The Echoes of Stories and Conflict Transformation: My (hi)story being in Beirut, 2019

Jutta Heppekausen’s essay is a sensitive discussion of the complexities of historical conflict, both for those who inflict suffering and those who experience it. Her frame of reference in this thoughtful, well-informed, and personal reflection is both the legacy of World War 2 in Germany, including her own family history, and the ongoing conflict in Middle East with its implications for our Playback Theatre community.

Editor’s notes:
Jutta’s use of the concept of echoes in Playback stories is somewhat different from my development of that idea. I welcome her interpretation.
Other than the teachers mentioned, all names are fictional.

 The Echoes of Stories and Conflict Transformation:  My (hi)story being in Beirut, 2019

By Jutta Heppekausen

3000 year-old Lebanon cedar

At the foot of my desk lamp there are two small pieces of tree bark – one has been there for more than 20 years, the other (as a photo) since a few days ago – pieces of trees of life that have an important meaning for me. Moments I don’t want to forget. The second one is from the bark of a 3000 year-old cedar tree from the Chouf Mountains, which, when we were there, rose, still snow-covered, behind Beirut. The first one is from an oak tree in front of a house in Überlingen/Bodensee. Many years ago, Grete Leutz, who brought psychodrama to Germany, conducted a seminar here together with Yaacov Naor from Israel.

Both tree barks belong together and to me. They help me to acknowledge all suffering – despite the differences of living conditions and of people’s actions.

Moden Beirut – restored but not healed.

During some rainy days in spring 2019 I conducted, together with Henk Göbel, Berlin, a workshop on “Playbacktheater and conflicttransformation”. With participants of the three Lebanese PT groups we worked on “the echoes of stories” (Jo Salas), conflict competences (William Isaacs) and how to make good PT in community work. Trying to position myself in PT-work and in this country, I said as we began that I understand the situation in Lebanon also as an echo of the history of my country, of Germany, of the Shoa/Holocaust. It is only now that I recognise how much this is true.

I am the daughter of a mother born in 1918 and a father born in 1907. They experienced two wars. They carried them and also their consequences: Poverty, abandonment, exclusion and the desire to belong, struggles to understand the crimes and to survive afterwards – not as people persecuted by the Nazi regime, not as perpetrators, but as bystanders. My mother, evacuated from the Saarland, and working as an accountant in Mainz, in the office of the department store “Sinn” (Sense), witnessed the dignified submission of an elderly gentleman signing the “purchase contract” for the aryanization of his department store. She felt sorry for him — and continued her work. In the forties she wandered through the beautiful Alsace and wondered about the empty villages. Jews had lived here. They had all emigrated, she was told, and she believed it. Then in Dresden, when she saw a little child playing in the backyard shortly before the firestorm, she was touched. The little girl was not allowed to protect herself in the bunker from the bombardments, for she wore the yellow star of David. My mother told me this story when I could finally listen to her, unlike in the seventies, when I couldn’t. My mother was a courageous and energetic woman, having been left early by her father – she insisted on having a school education against the will of her depressed mother living in poverty. She later refused to join the BDM (Bund Deutscher Mädchen – League of German Girls, the only legal female youth organization in Nazi Germany). at the cost of exclusion from the school community, she threw firebombs from the attic, and, having been evacuated to a Bavarian village, she led cows to the barn by the nose. As a single parent, skinny and with a suppurating breast, she breastfed her first daughter. Later on, she managed to raise a family, because my father, her great love, had moved to other mental spheres. After her second child he forbade her to work and compelled her to live as a housewife. But she had little motherly love at her disposal. She avoided the suffering of other people, demanded perseverance from us in everything that was difficult – and supported us in this to the best of her ability. She had little strength for empathy and lived in an only fragile peace with herself. She could never really acknowledge the suffering of others. Early widowed and only after living a more self-determined life at an older age was she able to allow herself to be touched by her own losses and the fate of others.

No, this is not a Holocaust story. It is a story of times full of violence, taboos and struggles to survive. It is a story of a hard shell choking compassion. It is not a story of justified inaction during fascism. It is simply my personal (hi)story.

