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Restoring Personhood

Posted on Nov 20, 2012

By Jean Randich

“Acting Together: Performance and the Creative Transformation of Conflict Vol. II: Building Just and Inclusive Communities”
A book edited by Cynthia E. Cohen, Roberto Gutiérrez Varea and Polly O. Walker

In 1996 Back Bone Youth Arts devised a performance, “Sk8 Grrl Space,” to be shown only once in a male-dominated skateboarding park in Australia. Thirteen young women played scenes that addressed women’s limited access to public space. One audience member became so riled he shattered a bottle on the steep-sided skate bowl where the women performed. The smashed bottle didn’t shut the performance down, but instead was incorporated into the action.

In Volume II of “Acting Together,” editors Cynthia E. Cohen, Roberto Gutiérrez Varea and Polly O. Walker present vigorous case studies on the use of performance to create just and inclusive communities. “In situations characterized by structural violence, exclusion, and social injustice, building peace involves more than ending violent conflict,” they write. In the aftermath of violence, structures to pursue justice and negotiate differences must be put in place. Silenced voices must be heard.

In his foreword, Salomón Lerner Febres writes, “… the violent act involves robbing the individual of the possibility of occupying a dignified space in the world of our lives, that is, of depriving her or him of their condition of person. This is why those who suffer any form of violence, experience an attack on their identity. … The great power of representation lies precisely in its symbolic force, in its ability to restore, through re-enactment, the meaning inherent in the traumatic act.” 

book cover


Acting Together: Performance and the Creative Transformation of Conflict Vol. II: Building Just and Inclusive Communities

Edited by Cynthia E. Cohen, Roberto Gutiérrez Varea and Polly O. Walker


New Village Press, 320 pages


Buy the book

Francois Matarasso writes, “Participation in the arts is a guarantor of other human rights because the first thing that is taken away from vulnerable, unpopular, or minority groups is the right to self-expression.” Reading the powerful studies in “Acting Together,” you witness survivors of injustice reclaim their right to self-expression, and in so doing, awaken others.

In these stories, theater makers, community leaders, actors, activists, scholars and others recount how they dealt with issues of pressing urgency to their communities such as economic or social inequality, gender-based violence, poverty and displacement of refugees. From storytelling to skateboarding, from hip-hop to Playback Theatre, the case studies highlight an astonishing diversity of performance modes. They document aesthetic surprises and how transformation occurs. 

How does transformation begin? How does it spread through a community to permeate the world at large? These are crucial questions in peace building that “Acting Together” addresses theoretically, aesthetically and practically.

Four themes recur in the five case studies: memory, identity, justice and resistance. In the opening chapter Dr. Eugene van Erven and Kate Gardner credit community theater with creating a safe space to reach across cultural divides. Van Erven relates how working-class Dutch men and immigrant men of Muslim backgrounds in the Laakkwartier neighborhood of The Hague developed rare intimacy and trust in a devised project called “In the Name of the Fathers.” “The performances demonstrably succeeded in breaking down stereotypical notions of Muslim, Caribbean, and working-class men and caused a shift in public thinking, including among progressive women, about how men also need to be included in emancipation processes,” they write. Gardner describes the grass-roots collaboration “BrooKenya!,” in which citizens of the U.S.; Kisumu, Kenya; and Lima, Peru, crafted a latter-day Dickensian soap opera with digital technology about issues such as HIV-AIDS and gender inequality. “Indeed, ‘BrooKenya!’ scenes overflow with the drama of polygamy, racism, homophobia, sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, terrorism, you name it,” Gardner writes. “Our purpose was to help people to get to know each other, to see each other’s different experiences and our shared humanity.”

To see long excerpts from “Acting Together” at Google Books, click here.

In “Youth Leading Youth,” Daniel Banks depicts the transformative power of hip-hop and Hiplife Theatre in Ghana and South Africa. Banks spent four months in Ghana in 2006 with students and alumni from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Banks conjures a kinetic image of the hip-hop cipher, a competitive, empowering circle where young people improvise song and refrain, forge identity and experience the power of community. 

In “Change the World As We Know It: Peace, Youth, and Performance in Australia,” Mary Ann Hunter champions young people of diverse ethnicities speaking for themselves through their own aesthetic. Hunter advocates a “transformative practice,” which she defines as one that does not seek to resolve conflict but rather to restructure it, such as “Sk8 Grrl Space,” the performance project in the skateboarding park mentioned above. Contact Inc.‘s “The Hope Tour” drew performers “from backgrounds including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Afghan, Sudanese, Samoan, Congolese, Iranian, Burundi, Thai, Cook Islander, Rwandan and Fijian,” Hunter writes. “Set in a world inhabited by three fictional tribes ‘The Hope Tour’ mixed ‘beats, old school moves, rhyme, and multimedia, with traditional cultural expression’ to convey a loose narrative whereby the tribes explore ways to peaceably coexist while respecting each other’s differences.”


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