Social Justice and Theater at a Time of Crisis

by Miki Kashtan

Augusto Boal at Riverside Church, NY City

Augusto Boal at Riverside Church, NY City, in 2008

All of last week I was at a Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) training. I was drawn to the intensely evocative and provocative forms first created by Augusto Boal in the 1960s, designed to support marginalized groups in creating social change. Intuitively, I sensed these practices could support the rudimentary role play forms that are part and parcel of learning Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and dramatically (pun almost not intended) enhance NVC’s social justice applications.

This week became a thick, rich, powerful, challenging entanglement of the personal, the symbolic, and the political as a group of 36 of us from across many social divides and several countries grappled together with our experiences and all else that unfolded that week. By necessity of care for our agreement to protect the specifics of what happened in the room, most of the below is only about my own experiences and lens.

The Colombian Hypnosis in action

The Colombian Hypnosis in action

Soon after starting, we engaged in a seemingly innocuous “game” – Colombian Hypnosis. The form is simple: one person puts their hand a few inches from another person’s face, who is then “hypnotized” by the hand, and follows it around. They then switch roles, and later co-lead the activity. (Variations, which we didn’t do, include multiple people doing it outward from a center.) This very quickly becomes a metaphor for power relations, and soon enough slavery was in the room, along with white guilt. Throughout the week, whatever we did brought up deep-seated responses in our bodies coming from millennia of domination and years of personal experiences, in a setting where we could play with it, examine, talk, and do theater with all that arose.

When we broke into four groups to create spontaneous, silent, and still collective images of social issues that we felt identified with personally, I joined the sexism/internalized sexism group. Immediately, I was astonished to see what emerged from me (dislike of the shape of my stomach) and from others. When the teacher tapped each of us to speak the hidden thoughts lurking within the image we displayed, and later during the debrief, I heard the line “women are their own worst enemies” spoken by the one man in the group, more than once, while at least some of the women agreed with him, and the rest didn’t join me in openly dissenting. Thus started my own journey of aloneness which lasted the whole week.

I was alone, in my perception, in understanding and speaking up about the slipperiness of sexism, and how a line like this erases the structures of power and socialization that so deeply shape how women act, and makes it seem like it’s all up to us to wrest ourselves out of so many thousands of years of being ruled by the structures some men have erected that dehumanize both men and women. I was alone in trying to talk about it. I felt alone when we did the Power Shuffle, an activity used to bring to the surface social power dynamics present in a room, and I found no words or even images to give voice or shape to my own experience of the activity until it just ended and I knew the image I would have sculpted: three people with their back to me, me in the center of the circle they form, dejected, with the title “I belong nowhere.” I was more aware of being an immigrant to this country, even after 33 years, than I usually am, even while continuing to know my immense privilege as a light-skinned person. I felt progressively more alone in the course of the week as I saw people socializing with each other and not inviting me. We had an open mic one evening, I was alone in my challenge about alcohol and pot (which is legal in Washington State), and I was alone when I told a personal story and its presentation back to me wasn’t a reflection of my experience. Considering that this issue – being alone, misunderstood, different, ostracized – is so core for me, I am not surprised in retrospect, just still recovering from the sadness of it all.

There is no question in my mind that each of the other 35 people in the room had their own intense and complex experiences, and that I am totally not alone in having had a lot arise. Our primary tool for attending to the dynamics that unfolded amongst us was theater forms we were learning, and conversation which we all aimed to keep to a minimum. I kept it mostly to myself, because I wanted to be focused on the group, on the learning, and on the events that started bombarding our fragile and strong space even as they affected a whole nation and world.

For days in a row news of violence kept coming into our midst. First Alton Sterling’s shooting by police in Baton Rouge, then Philando Castile in St Paul, then protests spreading throughout the country, then five police officers shot in Dallas: Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, and Brent Thompson. On top of that, rumors of lynching in Atlanta when Michael George Smith, Jr. was found hanging from a tree.

And so it was that one of the three short plays that we created for our Forum Theatre public performance/event was focused on police shooting a black man at a party in the park, with a mixed group witnessing. This is no surprise given that this was a group of people committed to social justice; and still it wasn’t an immediate choice even for us.