When I was nine, my older sister tried to explain to me the photos of human skeletons from Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald and Auschwitz. My mother’s horror of the bombings at night was transferred to me through the body, when she held my hand as we were going through the market and when, during the exercise of the sirens which used to take place on Saturdays at twelve o’clock I suddenly felt the tension of her hand in mine. When I was fourteen, I fell in love with Aouni, whose family had to flee to Lebanon in 1948 – and I drew up a helpless “peace proposal” for the Middle East. I first fulfilled our mother’s mission to educate ourselves for her own dream job, as my sister did – and then we continued on all sorts of detours. Both of us try to make a connection between an alertness to power and exclusion and the strengthening of the capacity for empathy, or even better ‘Zweifühlung’ (‘mutual empathy’, a Moreno term from psychodrama) and to integrate this into our professional, political and personal commitments in life. This is how I came – most recently with playback theatre – again and again to Israel/Palestine and now to Lebanon. Perhaps it is the echo of German ( hi)stories that led me to support and learn from the valuable work of Lebanese, Syrian and Kurdish playbackers in this beautiful Levantine country destroyed by war and continuing colonisation. The wounds inflicted by the empathy blockade of my parents’ generation are now bleeding in the Middle East. Some of us have tried to learn from this and perhaps we can share this learning with people “Down South”. We may never really understand each other’s different echoes, but shouldn’t we continue struggling to explore them?

Our theme at the Beirut workshop was: How can playback theatre contribute to conflict transformation? It was about dialogue competences (voicing, listening, respecting and suspending – according to William Isaacs) and the four echoes of the stories in playback theatre (personal history, here and now, socio-political and historical contexts, archetypes and myths – according to Jo Salas).

Dialogue competences (Isaacs)

For us the goal of playback theatre consists in condensing artistically these echoes and thus bringing the multitude of stories onto the stage that may not have been told publicly yet. Especially in the context of conflict transformation, these may be particularly the stories of those who talk about suffering.

One of the many conflicts – even within the PT community – accompanied me in my Lebanon plans: Some time ago, a playbacker from Israel told me how shocked and sad she was when, at an international meeting, Arab colleagues abruptly rejected her open arms. Here in Beirut, I heard the same story from the other perspective, namely how the Lebanese colleague, during a get-to-know dance, experienced the spontaneous embrace of an unknown woman from Israel as deeply encroaching. She then asked for a mediation in which it was recognized, at least, that joint photos with Israeli participants means a threat to Arab playbackers, because as long as no peace treaties have been signed, any contact between people living in Lebanon and Israelis will attract the interest of the secret service. These socio-political echoes should be known, shown and respected in our community.

Sabra, one of the Palestinian refugee camps in the middle of Beirut

But that was not the whole story and still far less its end. I think it was probably more about mutual recognition: about recognition of the suffering on both sides. From a Lebanese perspective a recognition of the suffering caused by Israeli politics, which caused the exodus and diaspora of many generations of Palestinians, profoundly affecting this small country, of Israeli bombs and tanks in Beirut, of Israel’s complicity with the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila, of the needs of refugees in the camps, ongoing war threads and Israeli dominance in the region.

We heard and saw the echoes of such stories on our playback stage in the workshop. Perhaps it was about the recognition of anger and fear, pain and grief – and of course all that cannot be wiped away with a mute hug.

From an Israeli perspective, it may be about decades of unfulfilled longing for a life in peace after the echoes of the Shoah, which have not yet died away, the extermination of millions of European Jews by Germans and the ongoing persecution, murder and discrimination of Jewish citizens in Europe and other countries. There are more than a few Israelis who are certainly also concerned to have their deep desire for understanding their close neighbours recognised. And last but not least, the conflict is probably about the still controversial recognition of the right to a state – 18 of the 22 members of the Arab League do not recognize Israel to this day, a state that is a more or less safe home for a population whose Jewish part still carries the wounds of the Holocaust in their heart. Most Jewish and Arab people in this region know fear. This fear has a long history, with many different long stories. It is unbearably difficult to understand the others in these stories, and one’s own contradictions. The shrill or whispered echoes of these stories we would perhaps like to refute with a hug. This seems impossible to me.

