Gaps, Complicities, and Connections: Stories from a Movement Towards Racial Justice in Higher Education by Nisha Sajnani and Amanda Wager

Nisha Sajnani
Amanda Wager

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] 

Alongside student-led and university-wide efforts, both of us were involved in faculty and staff development initiatives in our respective graduate schools: the Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences (GSASS, Nisha) and the Graduate School of Education (GSOE, Amanda). GSASS undertook a professional development series referred to as “Black Lives Matter,” to encourage a shared awareness about power, privilege, and oppression.[ii] GSOE conducted a series of monthly conversations and activities entitled “Examining Race” to become more fluent and comfortable discussing racial issues with colleagues and to help better prepare teacher candidates for work in racially and culturally diverse educational settings.

We proposed that Playback Theatre (PT) be used in each school’s initiative to encourage the sharing of lived experience within an empathic, reflective context. Nisha assembled a diverse pick-up PT team comprised of Will Chalmus, Kelly DuMar, Myles C. Green, Johnny Lapham, Shoshana Narva, and Melissa Nussbaum. Two performances took place on November 3rd, 2015 for 1.5 hours each. Nisha was the Conductor (facilitator) for both performances and the actors rotated the role of the musician. Since then, we have continued to hear comments about the impact of this encounter.

In this article, we share several of the stories told to further elevate these brief oral histories about the presence and impact of racism in the academy and to bring readers into the experience of each performance.[iii] Each was followed by a variety of short and long forms and, in one instance, image theatre techniques drawn from the Theatre of the Oppressed.[iv] We, together with those involved, are aware of the risk involved in publishing these stories and do not want to suggest that the kinds of concerns shared are unique to this university. By making our process transparent, we hope to shed light on instances of racism in higher education and invite a closer look at what was helpful and challenging about using PT within this social movement.

First performance: Graduate School of Education

 This performance took place at the second meeting of the years GSOE ‘Examining Race’ series that was initiated by the Dean and facilitated together with a group of five faculty and staff members, including Amanda. This was an optional meeting with approximately 10 staff (e.g: administrative assistants), 20 faculty, and one administrator (Dean) who chose to attend the PT performance. Prior to the meeting, the Dean sent out the following discussion questions we created to guide this artful dialogue: What are your hopes and fears in talking about race among the participants in this room, as well as within your classrooms and communities? What might a subtle or unintentional act of racism look like? How can we detect them?

As is typical with a PT performance, the actors introduced themselves with short anecdotes conveying a range of experiences relating to racism within higher education. The conductor briefly explained the history and purpose of PT and then invited anecdotes relating to the theme.

PT actors in a Narrative V (from left to right): Nisha Sajnani (conductor), Melissa Nussbaum, Johnny Lapham, Shoshana Narva, Kelly DuMar, and Myles C. Green

 Nisha: There were two guiding questions for today’s conversation. Let’s begin with the first one. What are your hopes and fears in talking about race among the participants in this room or in your classrooms?

 The first story was shared by Phabo, an Elementary Education Professor who had previously been a principal for ten years.

 Phabo (faculty): In my role as a principal, I was always ready to listen to students and teachers of color, but sometimes it seemed like there was a failure to communicate.

 After a fluid sculpture, Nisha returned to Phabo who said, shaking his head with regret: Where was I failing to communicate? Maybe I really wasn’t listening.

Nisha: Maybe we need to slow down the dialogue to really hear the words. What do you think?

Nadine (Double Alum & Employee): I felt like I had no voice while I was a student here. I knew I was intelligent, but felt buried because my race still had a silent existence. There was a moment in particular when I was in graduate school that I had asked my field placement supervisor to write me a recommendation. He agreed, but stated in the letter that I spoke Ebonics. I had never heard of that word, but once I learned what it meant it has destroyed my self-esteem forever.

After a short form playback, there is a pause in the room and a lot of tears. After the PT, the teller expresses “that is exactly how I felt.”

