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The Performance of Peace

Posted on Jul 5, 2012

By Jean Randich

“Acting Together: Performance and the Creative Transformation of Conflict, Volume I: Resistance and Reconciliation in Regions of Violence”
A book edited by Cynthia E. Cohen, Roberto Gutiérrez Varea and Polly O. Walker

Notre Dame professor John Paul Lederach, in his foreword to “Acting Together: Performance and the Creative Transformation of Conflict, Volume I,” recalls the response of a group of upper-caste Nepali teenagers to a Gurukul Theatre performance of a poor, uneducated servant girl’s plight. “I never thought our maid had a story,” one girl said. “I forgot she was a person.” In this volume, edited by Cynthia E. Cohen, Roberto Gutiérrez Varea and Polly O. Walker, artists and peace builders demonstrate how ritual and dramatic performance create a safe place for truth telling, insight and dialogue to spur people on either side of brutal conflicts to effect positive change when culture, trust and language have been savaged by destructive violence. The belief in an “urgent present,” as playwright Erik Ehn calls it, in which “change can occur,” is what performance and peace building have in common. Performance is filled with the potential to recognize the self and the other. It can bring the exiled back to light. It can make the invisible visible. 

If the impetus for this study came from artists and peace builders in post 9/11 America determined to resist our political isolation, it is the cross-cultural collaboration with artists and peace workers across the globe that makes “Acting Together” such an exciting and important read. The case studies reflect an impressive diversity in the conflicts—crimes against humanity, genocide and systemic, structural violence—and practices explored in the former Yugoslavia, Uganda, Sri Lanka and Israel as well as Argentina, Peru, India, Cambodia and Australia. Symposiums at New Dramatists, Brandeis University and La Mama in New York, focusing on “creative approaches to reconciliation” and supported by Cohen’s coexistence program at Brandeis, laid the groundwork for this invaluable reference for practitioners of performance, activists and peace builders working locally and globally. It is a welcome addition to training programs and will inspire creative thinking about positive action in conflict regions.

A primary inspiration for “Acting Together” was Lederach’s “The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace.” The moral imagination is firmly rooted in reality but also capable of envisioning a different, more positive one. Peace builders must recognize, as Lederach writes, “that the well-being of our grandchildren is directly tied to the well-being of our enemy’s grandchildren”; “locate a greater truth” by creatively grappling with “seemingly contradictory truths”; believe the creative act is always possible even “where violence dominates and … creates its greatest lie: that the lands it inhabits are barren”; and step “into the unknown without any guarantee of success or even safety. … Violence is known; peace is a mystery.”

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

“Volume I: Resistance and Reconciliation in Regions of Violence” is divided into two sections. The first, “Singing in the Dark Times,” examines peace building performance during ongoing conflict. The second, “Holding Fast to the Feet of the Rising Condor,” explores peace building performance in the aftermath of mass violence. The conflicts are violent in the extreme. Human lives are lost, communities gutted, cultures destroyed. But the crucial questions posed here are ones not often encountered in war correspondence: How can one resist violence and injustice without becoming a victim or an avenger? Can people of actively violent cultures be made to see their complicity and work for positive change? For performance to creatively transform conflict, it must transmute polarized perceptions of “enemies” into tolerance of differences and awareness of untapped potential. In the regions of violent conflict, practitioners found that nonviolent resistance can reveal suppressed truths and allow marginalized voices and “otherness” to be heard.

In “Theatre as a Way of Creating Sense,” Dijana Miloševi?, the bold artistic director of DAH Teatar in Belgrade, emphasizes the importance of giving a voice “to the ones who cannot otherwise be heard” under a harsh Serbian nationalist regime:

book cover


Acting Together: Performance and the Creative Transformation of Conflict, Volume I

By Cynthia Cohen (Editor); Roberto Gutierrez Varea (Editor); Polly O. Walker (Editor); Dijana Milosevic (Contribution by); Charles Mulekwa (Contribution by)


New Village Press, 320 pages


Buy the book

“When we decided to create performance in the main square in Belgrade, we knew that it could be dangerous. But we felt that we had to take the risk because we had the privilege of a public voice. We physically felt that people on the street needed to hear the truth, to hear that they were not alone in their pain. They needed to know that perhaps there was a way for them to speak in public about their beliefs. In that way we provided a model for action. After the performance, many people came and thanked us because they had finally heard publicly something they knew and felt to be true, but that was officially denied and was forbidden to mention.”

In “The Created Space: Peacebuilding and Performance in Sri Lanka,” Madhawa Palihapitiya, a conflict resolution practitioner with extensive experience mediating between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations, focuses on two peace building artists.  The Sinhalese filmmaker Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s production of “The Trojan Women” used Brechtian alienation to elicit empathy from both Sinhalese and Tamil audiences who recognized their own senseless warfare in the play. Dr. Kandasamy Sithamparanathan founded the Theatre Action Group (TAG) to explore how new rituals can enable Tamils to articulate and overcome deep trauma stemming from abduction, displacement, rape and the violence of war.

Playwright/director Charles Mulekwa, in “Theatre, War and Peace in Uganda,” writes, “I believe that once people think critically about their lives, they can be activated.” Later in the chapter he says, “When we see our own condition on stage, it becomes less terrifying, less impossible to discuss.”

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