On the political level, the decisive dividing issue is the recognition of Israel as a state. Arab playbackers demand that their Israeli colleagues distance themselves from the policies of their state and condemn the injustice of Israeli politics. For citizens of Lebanon this might be the only way that any cooperation with Israeli citizens will not be seen as a betrayal of their country’s fight against Zionism. For good reasons – like the attention of secret services – people from Arab countries can fear that working with Israelis will be seen that way in their country. And here is a trap: Israeli playbackers suffer wherever they are from being held accountable for the policies of their state instead of being perceived as individuals with their special opinions and (hi)story (“But I am just Tali, please look at ME!”). Sometimes they have well-founded fears in the streets of Germany or any other country of coming out as Israelis abroad, e.g. during a mobile phone call talking with their kids in Hebrew. For all Israelis this piece of earth is their home, where they were born and grew up. It may be the only country in which the Jews among them can feel really safe from antisemitism. In the heated debates in a war-torn region, calling for public criticism of government policy quickly becomes a fundamental issue. Any positioning thus could be heard, unwittingly, as a declaration that the existence of their own homeland is unjustified.

There will be no agreement on these political positions in the foreseeable future, I fear. So what, in this case, is conflict transformation and what role can Playback Theatre play in it?

The issue is recognition, recognition of any kind of suffering – and thus recognition of every person as a human being. Of every human being. Our stages invite you worldwide to tell your personal experiences and truths that come from the heart (voicing). Recognizing these different truths (respecting) sounds much easier than it is. Also, in other places of the world as well as in the Middle East there is a kind of competition (someone once spoke somewhat sarcastically of a kind of “Olympics of suffering”) about which suffering is the worst and should therefore be acknowledged more. In playback theatre we can give a stage to all suffering, regardless of who experienced it where and how and who carries it inside. We can listen with all our pores, resonate, express with our art what we have recognized. We can include what we want to know and show about the person. And we can and should learn from the differences of living conditions that are significant in these very personal experiences (personal history). We can show to the community which is present the values that make it possible for us to tell our story (Here and Now). For example, depending on the culture, some stories of same-sex love can be shared honestly in only certain venues. We can use body, voice, words, music, boxes and scarves to make the voices that may have been hidden in the story heard. We can hint at the past and future history in these stories that belong to it, like the voices of conservative forces with great influence in a village or a city and the resulting suppression of same-sex love. The echoes of a lack of stability in times of flight and war, even when these have disappeared on the surface, cannot be ignored in stories about confusion and feelings of guilt and betrayal (socio-political and historical context). And we can use the power of myths, fairy tales and archetypes. This is not about magic wands to relate unrealistic solutions, but about images that dare to show suffering clearly as a human experience and acknowledge it – avoidance is useless. Thus, we saw on stage the tragic story of a Syrian, who had managed to settle in Lebanon, about the impossibility of participating in the funeral of his sister and the grief of his family beyond the border. In this story, a strangely archaic figure suddenly appeared: a wanderer who never gets tired of walking on with his heavy luggage, planting trees wherever he rests. Such stories, passed on from generation to generation over the centuries, convey an ancient knowledge of survival and confidence that is sometimes forgotten in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. After all, it is about hope. Heraclitus already knew: “If he does not hope for it, he will not find the unexpected, because it is untraceable and inaccessible.” (The same will probably be true for her.)

We cannot find solutions, but we can open a space, as in Rumi’s poem:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

When we meet in this space, we are positioned very differently. We need a lot of knowledge and sensibility about these differences. Experience has shown that it is not as easy for those who are positioned “above” to perceive clearly how those positioned “below” feel and live. Those who are taller (even physically – as a tall person, I know that myself) and stronger, those who have more influence, who by chance have been born into more socially privileged lives, can have blind spots and may have good reasons from their point of view not to see these differences. That may not be intentional or even conscious at all, but it may protect against unpleasant challenges, against changes, perhaps also against feelings of guilt, which can block the acceptance of responsibilities. Can playback theatre broaden the view? Can it open eyes, pores and heads further for an equally empathetic, resonant gaze that knows about the political and historical contexts as well as about the ancient sources of human strength for a good life (listening)? That is my hope.

To embody this hope I found the piece of bark of a 3000 year old cedar in the Chouf Mountains, where the war had raged badly. What did this tree hear, what did she give, what does she “know”? And she still stands there, protective, a big cradle containing still untold stories.