The play lasted less than ten minutes, and was the one chosen by the audience to engage with actively. In Forum Theatre, members of the audience stop the action and step into it to replace one of the characters and explore other options for responding than what the original play demonstrates. This is one of the core methods that Augusto Boal used, a way for oppressed groups to imagine empowered, creative, transformative options. No one gets to replace the cop. It’s only the ones without formal power that are stretching to imagine alternate outcomes. Ordinarily, those facilitating such theater are reluctant to have people step into roles that are not based on their own experience. While our group was about 40% people of color, the audience was just about all white, and thus the only characters they could replace were the white friends at the party. Trying out being a human shield for the black man, standing up to the police officer to divert his attention and gun from the man on the ground, engaging empathically with the clearly reactive police officer, and other variations of such themes, the audience was invited to give their reactions to what was being tried. Meanwhile, those of us in the play got to enact and reenact the same deadly scene again and again, each time engaging with a different spect-actor (Boal’s term) and adapting the unfolding to what their way of playing a character evoked.

What does this accomplish? Nothing, on one narrow lens. This was, after all, theater. Yet the power of what happened is undeniable, too. For one thing, how often is there a fairly random group of mostly white people that actively engages with how to respond? That even talks at length about police shootings? At the end of the evening, many people raised their hand to say that they would be more likely to do something if caught in a situation like this than before the evening.

There isn’t unity in this country about how to respond, even though probably everyone knows that the path of escalating violence can only harm more and more people, everywhere. When I read a Tikkun article and learned that Barack Obama, a black president, spoke of police shootings of black people as tragedy (as if he is not holding anyone accountable) and of the killings of police officers using the language of accountability, I was left without confidence that the magnitude of the horror is being taken seriously. When I learned that former civil rights movement icon Andrew Young said to police officers that some Black Lives Matter protestors are “unlovable little brats” (a statement for which he later apologized) instead of seeing them as the continuation of his own legacy of activism, I felt protective of the terrified and outraged people taking to the streets in the hopes of being taken seriously, at least. When police are 21 times more likely to shoot a black teenager than a white teenager, I, as a citizen of this country, as a human person living in this time, know that a massive restructuring of priorities is needed to shift the growing pattern. When I learned that of 148 cases of people in Minnesota dying after being shot, taser stunned, or restrained by police since 200 not one has resulted in police being charged, I simply don’t trust that the system that gave rise to such acts can correct itself without creative intervention from outside the centers of power.

stop shootingAs one person after another stepped into our play to grapple with what a witness could possibly do to deescalate an intense situation and prevent a shooting from happening, I started to see and feel something emerging. For those moments, even if they were fleeting, I noticed the gradual dissolving of paralysis. I became aware that our collective paralysis is a tacit agreement to things continuing as they are. For a few minutes, a group of people came together and engaged, loudly, publicly, emotionally, verbally, and through theater. These are people with enough privilege to shrug at the events and pretend they can continue with their own lives regardless. One woman from our training reminded us of how Harriet Tubman created her movement. Everyone had a role, some role, if they wanted. That means each of us, any of us. Our role is unique to us, consistent with who we are, where we are located, and what our sphere of influence is. My own, clearly, is to write, to engage with people, especially white people who are still paralyzed (check out my Facing Privilege Calls), and to use my own resources – my access to white privilege, my small sphere of influence, and my innate and cultivated capacities for speaking and for courage – to bring this massive crisis to people’s attention wherever I am. I hope to remain steadfast in my commitment.

INVITATION: To discuss this and other posts with me and other readers of this blog, check in to the free Fearless Heart Teleseminars. July dates:
Sunday July 17 @ 10:30 am12:00 pm
Monday July 18 @ 5:30 pm7:00 pm

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This is a space for discussing tough subjects: both personal experiences and the massive challenges in the wider world. The culture of this blog is one of looking for the possibility of forward movement through loving engagement, even, and especially, in times of disagreement. Please practice nonviolence in your comments by combining truth and courage with care for me and others you’re in dialogue with.

Image credits: Top: Boal, By Thehero – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0. Middle: from The Forum Project, New York. Bottom: Black Lives Matter by niXerKG, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.

One thought on “Social Justice and Theater at a Time of Crisis

  1. Me

    I was touched to hear that even someone as ingenious as you can end up misunderstood by a group on that scale. And comforted, because I have experienced similar loneliness or being scolded for speaking up, having an unconventional opinion. So how did you wrap this experience up emotionally for yourself? That is what I wonder.


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