This month it’s my turn to contribute a post. With kind permission from the editors, this article is excerpted and adapted from my chapter “Stories in the Moment: Playback Theatre for Building Community and Justice,” published in Acting Together: Performance and the Creative Transformation of Conflict, Vol 2, eds. Cohen, Varea and Walker, published by New Village Press in 2011. (I encourage readers to explore this remarkable anthology of writings on theatre that addresses conflict in many parts of the world.)
“Standing Up: Playback Theatre and School Bullying” describes and evaluates the approach pioneered by Hudson River Playback Theatre in upstate New York, now used by other PT companies as well.
Emma—not her real name–is a seventh grader, about 12 years old. She’s small for her age, slender, very smart, very artistic. She’s not part of the “popular” crowd in her class. Emma’s interests are different, she doesn’t make friends easily, she can be a bit sarcastic and prickly. For a long time, she’s been the target of daily, relentless, cruel bullying. She comes to school every day knowing that other kids are going to make fun of her, isolate her, and humiliate her. She feels powerless to stop it. She’s talked to her teachers and her parents. Her parents have talked to the principal. The principal has scolded the bullies. Nothing seems to help. Telling her story in a Playback Theatre performance, she says: “It feels like they’re tearing my heart out.” All she wants is for the other kids to leave her alone. She would also like it if a couple of the other girls would ask her about her artwork.
Emma has five more years of school. She doesn’t know how she’s going to survive.
In Playback Theatre we refer to “the red thread,” the connection that can emerge between spontaneously told stories–not simply a theme, but a kind of dialogue between the stories themselves. We are seeing a red thread emerge in this blog, a conversation about Playback Theatre’s capacities and responsibilities in relation to participation, inclusiveness, and social justice. This new article from Nisha Sajnani and Amanda Wager continues the red thread, looking at a sequence of performances exploring racial justice on an American university campus.
Nisha is the incoming Director of the Drama Therapy program at New York University and the principal editor of Drama Therapy Review. Amanda is an educator, researcher, and an Assistant Professor at Lesley University. See full bios following the article.
Gaps, Complicities, and Connections: Stories from a Movement Towards Racial Justice in Higher Education
by Nisha Sajnani and Amanda Wager
Social movements for racial justice have regained momentum on college campuses across the U.S and Canada over the last three years, including at Lesley University in New England where we have both taught. Eighty-one lists of demands created by student groups call for greater accountability on the part of university administration and faculty to recruit and retain students and faculty of color, develop and use curricular materials that do not reify White, middle-class realities as the norm, allocate money, space, and human resources to acknowledge the health and social impacts of racism and better support the wellbeing of students of color, and to provide continuing education on racism and intersecting oppressions as it affects everyone implicated in university life.[i]
“Garland of Flowers” is Jonathan Fox’s recent account of working with a Playback project in Nepal, a country where he spent two formative years as a young man (referred to in his memoir Beyond Theatre.) Returning to Nepal in 2016 brought new understanding of how his long-ago experience there contributed in important ways to the formation of Playback Theatre.
February 2016: Exhausted after the 24-hour journey from New York, having survived the sudden storm as we approached the Kathmandu Valley, then finally disembarking into the gloom of an airport that had lost electricity, I staggered around in the darkness looking (in vain) for my suitcase, eventually wandering out into a shadowy hall to be met by a handful of beaming strangers bearing prayer scarves. Later, finally settled in a hotel room (with backup generator), I shocked myself by catching sight of my bleeding forehead in the bathroom mirror—when and how had I sustained this injury?—finally realizing that the red was not blood, but dye from a ceremonial welcome tika that I did not remember.
I awoke the next morning to sunlight and views of a bright colored stupa and rooftops with flowers. At breakfast when asked, “Coffee or tea, sir?” I answered proudly in Nepali. But when I tried to tell the waiter how I knew Nepal 48 years ago, my words failed. I sighed and said in English: “Peace Corps Volunteer.” Continue reading “Garland of Flowers by Jonathan Fox”