VC (faculty, Equity courses, Multicultural Education): This process really connects with me. I often feel invisible as a Puerto Rican woman. At the same time I feel that I must make myself invisible to keep some parts of myself back in order to be of service to others. It is hard to put words to this experience. I can’t always do it in this place. Sometimes articulating this …becomes so difficult. How do we bridge this disconnect? It is a gap that needs to be reversed.


The PT team offers a short form in response to a story about bridging the gaps that arise in communication because of assumptions and stereotypes. The form ends in an image of one person of color reaching out to others.

VC indicates that this was not how she sees “the gap” and asks if we can redo the image. The conductor asks the actors to form the final image of the previous short form and transitions to using image theatre while still maintaining the PT frame. Nisha asks VC how she experiences the gap and VC asks the PT team to divide itself so that white people are on one side and people of color are on the other. Nisha then stands beside each character and asks them to imagine their inner thoughts in this image. For the person of color side, the actors say “I’ve done this a million times”, “fake it till you make it”, “why should I cross over?” and “I’m real”. For the White side, the actors each say: “I don’t get what the problem is”, “I really want you here”, “cluelessness”, “here we go again”, and “why is this such a big deal?” Nisha returns to the PT ritual by returning to VC to ask if these voices reflect the gap in understanding that she perceives and she indicates with grateful relief that it did. At this point, Nisha is about to ask the audience to move into small groups to share responses to the stories shared thus far but Leah, a faculty member, interrupts making a strong request that her story be heard without us continuing. Nisha invites her story.

Leah (faculty): An experience that I find myself in often is that because I am often one of very few Asian women on staff, I am asked to represent the entire Asian population. I’ll participate in what is being asked of me but I know I’m going to fumble. As a 22-year old student [at another university], I was asked by my teacher, “I have these two Asian students in my class and can you explain this?” Because I was a student I answered the instructor the best I could. I felt I did a huge injustice. I felt like they were forcing me to represent a large amount of people and then not accepting what I had to say.

Leah titles the performance: Either “Why Me?” or “Not Again!” and thanks the actors for representing how she felt. Later, she comments that “I feel something about the power dynamic between me as a 22-year old undergrad and the course instructor needs to be mentioned. That’s why I answered the instructor’s offensive question dutifully – and why many of our own students appear to comply even when we as teachers – perhaps unintentionally – position them in uncomfortable, racist, and “inferior” ways.[v] 

Nisha invites the audience to speak in small groups about their reflections on the stories shared and, when they return, she asks for the titles of stories not told so that they can be recalled for future conversations. The titles of stories come quickly.

Ann (third generation Chinese American faculty): When I was a kid they said, “you speak such good English” even though I was born and raised here.

Coleen O’Connell (faculty): I was engaged in a Native American talking circle and I, as a white person, had to discipline myself not to take it personally and work internally with not acting or speaking out of guilt but to really listen. This is the work that White people need to do.

La Negrita (faculty): As a Black woman, I have had instances of going into meetings, sharing an idea, and no one says anything and then someone else brings it up and it is acknowledged.

MK (faculty): Being an adult, coming from Ghana, people say to me, “You speak good English”. This is not a compliment because you don’t know the colonial history of how I learned it.

The actors close with a short form called the Diamond in which they each poetically reflect on the titles shared.

Second performance: Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences

GSASS had been engaged in a ‘Black Lives Matter’ series for a year prior to this performance. This series was designed by a small committee which included Nisha and was held during a mandatory monthly school meeting time. Therefore, the audience was slightly larger with approximately 9 staff, 22 faculty, and 4 administrators (Dean and Directors of major programs). As with the GSOE performance, the actors introduced themselves and the Conductor offered some orienting information about PT. One actor, Melissa Nussbaum, introduced herself with a statement about how she preferred the word ‘enslaved person’ to the word ‘slave’ because she felt that it accurately placed the focus on the person who was doing the ‘enslaving.’ The remaining actors reflected this back with a chorus repeating the line “I’m in here.”

PT actors in the introduction sequence (from left to right): Myles C. Green, Kelly DuMar, Shoshana Narva, Will C., Melissa Nussbaum, Nisha Sajnani (conductor).