Some of those stories were finally told in that 1995 seminar with Grete Leutz and Yaacov Naor. The latter, a psychodramatist from Israel, son of Auschwitz survivors, was born in a camp for displaced persons in Germany. He had worked for many years with descendants of persecuted persons, perpetrators and bystanders on the subject of “Facing the Holocaust”. One of many stories particularly impressed me: A daughter told of her love for her father, for whom she would wait impatiently in the evening. Every evening she ran towards him as soon as she heard the humming of his car down the hill, and then would sit next to him, leaning her head against his shoulder as they drove up the mountain to their home. Much later she learned her father was a murderer. He was one of the guards in a concentration camp. This woman, like so many of her generation, has spent years dealing with the German history of fascism and the question of her responsibility. At the end of the work with this scene, the issue on one level was to acknowledge both the condemnation of this man’s murderous actions and her love for him as a father. Out of this unbearable tension this woman became profoundly sensitive to violent relationships and developed a commitment to human rights. She chose a profession with which she wanted to heal people’s wounds. I saw similar things happening with the social workers in Sabra and Shatila, with the community workers at the intersection of the three front lines in Tripoli, who – like Yaacov Naor – decided to deal with their own wounds through their work on conflict transformation.

“This is my way to come to terms with my suffering,” one of them told us. They share the experiences of the people they work with, but not always their ethnic or political or any other kind of affiliation. They respond with concrete support for all those who need and can accept it. But this is not the end of the story. The contradictions still tear many of them to pieces again and again. New contradictions keep arising and such synthesis formation/integration is a continuous hard work. But distinguishing between the person, between the human being (with all human rights) and his/her actions (which sometimes have to be condemned with all its consequences) remains a necessary perspective.

This playground, close to a future PT stage, was built by neighbours in conflict, facing the ruined houses at the intersection of three front lines from the civil war.

Within the worldwide playback theatre community we can and should also learn to share and perceive differences; to share our knowledge and our judgement concerning right and wrong even if we cannot agree about them in every detail. Only in a very few cases could we come to an agreement. For example: As long as there is no peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians and the Arab states, the citizens of these countries, including the playbackers, will be unable to agree on their position on Israel. At the same time, however, if we ignore history and current inequality in our dealing with each other and on our stages, we may risk unintentionally reproducing relations of domination. We need an ongoing, never tiring interest in the life conditions of all of us. What we have in common is the recognition of human rights and the recognition of individuals. We can express both with all the respect that our art requires. In order to be able to do this we need to pause continuously (suspending). We need the silence within ourselves, which allows us to hear all the echoes of the stories that the others tell about themselves.

The conclusion of the seminar “Facing the Holocaust” in the subterranean tunnels of Überlingen was such a memory. Those tunnels served during the Second World War, after the bombing of Friedrichshafen’s industries as ‘bomb-proof’ containers of arms. For a long time, the seminar participants stood there in silence around a fire and seemed to hear the echoes of the 800 prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp who had to blast corridors into the rock and remove the remains. At least 243 prisoners did not survive. Yaacov spoke about hatred that destroys life. We, descendants of the persecuted, the exterminated, as well as the murderers and their helpers, experienced together with him a moment of life. Standing around the memorial candle in this dark tunnel we felt the space where we could meet despite of all our profound differences.

For me, this is what the piece of bark from the tree of life stands for. The bark from both trees of life, in two different continents, are deeply connected.


Jutta Heppekausen, Canyelles/Barcelona/Freiburg April-August 2019.

Jutta is the founder of “Blickwechsel – Playbacktheater Freiburg“, international PT-trainer (APTT of the Centre for PT, N.Y. and the German PTN), living and working among Spain (Barcelona) and Germany, interested in experimenting and reflecting about PT work in social change, esp. in contexts of racism, sexism, classism and all other “isms”, trying out the magic impact of PT-art





Climate Change and Playback Theatre


I’m posting this short essay in conjunction with the launch of a new Playback Theatre Climate Action Group on Facebook for practitioners who would like to address the climate crisis using Playback.  The essay reflects on what we in Hudson River Playback Theatre have learned from 10 years of climate-focused performances, including our participation in Climate Change Theatre Action, an initiative to support the biennial UN climate talks. Climate chaos, of course, has become only more dire in the two years since I wrote these comments for a mini-conference on sustainability in Sweden. At the same time there has been a massive upswell in public awareness, protest, and even political action. There needs to be much more–and we can help!

