The USC Visions and Voices series, co-sponsored by the Keck School of Medicine of USC’s Program in Medical Humanities, Arts, and Ethics, came to the Health Sciences Campus recently to present the critically acclaimed “Two Men Talking,” a thought-provoking spoken-word performance piece about compassion, communication and listening.

“Two Men Talking” was written and presented by Paul Browde, MD, a psychiatrist and performer from South Africa now living in New York City, and Murray Nossel, PhD, a former clinical psychologist, also from South Africa, who is an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker and former social worker.

The performance used non-linear storytelling, humor, drama and even seemingly spontaneous a cappella singing to weave various stories together from both men’s pasts. While the basics of the performance were scripted, there was room throughout for improvisation, which created an atmosphere of immediacy where it seemed like almost anything could happen between the two storytellers.

Browde and Nossel met when they were pre-teen schoolmates in Johannesburg and their paths crossed again while they were young men in New York City. Browde was studying medicine and Nossel was beginning a career as a playwright. Their individual stories and anecdotes span their whole lives, but share a theme of empathy, whether it is for a patient who had been diagnosed with HIV and has gone blind, or one of the performers himself, learning that he was also HIV positive.

One of the most poignant moments was the story of when Browde, after many years of secrecy, decided to share his HIV-positive status with his colleagues during a talk at the American Psychiatric Association Conference in 1994. He had been witness to several doctors belittling AIDS patients out of earshot and realized that he could no longer be silent.

“I can tell you, ladies and gentlemen,” he recalled saying, “that it hurts the people that we treat when we talk about them in the way that we do behind closed doors. And how I know that is because I am them.”

Listening and reacting with compassion was not only depicted on stage, but asked for from the audience. In the end, the stories they shared were powerful reminders that medical professionals should be aware that those they are treating are human beings first, and people with a disease second.

USC Visions and Voices is a series of arts and humanities events offered to the USC community and the general public for over a decade. Upcoming events in this series taking place at HSC include “When We Have to Talk About Something Less Pleasant: Aging, Alzheimer’s and the End of Life” on March 30 and “Doctors’ Orders for a Good Death: Caitlin Doughty and Lindsey Fitzharris” on April 6.

— Amanda Busick