Nisha: (After a brief description of PT) This conversation is a little different in that we have a chance to explore what is at stake for ourselves in this conversation as well as for our students. Does anyone have a moment when you felt the impact of racism in university life? 

Steven Cramer (faculty): The world is easy for white, male writers…I feel my own embarrassment at times at how I am implicated in this as a White male and as the director of a writing program. I know that I am not as culturally read as I could be.

The actors play this back through a fluid sculpture. This is followed by a long pause in the room. Someone comments about the tendency to become complacent. Nisha asks the audience if we (as she was a member of the GSASS community) are at risk of falling into complacency as faculty who have been talking about this for the past year. There is a pause.

JB (faculty): I am filled with the complexity of being enslaved. That is so powerful and I am struck by the repetition of the words “I’m in here.”

Nisha: What was it about those words “I’m in here” that struck you?

JB: I’m just thinking about how often people in this community are not seen for who they are but are stereotyped instead.

The actors reflect this back as a chorus in which stereotypes relating to identity are pronounced: age (e.g. she doesn’t look old enough to be a professor, she’s sort of old to be a student in college), gender, race and ethnicity (e.g. she’s White so she obviously doesn’t know her own privilege, he’s Latino and must feel oppressed), sexual orientation, expertise (e.g. they’re probably an expert on diversity…), and value to the organization (e.g. they’re the old guard or new blood).

BR (staff): I am in here and I’m a part of structural racism. I am in it all the time and the question that comes up for me is: how do we not let that paralyze us?

The actors reflect this back as a pair in which one side represents stuckness and the other side represents movement.

Nisha: How do we not become stuck while working in the very systems that we want to change?

KE (faculty): Many of my students are middle class white women so it makes me think that we are not reaching certain people and communities. I also have this feeling, at times, that I’m a part of this system and that the way that I am teaching becomes elitist and that I can’t make things change faster.







The actors reflect this back as a 3-part story in which the final scene involves actors moving prop boxes on the stage just a few inches at a time.


Nisha: That story helps us to ask ourselves if transformation is possible.

 MN (faculty): I think it is. That moment where the actors moved one block at a time really spoke to me. And it’s not just one person that is going to make this change. It’s a collective. I get frustrated sometimes by the slow pace of change.

 JB: What spoke to me was when the block moved. It means looking at everything with fresh eyes which is not easy because I’m an enslaved person. I’m trapped by it.

Nisha: Do you have an example of a time when you felt trapped? JB seems to defer to others in the audience. There is a pause. KR offers a story.

KR (faculty): I have moments of feeling really empowered by the work that’s happening here but I also have sleepless nights. We say that we are a school for social justice and yet we fail at this in so many ways. I don’t want to participate in preserving the system and I know that I consent to this system by condoning what happens within it. The stakes are high and I ask myself – what does this mean to my son? What does this mean for the kind of family I want to have and the values I want to pass on? As long as I seek security and a paycheck, I’m going to continue to consent to be a participant in the system but what kind of example am I setting? This is a school that claims it is for ‘social justice’ … what are we going to do about it?

The Conductor casts the story and the actors enact a poetic reflection of the tensions and hopes embedded in KR’s story. The teller’s actor (Will C.) begins by squatting in a very small box and slowly tries to maneuver his way out of it. He escapes and enters it again while speaking in rhyme about his dilemma. At one point he joins another actor cast as KR’s young son in the same box and speaks about the values he is struggling to pass on. They exit and begin to push the box just a few inches – in a way that is reminiscent of a short form used earlier in the performance. Will C. begins to move in and out of the box with greater ease and ends with the teller’s call to action “what are we going to do about it?”