Climate change and Playback Theatre

 By Jo Salas

Adapted from a Skype talk presented at “Moving into a Sustainable Future,” April 22, 2017. Playback Theatre Mini-conference, Stockholm, Sweden

The theme of sustainability is compelling on many levels–our personal lives, the life of our Playback companies, and the life of our planet. I would like to focus my comments on Playback Theatre’s role in moving toward a sustainable future for the world in the face of climate change.[1]

For a long time now Playback Theatre groups have been addressing issues of social concern, including immigration and refugee crises, economic inequality, human rights, natural disasters, traumas of war, and so on. All over the world, Playback teams have listened to these stories and acted them out with compassion and artistry, building connection and strength in the face of hardship.

In recent years a number of us have explored how to use Playback in relation to climate change, a danger that threatens every creature on our earth, and our unborn descendants. Human-made climate change is affecting life on earth in countless and compounded ways. In time, living conditions everywhere will be as drastically affected as they already are places like the Maldives, Greenland, Bangladesh and island nations in the South Pacific. Disrupted food production and extreme climate conditions are already causing the displacement of millions, leading to mass migration and political conflict. In Syria, extreme drought was a major factor in political destabilization and the ensuing human rights catastrophe[2], which led to the current refugee crisis in Europe.

If we have the courage to look at what’s happening now, we must fear what is coming next. We fear the loss of our more or less comfortable and secure way of life. We fear the loss of the natural beauty that sustains our soul. We fear the hardship that our children and theirs will have to endure.

But as well as the fear, many of us feel called to do something–to take action that can change our direction and help to bring about a livable future. Naturally, people who do Playback think of our art form. We know that art has the power to reveal and inspire. We know from our own experience how meaningful it can be to hear and enact stories on topics of shared concern.

So it is timely to ask this question: what exactly is it that Playback can do, in relation to climate change? Can we really help? And how?

Climate scientists tell us that we have a window of just a few years to steer away from the worst outcomes. Right now is the moment when the decisions that we make will mean the difference between change that is sustainable, that is compatible with human civilization, and change that is not. It is an absolutely crucial moment.

But for the most part, our governments are not doing what needs to be done. They won’t take the political risk. I’m sorry to say that the United States is one of the worst in this regard. They refuse to make laws that would restrict automobile and aviation use, keep fossil fuels in the ground, prioritize renewable energy, and say no to the oil industry’s bribes. They are simply not going to do it, whatever they might promise at UN summits.

So we ordinary citizens have to do something. Us. And our best chance is to share our vision and our determination, and stand up together wherever we can, to oppose fracking, and logging, and over-consumption, and coal plants, and corporate greed, and government corruption. So many people are already doing this, and they—we!—have had some astonishing victories.

We can also create such a sense of urgency among citizens in every country that no one can get elected without promising to take action that will slow down and minimize climate change.

How do we find that sense of determination and urgency? Three factors, particularly, can inspire us to stand up and demand change:

      • Information: gaining factual knowledge about the severity and urgency of the situation;
      • Emotional engagement: feeling within ourselves the vulnerability of our own lives, the lives of our children and grandchildren, and the life of our beautiful, fragile planet;
      • Connection—becoming aware of the millions of other ordinary people who share our concerns and are doing what they can in their own communities.

It is within the second of these factors, emotional engagement, that Playback has a special contribution to make. Our form reaches deeply into feelings. It embodies those feelings and stories in artistic expression. The impact can be profound and lasting. As we all know, when stories are shared and transformed into theatre, strangers become connected. And by providing practical information at the same time, we can help them connect outside the Playback event to others in the community and beyond.

Not everyone in the audience is immediately going to sign up to be an activist, of course. But a successful show on climate change will move every person a step or two further along—from being curious to being informed, from being informed to being engaged, from being engaged to being active, from being active to being a leader.

