“Six Degrees of Separation” refers to the idea that, if a person is one step away from each person they know, and two steps away from each person who is known by one of the people they know, then everyone is at most six steps away from any other person on Earth. The term was popularized by playwright John Guare’s intriguing, insightful exploration of celebrity and the games we play to elevate our significance.
The plot of Six Degrees of Separation was inspired by the real-life story of David Hampton, a con man who managed to convince a number of people in the 1980s that he was the son of actor Sidney Poitier. It won the 1991 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the 1993 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Play, and was nominated for the 1991 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play, the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the 1991 Tony Award for Best Play.
In Guare’s play, Paul, the African-American protagonist, arrives at the doorstep of moneyed Manhattanites Flan and Ouisa Kittredge under the false pretenses that he is Sidney Poitier’s son, having been violently mugged and claiming to have found them because he is a classmate of the couple’s kids. But Paul is not what he seems, and his presence in their lives becomes a catalyst by which everyone else entertains questions of race, class, money and morals.