 Nisha: Are there reflections on KR’s story? There is a palpable “tension of participation” in the room.[vi]

DS (faculty): I’m thinking of KR’s words: “it’s a school for social justice” and our talk about enslavement and justice and this question: “What are you going to do about it?” The word enslavement implies that other parties are involved and that the way to solve it is to “free” people one person at a time. One step at a time. One action at a time. Tiny steps can be inspiring like that box. Yet, I know I’m saying this as a White woman and I don’t want to be one of those well intentioned white people who says it’s getting better when it’s not… Sometimes we just don’t see the box we’re in.

After this playback, Nisha asks for titles of untold stories which are then played back through a Diamond form.

Audience responses: invisible resistance; the trouble-maker or teacher; microaggressions are not small things; you don’t look like a criminal; the NY Times featured best writers of 2015 and the list was of all White authors.



Advancing a social movement for racial justice in higher education can be challenging without spaces to really listen to one another. Forums that do exist often privilege carefully crafted analysis and intellectual debate over the seeming messiness of our everyday interactions. PT, in this context, offers a collective experience in which faculty and staff are called into a heightened awareness of the relationship between emotional investments and professional activity; between private and public personae; and between personal biases and political discourse. The “patterned, sequential, theatrical process” that characterizes PT is what, as Dennis (2007) notes,“compels storytelling.”

The observations that we gathered suggest that it was precisely the way in which this space was facilitated that made it possible to attend to each other in way that was qualitatively different than other conversations about racism in the academy. As one faculty member stated in a written reflection, “Moving the conversation of race from the head to the heart so quickly was incredible.” Another reflected,

I was completely blown away from the experience. It moved me so much. What a neat and clever way to explore difficult issues…The quickness of their process and your pre-framing and directions to them was really impressive. At first I thought the process was too simple or just scratching the surface but what I discovered was how the slow step-by-step process actually allowed people to be drawn in more and more, and open up further thought and at times reach a profound experience.

Yet another reflected,

I don’t think I have really gotten to tell you the transformative impact the GSOE diversity/racism Playback Theater session that you ran had on me – one can read and present and talk all one wants, the transformative power of the space you created is something completely different! We need lots of ways to reach people but your work hit me in a way that was different.

As Rivers and Chung (2017) suggest, one of the ways in which PT contributes to social justice is by putting a “human face to the issues and demands that define a movement” where the “quality of a conductor’s [and we would add, actors and audience] listening can be a political statement in itself”, for it signals that the teller’s story is valuable. It was critical that these performances took place with staff, whose voices are often underrepresented, and that there was space to really listen to the experience of faculty and staff of color; this was one way in which we worked to ensure that oppressive dynamics were not recreated in this performative encounter.

Having an audience comprised of administration, faculty, and staff and of White identified and faculty and staff of color was also important in that it allowed us to practice navigating what became referred to as “the gap” in the GSOE performance. As the performance progressed, VC spoke about the challenge in articulating this gap between how people of color are heard by their White colleagues. She clarified this feeling of disconnection and negation further by externalizing her experience through image theatre. This seemed to compel another faculty member of color to articulate her frustration with being asked to be the spokesperson of her assumed racial group. The titles of the stories left untold that were announced towards the end of the performance suggested that there was much more to hear concerning the experience of staff and faculty of color and from White colleagues attempting to navigate what O’Connell described as “the work that White people need to do”.

Indeed, this was an example of how PT is able to raise awareness about oppression while also creating a space for, in this case, faculty and staff of color to “define their own sense of self through accounts that celebrate the richness, complexity, and dignity of their lives [which in turn challenges] stereotypes and other forms of misrepresentation” (Rivers & Chung, 2017). The ritual of returning to the teller after each story, a technique embedded within the PT form, also serves this function well. Acknowledging the teller after short forms can simply take the form of eye contact, rather than verbal exchange, especially in shows on topics that are less intense. But here it was important to make sure that the teller was heard again, by other audience members as well as by the team. As one faculty member wrote, “The opportunity to let the performers know when they got it right and when they got it wrong was useful and greatly appreciated.”