So I think the answer is that yes, Playback can be an effective part of the movement to reduce climate change. But we have a special challenge, which we’re likely to encounter as soon as we offer a show on this topic. In contrast to other topics of social concern, most audience members in the northern countries do not yet have pressing personal stories about climate change. They may have very strong feelings, and of course we can enact those feelings, But personal stories about climate change can be hard to bring into focus.

That is because climate change takes place on a far-more-than-human scale. Dangerous levels of carbon in the atmosphere, temperatures rising by fractions of a degree, sea levels rising by centimeters–these changes show up dramatically on graphs. But, for most of us in the northern world, at least, they do not show up dramatically in our own lives. Not yet.

What does it mean, on an emotional level, that in a hundred or two hundred years all the coastal cities in the world will be under water, or that two thirds of today’s farmland will be arid? We won’t be here to see it. If we did a Playback show in Tuvalu in the South Pacific it would be very different. We might hear a story from a woman whose small vegetable plot has been poisoned by salt from the rising sea, so that now her family has to depend on donated food. In a hundred years, this might be our reality as well. But it’s not the reality now in Europe, or Russia, or the United States.

My company Hudson River Playback Theatre has done a number of climate change shows over the past eight years. We’ve learned that the stories are indeed there. But we need a much more careful process of warm-up than usual if we are going to find them. And we’ve also learned to be careful not to lead everyone into a pit of hopelessness, which will create paralysis rather than action.

In our most recent climate change show (which took place during the UN Paris talks and was part of a worldwide theatre initiative called Climate Change Theatre Action, in connection with the talks) we tried something new. We drew on the work of Joanna Macy, [3] a wise woman who has been working on environmental and social change issues for decades. As a response to the trap of despair, she developed the concept of a spiral that cycles through four stages:

      • Gratitude—tuning into our deep love and appreciation for the natural world;
      • Honoring our pain—allowing ourselves to feel our grief and anger at what is happening;
      • Seeing with new eyes—finding perspectives that are inspiring or refreshing;
      • Going forth—envisioning or celebrating actions and initiatives that contribute to positive change.

This spiral sequence allowed us to build a performance that took people deeper than they might otherwise have gone, leading to strong, focused stories that pointed toward active hope.

We also provided factual information both about climate change and about local action groups. This component is essential when we offer Playback shows on climate change and other pressing social justice topics. We want people to not only express their passion about nature, about their children, about the earth but also to put that passion into constructive action. Usually in Playback shows we don’t need to be so concerned about the connection between the stories and the follow-up. Telling the stories is in itself a form of action. But sometimes it is not enough by itself.

In this particular show we took several steps to help link personal stories to action:

      • We included a fact sheet on climate change with our printed programs;
      • We invited a local climate action group to bring an information table with sign-up sheets and petitions;
      • We held a talkback immediately following the show where a climate expert responded to comments and questions from the audience.

It all added up to a fruitful, memorable event. Informally we’ve heard comments from several audience members about its impact. One person told us that he became a vegetarian as a result of learning about the connection between meat-eating and climate change. Another person has become an active member of a local climate action coalition.

But there is so much more to be done. We plan to keep offering shows on this topic in our community. We want to reach many more people. We also would like to explore a longer event, perhaps half a day where everyone gets involved in action rather than simply being tellers and audience. We hope to keep discovering and refining how we can use our form with as much impact as possible.

Other Playback groups are doing similar work. I hope that we will connect and strengthen each other, just as our audience members can connect and strengthen each other when they share their stories.

August 2019: A postscript

I want to add something at this point: in addition to the ways that I mention above, there is another very important way that Playback Theatre can contribute in a time of climate chaos, and that is by its inherent fostering of connection, communication, and kindness through the spontaneous, sincere exchange of personal stories—whether on the topic of the climate emergency or not. As our societies reel and splinter under the stresses of an unpredictable climate and its consequences, as fear and desperation threaten vital social bonds, our knowledge of how to bring people together and how to listen will become ever more needed.



[1] This discussion about using Playback Theatre to address climate change applies to using Playback as a way of addressing other issues of political and social concern as well. In such performances it is also helpful to use the spiral model that I describe below, and to provide factual information and opportunities for follow-up action. Hudson River Playback Theatre uses these principles in public Playback performances on the US’s current political crisis, for example.


