By Ashley Connell
It is not hyperbolic to say that every day of 2018 has brought bad, often devastating news to light. How does a person cope with the seemingly endless parade of tragedy and injustice that fills their social media news feeds and television screens? What is the healthy way to handle so much national and global anguish?
Few people have had answers to this question that seem at all satisfying. One surprising figure who might have had an answer is Fred Rogers. To call him a children’s television entertainer would be to simplify a legacy that spans decades and approaches lesser prophets in the breadth of its influence.
A documentary about Rogers’ life and career illuminates much of his thought process in the creation of his shows (of which the famed Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was only one). Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, directed by Academy-Award winning filmmaker Morgan Neville arrives at a crucial moment when a person might be tempted to sink into nostalgia for a simpler time. The film instead asks if we might not take the lessons we learned and put them into action now when they are so desperately needed.
Fred Rogers began his career in the early 1950s with a simple children’s program. While his influence grew, his goals stayed the same. He wanted to tell children that they were loved. He did not shy away from the political. The show dealt often with controversial subjects like race and war. Nor did he shrink from the deeply personal, discussing depression, illness, and death on several episodes across his career.
One can imagine that if Rogers were producing television today, he would have much to say. He would not be silent about the suffering of children in Syria, nor those on the US border. He would decry hate speech and the rising tide of white nationalism. He would want children to have health insurance. He would want teachers to be paid.
Rogers perhaps does not look like a great man on paper. He lived simply. He never founded a company nor conquered any nation. He leaves behind no dynasty, no great empire of art or industry. His adult children, his widow, his friends all love and miss him. Thousands of people who knew him as children all love and miss him. What do we owe to a man like this?
Rogers was an entertainer of children. In their hearts, now grown, he was a neighbor and a teacher, a friend. Mr. Rogers’ legacy throws into relief how desperately inadequate our definition of greatness has turned out to be. In a time of long overdue reckoning, when we must all reconsider the legacies of the ‘great’ men of the past, perhaps the idea itself is what requires consideration.
Maybe a great person is someone who manages to leave the world better than they found it. If that is the case, then Rogers led by example. He showed us the love we needed for each of us to be great.
Though the documentary had me in tears at points, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is not a sad film. It is at points, so joyful that it is overwhelming. Though Fred Rogers passed away in 2003 the film reminds us that he is present still, in hearts and minds (and the hundreds of episodes of programming he made) and never more vital to the well being of our nation.
Though it would surely be comforting to see a living Fred Rogers on television tonight discussing any number of immensely challenging subjects, he already gave us so much to be grateful for. As long as there are those who remember his lessons, he continues to give. And as sad as we may be to have lost him, we cannot be as sad as we are grateful to have had him at all.
If you have the chance to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? whether you consider yourself a neighbor or not, I encourage you to take that chance. You will leave feeling more love than when you entered, certainly worth the price of admission.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? plays at the Enzian Theater through June 28th. Tickets are available at enzian.org.
Ashley Connell is a writer, director, and performer living in Chicago. She is a proud graduate of Bennington College and the Second City Conservatory. Her recent credits include Anti-Social Media, Sea Captains Present: Salty, Too Close for Comfort and The Blunder Years. She can be found on twitter (@ashleycon) and instagram (@ashleyconnn).