A coordinated effort to support racial justice in university life requires solidarity across racial lines and an investment in each other’s struggle; this is another area where PT can be particularly helpful. In the GSOE, the stories shared revealed concerns about listening across racialized differences and the ways in which calling attention to identity and language can be used to empower or disempower. This led to an exchange about the fissure and disconnection that people of color experience when faced with situations that make them feel like they either have to hide some aspect of who they are or speak on behalf of others in their ethnic group in order to participate in university life. In the GSASS performance, these constraints were made tangible through the visual metaphor of being boxed in. Other predominant themes had to do with working through a sense of complicity and guilt while seeking personal and professional integrity. As one White, male faculty member put it,

It struck me how we all seem so moved and influenced by these struggles. There was a sense of relief and belonging from the realization that most struggle with the same thoughts of complicity.

Another White, female faculty member wrote to us about her own resonance with one of the stories shared,

As the story unfolded, spontaneously inspired by the audience, the actors helped to reenact a scene where a person of color and colleague explored the challenge of doing his job. He literally demonstrated feeling boxed in, and conflicted on whether or not he should keep his values or put up a good front so he could protect his job to take care of his son. As a newcomer to Boston, a single parent for his child with few if any family members present in the city, he literally and figuratively felt the edges of a box that he symbolically walked in and out of, feeling the pain of his child’s voice wanting his attention. The experience felt so real and reflected a powerful universal human dilemma that crosses many divides.

Indeed, the kinds of stories shared in both performances were specific to each teller and to our community, but also indicative of documented concerns about racism in institutions of higher education.[vii]


Our commitment was to examine race and racism along with its manifestations and impacts in everyday experiences and interactions in relation to university life. To this end, it was important that we were both insiders to the conversation as we had been following it for some time within the culture of our own university. However, it also made it more challenging, in some moments, to really ensure that staff, staff of color, and faculty of color had an opportunity to have their stories heard in this mixed gathering where supervisors and their employees were both present. As the conductor, I was also aware of where my own biases were influencing which stories I wanted to privilege. This is not a reason not to proceed with PT in this context but rather an emphasis of how facilitation is not neutral especially in conversations about power and oppression. As other PT practitioners have observed, we cannot assume, even amongst fellow practitioners, that everyone will share the same understanding of what constitutes fairness or justice but need to stake a claim when it comes to protecting and promoting human dignity.[viii]

Another challenge had to with a propensity we observed towards telling stories that preserve us, as PT actors, conductors, and tellers, as either the hero or victim. It became quite important that the poetic reflections offered by PT actors and musicians will able to offer nuanced explorations of justice and complicity and that we, as a community, embraced the complex nature of this encounter where we were speaking to each other through stories [ix] From this perspective, the work that took place in the GSOE performance to articulate the ‘gap’ made sense as a precursor to the GSASS performance where stories revealed a struggle with those complicated moments where we, intentionally or not, contribute to maintaining this gap.

While there was a steady flow of stories in the first performance, there were long periods of silence in the second. Granted, both had been engaged in different processes for different lengths of time. Attendance at the GSOE performance was optional, meaning only those who wanted to be there were present, while the GSASS performance was held during a regular all-school meeting time when full attendance was expected. The audience in the GSASS performance was also seated behind tables, as is the norm in these school meetings, which is never conducive to a PT performance. It is safe to say that the performance created a certain degree of internal pressure which which Dennis’ (2007) describes as “the tension of participation.” She writes,

The momentum built through the ritualised method, the repeated invitation to tell and the evocation of a heightened theatrical environment can be challenging for audience members and cause them to resist participation. (p.56)

As a person of color, I (Nisha) can also relate to a specific kind of hesitation and pressure in mixed spaces where personal experience has previously been mistaken to be representative of others’ experience or where it feels like I am obligated to share my experience because it is a “diversity” related meeting. Telling personal stories involves different kinds of risk for each person in the room where there differences in identity, power, and status. As one participant remarked, “I have heard more since the event – of the stress it placed on members of color…[this should be] a caveat in terms of doing more of this here at Lesley.” Pausing for affinity group caucusing or small group interaction may alleviate this pressure for some or heighten it. There might also be tremendous value in using PT to caucus with people of color and White-identified colleagues in separate gatherings in addition to mixed encounters.