[3] Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, New World Library, 2012


Author bio:

Jo Salas is the cofounder of Playback Theatre, the founder of Hudson River Playback Theatre, and the author of Improvising Real Life: Personal Story in Playback Theatre, now published in 10 languages. She edits Playback Theatre Reflects and welcomes new submissions of thoughtful writing about Playback.

A Collective Reflection: Visiting the Legacy Museum and Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama

“[The legacy of slavery] has certainly created a disease where we’ve become indifferent to the victimization of black and brown people. And we have to treat that disease.”–Bryan Stevenson, in “Pain and terror: America remembers its past,” The Guardian video, April 26, 2018

This collage of writings, photos, and a sound piece reflects on a pivotal journey by a group of Playback practitioners to the Legacy Museum and its associated National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

In 2010, the Equal Justice Initiative, founded by Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, began work on what was to become “the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people.The museum and memorial opened in 2018. Together they confront the poisoned harvest of racism that continues to this day.

We welcome your comments as part of the long dialogue in the Playback community about race, racism, and responsibility: our unavoidable inheritance.


Jonathan Fox: Playback in Montgomery
Annie Hoffman: Montgomery 8
Pamela Freeman: Lynching is not over
Phyllis Labanowski: Dear white America
Will Chalmus: Ripples in the water
Brandon Sloan: Dirty south
Sarah Halley: Breaking open
Jo Salas: Seven Playbackers and an artist go to Alabama

Jonathan Fox: Playback in Montgomery

For Wanda

The first afternoon in Montgomery we all went on a tour of the Dexter Street Baptist Church, Martin Luther King’s church (now renamed the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church), which sits just one block from the Alabama State capitol, with its monuments to the Confederacy. The tour guide was an outgoing, larger than life personality named Wanda Battle, who refused to let us be passive, impersonal bystanders. She made a historic visit that much more, and at the end, to repay her kindness for giving us so much of herself, one of our group told her who we were, and  we offered to do a fluid sculpture for her.

She accepted without an ounce of hesitation. Sitting beside her in the first pew as conductor while she watched the “stage,” I felt a moment of joy—joy to see the actors’ faces, so engaged in this thing I love, joy to see Wanda Battle’s face of intense engagement, and yes, I must admit, joy to find myself engaged in playback theatre in this very special sanctuary.

For ourselves

The next day, after a morning and afternoon spent confronting our history in the museum and at the memorial, I was far from feeling joy. I was beset with images—of children separated from their parents forever; of angry white faces; of prisoners in orange jumpsuits; of facts on the wall, and more facts on the wall; and later, of rows and rows of sepulchral hangings. The encounter with so much white cruelty and so much black suffering was difficult to bear. I could only let it in so far.

Afterward when we gathered in our hotel suite, prior to going out to dinner, the air, electrified by our ordeals, was turbulent. We bickered over small things until Brandon stopped us. “Is this what we came for?” he asked. We paused. We regarded each other. With the ease that comes from a long attachment to spontaneity, we changed course. We decided to order food in rather than move to a public place. We decided to share through playback.

There was hardly room, but three actors took the space. Two chairs held a rotating conductor and teller. Each person told; each narrative was enacted. We touched on many aspects of our journey that day in ways that were more allusive than precise. Yet there was space for all. We listened to each one of us. At the end, we said good night and went to sleep, relatively calm, relatively content with our evening.

For the future

The next morning, half of us flew home, while the other half attended the Sunday service at the Dexter Ave. church. It was youth day, which meant that the ceremony was conducted as much as feasible by the children of the congregation. As kids of all ages led us in prayers and homilies, it was impossible not to feel joy again, this time mixed with a profound sadness as well as sense of wonder and admiration.  Despite inexpressible oppression, this people had survived. Unable to be crushed by slavery, post-Reconstruction terror, and mass incarceration, the resilience of generations of forebears was made manifest in the presence of these children, whose bell-like voices led us forth.

