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Time for New Yorkers to reach across the aisle — in the theaters

When my brother Will, a Louisville semi driver, rolled into the Big Apple this year, fresh off of hauling bourbon and spaghetti sauce through a pandemic supply chain, I insisted we see “Into the Woods.” There, he quickly recognized wicked witch Patina Miller from television, hollering “Sweet, Madam Secretary!” and cracking up neighbors. At intermission, he was chatting up Upper West Siders about inflation, tattoos and long hauls, illustrating the plotline of fellowship himself.

Ever since Jan. 6, I’ve been seeking opportunities — like theater  — to pop partisan bubbles and engage in our polarized nation. After a year of shuttered pandemic theaters, I’d scamper down that Yellow Brick Road with hordes of returning tourists any day.

Now’s our chance, New York. NYC & Co. forecasts that 6.5 million people will visit the Big Apple before New Year’s. That’s 85% of 2019’s record tourism levels — with folks from red, blue and purple states settling into plush seats from Broadway to Carnegie Hall. Time to go into the woods together.

Alas, I fear the nation has forgotten its lines. A rising share of both Republicans and Democrats view not just party but people as dishonest, immoral, lazy, closed-minded and unintelligent. Rather than spend our time tweeting our concerns and hatreds, and especially with the cousins in town, we need to reach across the proverbial aisle and meet the folks we find there.

Patina Miller

It’s easy. New Yorkers are naturally nosy.

At “Coal Country,” in Greenwich Village, my cousin Greta, an Appalachian nurse who’d driven 800 miles to see the show, blurted out, “I wonder how many of these folks are mountain people?” “Do the Catskills count?” chuckled a Jewish grandmother nearby.

Greta scanned the auditorium as the audience began singing “Union, God and Country.” Never mind we weren’t in a Harlan County VFW hall.

She and her aisle-mate quickly compared notes on COVID, elder care — and lust for guitar-wielding country boys. Soon, the offspring of Appalachian miners hummed in harmony with a daughter of the Borscht Belt to “The Devil Put the Coal in the Ground.” After the performance, Greta and pal gleefully tugged musical director Steve Earle’s tangled beard. There’s gotta be a big musical number in that. 

recent study found clinical value in such connections. It noted that “fostering the creation of cross-partisan bridges with strangers based on targeted nonpolitical affiliations could combat polarization.” 

Translation: Seek out empathy, storytelling and non-political shared experience — with folks right there in the fold-down seats. 

Too “Kumbaya”? Remember that performances soothe national wounds. Think Paul Simon singing “The Boxer” on “Saturday Night Live” after Sept. 11. Or family members of World Trade Center victims attending the Broadway opening of “Come From Away.” Some fretted that reenactment of jetliners mustering at Gander, Newfoundland, would inflame raw wounds. But Broadway soared. Broken souls cheered in unity.

You know what’s not a house divided? The “Sweet Caroline” audience singalong at Neil Diamond’s new jukebox musical “A Beautiful Noise.”

In our seats, we author the narrative of our American experience. In a nation ripping apart, we still control the soulful tales we tell each other while rubbing shoulders in the audience and gathering in the aisles.

We can all be the usher. I willingly offer guests — and most of mine are country kinfolk New Yorkers rarely meet — my quilted futon and loaded fridge. OK, I’ll skip their visit to the Macy’s Santa and Rockefeller Center tree, but I’ll gladly escort them to the shows. 

I’ve seen the “The Lion King” five times now and “Hamilton” four. With cousin Logan, sporting his junior ROTC haircut, joyously rapping in the $10 standby line. Or with cousin Winston, dizzy with Broadway dreams from “School of Rock.” All of us sharing our joy with strangers. Isn’t this why we live here?

Our fairy tales work best when we watch them with others. If not for ourselves, then for the next audience. As my brother’s favorite witch warns us in “Into the Woods,” be “careful the tale you tell; children will listen.” 

Next week, cousin Greta’s returning.  I’ll vacuum the air mattress. We’ll venture way out on Flatbush Avenue to the Brooklyn Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” with its subway sets and hip hop Herr Drosselmeyer. I can’t wait for that audience to meet each other — a holiday gift good all year long.

Caroline Aiken Koster, a New York attorney, is writing an essay collection about being a Southerner in the Big Apple.