It is also important to acknowledge that this way of interacting within one’s professional context is unusual and potentially more emotionally evocative than expected. As one faculty member noted,

A little more time [is needed] to get more stories from the audience participants. Some people (myself included) left feeling very raw and vulnerable and would have liked some kind of closure to the session in a community/group way. [I suggest more] time or some guidance at the end on how to process/wrap up what had transpired in a self-reflective/individual way.

Bringing intimacy to work can contribute to a shift in culture but requires transparency and an indication to audiences that this conversation will call on them to be more emotionally present than they may be used to. If we were to do this again, we would build in time for self-reflection and perhaps a more emotionally distanced conversation about the role of PT in supporting racial justice in this context.

Finally, PT teams engaged in efforts to support racial justice in higher education and other contexts need to know that this will necessarily involve confronting and working with their own biases and internalized oppression. Shoshana Narva, PT actor, put it this way in a post performance debrief,

I am sitting with a lot of my own uncomfortable feelings that arose during the course of the second performance. Why did the first performance feel so enriching and connected while the second performance felt quite disconnected for me? I felt disconnected from the audience…I have a hunch that it had to do with some internalized white shame of some kind.

Sometimes this is possible to bracket[x] and sometimes these resonances are what facilitate connection with tellers. Shoshana’s reflection also gives us a chance to think about those moments in performance when we have been thrown off by our own internal process.

Of course, working through these kinds of challenges can be facilitated through ongoing work within a PT company and that’s where doing this kind of work with a pick-up team can be challenging because our rehearsal time, while useful, did not leave time to delve deeply into the personal resonances we had with the conversations being shared.

That said, PT actor Melissa Nussbaum’s comments reveal how company members draw inspiration and conviction from engaging in PT within social movements:

I came away with a reconfirmed conviction that Playback is of use in so many ways: to point to confusion, transformation, pain, joy, and longing…I was struck by the openness and deep need to speak personal experiences of oppression, both past and present, especially in the specific stories ​of the first show. I can also imagine that the second show ended on such a high note because the very flow of the show was an example of breakthrough from complacency to speaking hard truth. Maybe to action?…In terms of my work, I am encouraged to keep insisting on the importance of language.

The solidarity and support that company members are able to provide one another is invaluable to sustaining any movement in which PT plays a role.

Next steps

We remain interested about how PT can be used to facilitate positive shifts in organizational culture. Institutions are cellular expressions of society and thus reflect and must contend with the dynamics of power, privilege, and oppression that we live within. We invited members of this pick-up PT company to present on this approach to facilitating conversations about race and racism in higher education at the 2016 American Alliance for Theatre and Education Conference. This allowed us to reflect on our learnings about the use of PT in this context and to be in conversation with colleagues from other institutions of higher education. We hope that, by sharing our reflections here, we are able to inspire continued creative work in this area with our colleagues in the PT community, our own universities, and in other institutions of higher education committed to racial and intersecting forms of social justice.


[i] See Sajnani and Ansloos, under review. A timeline of racial justice efforts on college campuses as well as a link to the 81 lists of demands may be found here:

[ii] see Cullors, Tometi, & Garza, 2015; Koverola, 2014

[iii] This is a partial transcript. Notes were taken during each performance and then reconstructed into a transcript. Each teller was invited to review and edit their own story and also reviewed this article before giving consent to its publication. They chose their own pseudonyms and descriptors, if desired. Italicized notes about the choices made by the conductor and actors are provided where necessary.

[iv] see Fox, 2007; Sajnani & Johnson, 2016; and Weinblatt, 2015

[v] Leah sent this reflection after re-reading her story.

[vi] See R. Dennis on “Tensions of Participation” in Crossing the Threshold

[vii] See Arnold, Crawford, & Khalifa, 2016; Smith, 2009; and Whitaker, 2017

[viii] See Fox & Sajnani on the difficulty of assuming shared notions of fairness and justice within PT communities.

[ix] See Sajnani and Johnson, 2015.

