

I am not going to spoil the show with specifics, other than to say after sitting in darkness, blinking against the faint rising of light we see a message. An overt reminder that—for those of us who saw this virus as a public health threat, who stayed at home, isolated for over fourteen months, and are still cautious—that there are more forms of blindness in this world than what we see with our eyes. The words on the wall say: If you can see, look. If you can look, observe.

Eighteen years ago, we realized that I had an irregular presentation of something called acanthamoeba. It’s gross. I would not advise searching for it, but needless to say, to this day we have no idea how I got it. However, while we were able to kill the virus, and watch the ring fade away, I still experience daily just how long lasting the fight against blindness is. 

To be clear, while my left eye compensates to give me full vision, my right eye is ravaged with scar tissue that occasionally reminds me of the importance of constant vigilance as new blood vessels feed the tissue, trying to push me away from the light.

In short, after the scars of COVID-19 start to fade (and I recognize we are a long way from even calling this pandemic over) it is important to carry the other lessons from this past year. To combat the blood vessels that are trying to make us look away from what has been made visible during this time of global trauma.

If we have the ability to truly, truly, see the world for what it is we have a duty to not only take in the inequity, the horror, but also a responsibility to act and fight against it.

Credit: Tom Arban, Courtesy of the Shakespeare Theatre Company

Because this is my review of Blindness, I will say that the show was not subtle about what it was trying to tell us. But what made it effective was the call against numbness. A clarion message to not lose yourself amidst the fear, the chaos, and the noise.

A call to see the danger before us, and to step into the light against those that would wish us harm.

As I have said, time and time, again I am an optimist who easily grasps moments of hope and connection no matter now designed they are. As an immersive storytelling piece, the production of Blindness layered in sound and light in a way that shifted perspective. And like reality, we were not in darkness the whole time, with flashes of light being used to punctuate moments of terror, and moments of understanding.

But one of the most powerful moments of the show is when the production literally pulled back the curtain, reminding us of the tenuous separation between the very fake worlds we see on stage, and the very real trauma we are all experiencing. As the curtain rose, we caught of a glimpse of an empty theatre, masked in shadows yet slowly brightening, standing in anticipation. Like the moment between an inhalation and the release of air, just waiting for us to all return to life.

~~~

Because it needs to be said.

Pass the For the People Act. Pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. End racist voter suppression. Contact your member of congress today.

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