Nurses are known to be caring, patient, full of equanimity. You don’t go into the profession for cushy hours and padded salaries, and nurses are selflessly devoted to their jobs and their patients.
But the way Covid-19 has been handled in this country had pushed many of them to the brink. Nurses are now scared and angry to an unprecedented degree, at least if we go by the new virtual docu-play “That Kindness: Nurses in Their Own Words.”
Based on interviews conducted by V, the writer and performer formerly known as Eve Ensler, the work-in-progress “That Kindness” (which the Brooklyn Academy of Music is streaming through Monday, in cooperation with two dozen theaters around the country) slowly builds up from feel-good stories of nurses discovering their vocation to seething evocations of frustration and even fury.
“That, I did not sign up for!” reads one of the intertitles dividing the narrative into short sections. Billy Porter’s Tony gets that line — and he is a former military nurse who is used to tough situations. Andrea (Connie Britton) is just as agitated talking about her resentment of the selfish people who don’t take basic precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. She is enraged by those who refuse to wear masks, who travel to attend disease-spreading parties. “Am I going to die for this person?” she asks.
V shaped the source material into a play with help from her longtime collaborator James Lecesne, whose work inspired the Trevor Project. The collagelike format and bare-bones, talking-head staging (V also directed) are similar to Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s play “The Line,” about Covid-19 emergency medical workers. The cast includes Marisa Tomei, LaChanze and Rosie O’Donnell, among others, and everybody is terrific. Even the disparities in sound quality and occasional fluffed lines add to the mounting sense of urgency and exasperation.
As V explains in a prologue, her 2010 uterine cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment — a grueling experience she recounted in her solo show “In the Body of the World” — instilled in her a devoted admiration for nurses. They are “a sacred kind, a holy species,” she says, deemed to be “radical angels of the heart.” That last adjective is key, because for V — who wrote the wildly influential “The Vagina Monologues” — the body is political, making nurses frontline combatants in a struggle for fair treatment and access to care.
Toward the end of the show, Sarah (Rosario Dawson) bitterly points out that many of her peers give up on the profession, finding it too hard to stomach a system in which corporate values take precedence over patients. “That Kindness,” which was produced with help from National Nurses United and the California Nurses Association, has a definite activist slant.