[x] See Rivers and Chung, 2017 on bracketing biases that come from places of privilege.


Arnold, N.W, Crawford, E., & Khalifa, M. (2016). Psychological heuristics and faculty of color: Racial battle fatigue and tenure/promotion. The Journal of Higher Education. 890-919.

Cullors, P., Tometi, O., Garza, A. (2015). Black Lives Matter. Retrieved December 11, 2016, from

Dennis, R. (2007). Crossing the threshold: Tensions of participation in community-based Playback Theatre performance. Journal of Interactive Drama, 2 (1), 56-70.

Fox, H. (2007) Weaving Playback Theatre with Theatre of the Oppressed. Center for Playback Theatre: New Paltz, NY.

Fox, J. & Sajnani, N. (2016). Conflict at playback theatre conferences: A summary of a conversation between PT practitioners. International Playback Theatre Network.

Koverola, C. (2014) Black lives matter. Retrieved from

Sajnani, N. (2011). Playback theatre and social change: What’s at stake relative to diversity and anti-oppression. In Neumark, D., and Chagnon, J., Affirming collaboration: Community and humanist activist art in Québec and elsewhere (pp.123-129). Montreal, QC: Levier.

Sajnani, N. & Ansloos, J. (under review). What we can learn about the future of higher education from student demands for racial justice: A qualitative analysis of 81 lists of demands.

Sajnani, N. & Johnson, D.R. (2016). Opening up Playback Theatre: Perspectives from Developmental Transformations and the Theatre of the Oppressed. A Chest of Broken Toys: A Journal of Developmental Transformations, 94-126.

Sajnani, N., Wager, A., Narva, S., Nussbaum, M., Chalmus, W., Green, M. DuMar, K. The role of Playback Theatre in conversations about race in higher education [conference presentation]. American Alliance for Theatre and Education. July 28, 2016.

Smith, D. (2009). Diversity’s promise for higher education: Making it work. Baltimore: MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Weinblatt, M. (2015). Combining Theatre of the Oppressed and Playback Theatre: A powerful and delicate marriage. Mandala Center for Change.

Whitaker, M. (2017). The unseen labor of mentoring. Vitae.


We would like to thank the actors from the Boston area Playback Theatre community and our colleagues at Lesley University who were so generous with their stories and insights.

Bio and Correspondence

Nisha Sajnani, PhD, RDT-PhD is the incoming Director of the Drama Therapy program at New York University. Prior to this, Nisha was the Director of Global Interdisciplinary Studies, Advisor in the Expressive Therapies PhD program, and Coordinator of Drama Therapy at Lesley University. Her research concerns racial justice and intersecting oppression, the psychological and social health benefits of improvisation and performance, the role of the arts in global mental health with specific attention to the experience of health providers working in contexts of displacement, and feminist and arts based research practices. Nisha is the Principal Editor of Drama Therapy Review, the journal of the North American Drama Therapy Association. Email:

Amanda Claudia Wager is an Assistant Professor at Lesley University, where she prepares teachers to integrate the arts within TESOL and literacy education. As an educator and researcher she has used drama and theatre while working with diverse populations of children, youth, and adults within formal and informal learning environments. She has presented and published internationally on her research interests, which include feminist pedagogy, applied theatre, drama-in-education, youth studies, civic engagement, and additional language learning. Amanda’s passion lies in building safe spaces in which individuals can creatively and critically co-construct pedagogy. Email:


One thought on “Gaps, Complicities, and Connections: Stories from a Movement Towards Racial Justice in Higher Education by Nisha Sajnani and Amanda Wager”

  1. I only just now read this because I was busy teaching the 3-week PT Leadership class of the Centre for PT. The article is an excellent report on an important project–using playback theatre to encourage dialogue on issues of race at universities. I appreciate Lesley University’s initiatives, and even more the willingness to include playback in their discussions on race. And I am admiring of the sensitive and informed manner in which the playback was conducted. We have much to learn here. Thank you Nisha, Amanda, and PT team.

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