Shotgun Players’ ‘Citizen Brain’ smartly champions empathy 

Citizen Brain
Tue Nam Ton/Courtesy

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In the current political landscape, nothing is more timely than the question of how one can best improve the world around them. “Citizen Brain,” written and performed by Josh Kornbluth with Shotgun Players, seeks to answer that question, theorizing that a combination of both empathy and action is what this country needs right now. 

In his autobiographical one-man show, Kornbluth tells the story of how he got to this conclusion. Following his upbringing with communist parents, a childhood that made him feel destined to lead a revolution of some kind, Kornbluth tracks his understanding of both the brain and social justice. When he started his fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco’s Memory and Aging Center in 2016, just as the presidential election was occurring, Kornbluth began to connect his early understandings about the brain to his political musings.

With his stepfather developing dementia at this same time, he learned the transformative power that empathy can have on our personal well-being and the well-being of others, as our brains have a specific “empathy circuit.” In this way, he argues that in order to make the world a more understanding place, we all need to form a collective that seeks to understand the experiences of one another — a “Citizen Brain,” if you will. 

“Citizen Brain” succeeds most effectively in its complete and utter honesty; it reads like a friend telling you of a revelation they had without interruption. Set in Kornbluth’s home, he remarks early on that his bookshelf backdrop is only to give the illusion that he reads, a refreshing break of the fourth wall that acknowledges the absurdity of Zoom theater while also highlighting his sardonic humor. 

The show’s attempts at graphics, however — a calendar spinning in to show the passage of time, or red and blue swirling elsewhere on the screen — can feel unnecessary in a show that does so well with minimalism, even if these elements are helpful for storytelling. Instead, what keeps the show fresh are Kornbluth’s animated and engaging expressions as he details his numerous discoveries. Though it may only be an hour and a half of just listening to Kornbluth talk, “Citizen Brain” stays fresh because of Kornbluth’s masterful storytelling ability, his writing and acting holding attention with ease. 

Because viewers know the connections he makes about the importance of empathy is deeply personal to his own life, the show becomes much more impactful. His emotions ring true and clear when he recounts certain events, showing the intimate reactions he had when that event actually occurred, especially his stories about his mother and how she dealt with his stepfather’s dementia. “Citizen Brain” seems truly heartfelt, most notably as Kornbluth recounts how his mother never asked for his help and how this weighed on him. 

Furthermore, Kornbluth never loses stamina throughout his consistent monologuing, constantly keeping a high energy and painting a clear picture of his experiences through his colorful descriptions. His voice remains steady, never wavering, keeping audiences engaged as he tells his story. 

The poignancy and timeliness of the show’s message about empathy remain paramount to its success, but as Kornbluth masterfully recognizes, empathy can only go so far. He acknowledges that an empathy revolution can’t totally deconstruct the deep power structures within the country, structures that have allowed power imbalances to continue. As one of the attendees at his stepfather’s funeral stated loosely, “Don’t put yourself in my shoes, use your shoes to make my life better,” speaking of the institutional privilege that certain members of society have. While Kornbluth recognizes his work can only go so far, empathy still remains an important piece of the puzzle.

Though incredibly simple, Shotgun Players’ “Citizen Brain” doesn’t need complexity to be great, because its subject matter is what really allows the show to make an impact. It’s simply one man’s perspective of how we can change the world through a conscious increase of empathy whenever possible — and what message is more transcendent than that?

Caitlin Keller covers theater. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @caitlinkeller20.