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Arts and Culture

Restoring Personhood

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Posted on Nov 20, 2012

By Jean Randich

(Page 2)

Jo Salas explains the theater form that she co-founded in “Stories in the Moment: Playback Theatre for Building Community and Justice.” True stories are told by ordinary people and then immediately acted out. Young victims of bullying in the United States, as well as war widows in Afghanistan, have used Playback Theatre to express painful, oppressive stories. “In Playback Theatre performances,” Salas writes, “children are invited to speak about an experience as a victim, a witness, or a bully, then watch as their feeling or story is enacted on the spot either by a team of professional adult actors—or, using a participant performance model, by student actors and adults together.” Hjalmar-Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn, who helmed the widows’ project in Kabul, writes, “Theatre as a memory-creating process can invite people to transform traumatic personal memory into collective historical memory and consequently help society to move on.” An audience member in Kabul, in response to the widows’ performance, was moved to share: “I was forced to marry when I was twelve years old. During the civil war my husband disappeared and I was left alone with four children, two girls and two boys. I worked very hard for all of us to survive but one day, because of the cold weather, one of my sons died. Shortly after, both my daughters married when they were around eleven years old. Now I am basically alone and do not have enough money to put food on the table.”

John O’Neal, writer/director/activist and founder of Junebug Productions, takes on injustice in the United States in “Do You Smell Something Stinky?” “Racism stinks,” he writes. “It arose in human history as a justification for unethical, immoral behavior.” O’Neal declares in salty prose how hard it is for any of us to get past the roadblock of racism. O’Neal devised the story circle practice during the civil rights movement and teaches it today. Members tell and listen to one another’s stories in a democratically agreed upon process “where the object isn’t to win, but to share.” This collaboration inspires confidence and hope; the storytelling helps dismantle “internalized oppression” that allows exploitation to thrive. O’Neal writes, “So the questions on my mind now are: How to build a movement that, with its energy, with its spirit, with its intelligence, can help roll the big wheel of History away from inequity and toward equity; away from injustice and toward justice; away from bureaucratic autocracy and toward a genuine representative democracy.”

In Section II, Cohen, Varea and Walker make a cogent case for how stories and rituals enter the performance space in ways not possible through more traditional dialogue and negotiation. Performance allows unconscious material to arise and be expressed. Everyday ritual, clothing and other ongoing elements of community life become part of the performance. Bodies retain memories; creative play with the body can yield up those memories for transformation.

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

Artists and practitioners dedicate themselves to “cultivating spaces for creative acts, taking risks in the direction of vulnerability and relationship, acknowledging interdependence, and embracing paradox and complexity.” This leads to three powerful effects: silenced thoughts, feelings and actions are aired; hindered social, ethical and creative capacities are restored; and the moral imagination is embodied in acts of memory, resistance, the pursuit of justice, and a sense of identity and interdependence. Transforming conflict is fraught and tenuous. Yet when people attend a powerful performance, they may be moved to empathize and inspired to take action in ways they otherwise are not.

In the closing chapters, the editors extend an invitation to the reader to take action. Section III provides specific guidelines to help facilitate conversations, create initiatives and support training workshops. Chapter 8 includes nuanced questions for discussion, such as “What are the risks of engaging with resistance as an end in itself?” and “Why are people more able to confront painful memories through performance than through other means?” O’Neal supplies a protocol for story circles. He shares his grandfather’s advice: “Better to have a few easy rules that you can follow than to have a bunch of hard rules that you get lost in.” Then O’Neal adds his own: “Well, maybe there is one law, the law of listening. In storytelling, listening is always more important than talking.”

Cohen and Walker pose questions to elicit strategic thinking for those wishing to design and document performance initiatives, with a special section dedicated to “Minimizing Risks of Doing Harm.” They make a passionate plea for peace and an inspired bid for the art of performance as one of our most humanizing activities. What might happen if more of us acted together?


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