Annie Hoffman: Montgomery 8

Facing US
the U.S.
the whiteness
my whiteness
the kindness
8 friends (including me)
took a leap
a flight (delayed in Charlotte)
to the land of grits and Wanda!
(You could meet her too
at the Dexter Ave church)
and lynching, really lynching?
did you say lynching?
that’s why we went –
not to gawk
but to face
and flinch and face and flinch
and digest the indigestible.
I met Kuntrell Jackson (look him up)
born in Arkansas
imprisoned in Arkansas
standing in the Legacy museum
O what a legacy!
he said it’s his healing
his therapy
Bryan Stevenson
god sent
to free him and all juveniles
from the yoke of a life sentence
I’m crying
finally a memorial
to 4,400 (plus 380 more people recently recovered)
breathe and grieve (how?)
and deal-
death ain’t always natural
that’s for sure
and who’s hanging now?
Certainly not those responsible
all white juries (by law)
turned lynching to death penalty
death penalty to death row
death row to Jim Crow to maximum minimum
to let’s just stand “our” ground
and shoot black people down in the street
us whites
just us for us whites
no justice for blacks
no reparations for
jobs lost
homes lost
lives lost, parents and children
property and businesses lost
peace of mind lost
love of country shattered
from shackles
to shattered lives
to intergenerational trauma
to suicide
it’s happening now
his young, black queer friend
fellow organizer –
our first night
that’s how the trip begins
this way
we can’t sew fast enough
to keep us from fighting (internally, externally)
but by the time
we’re ordering Thai food
we have our voices
intacting (that’s a verb)
we share something
even just a fluid sculpture
it’s enough
seeing my terror (thank you Jo)
to bring me back to life
pump another breath out, in
when I’m scared
I can’t feel
O…this a familiar pattern
when I sense rupture
I remember now
my own attempt
to silence myself forever
O ya
we better change the narrative
quickly now
we are sensitive
we are human
we care about each other
this is natural
I cuddle with Will
we talk farts in the room
3 women exchange foot massage
I know I heard laughter.
I commit to you
to hold each other up
to have gratitude
and anger
and I will never forget
nothing can shatter our new family
of 8
we made it through
we made it to
the heart of the story
the red thread?
8 people, 3 black, 5 white
set off together
to witness the great and ongoing wounding
continue to sew the stories
and have the feelings.
We are alive
in this age of mass incarceration.
Keep facing the wounding
These “Racial terror lynchings”
transforming into
new monsters.
We are alive,
we will slay the dragon (internally, externally)
we will love on each other
white to white (thank you James Baldwin)
white to black (impossibly)
you lead, I follow (I did it again)
you speak, I listen (do I really hear?)
when a white person says, “I love you to death!”
watch out!
Brandon, Will, Phyllis, Pamela, Jo, Sarah and Jonathan and myself
Thank you for making this trip happen
My heart is forever bigger. 

Pamela Freeman: Lynching is not over

Being with a group of people I trusted was how I got through the Legacy Museum.

Montgomery, Alabama was always a trigger for me: my mother’s mother died in childbirth as Black people were not admitted to white hospitals in Alabama. This was not talked about much in my family so I did not ask questions till I was older. But, I grew up seeing pictures of snarling dogs biting Black folks who were protesting and police beating and spraying hoses of cold water on Black people. For me the south was a dangerous and scary place especially Alabama and Mississippi–two places not on my bucket list.

Shortly after the museum opened a few people I knew who had visited the museum told me I had to go. I read Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy and knew I had to go but kept putting it off as I did not want to go by myself. I knew I could not handle all the feelings that would come up. When Jonathan called and asked if I wanted to go with him and Jo, I saw this as the perfect opportunity and said yes. However I wanted more support from Black and White people I had worked with on race issues but agreed to keep the group small.

I invited Sarah, Phyllis and Will C. Will C invited Annie and Brandon. The eight of us lived together for a weekend, sharing beds, food, and a rented van, sharing our stories, tears, reactions of anger, grief and sadness around a history of white hatred and rage that resulted in the lynching of Black people. Walking into the museum and seeing the old signs of Whites only, Blacks and Jews not allowed, and knowing that in 2019, while there are no signs, Blacks are still questioned and not allowed in public places—Starbucks, hotels, etc. And the new Jim Crow. Black men and women, even with hands up, being shot daily. Shooting Black men and women is the new form of lynching. The prison industrial complex a close second. As I was leaving the museum I looked into a window display with bars and saw a little Black girl asking over and over again, “Have you seen my mommy?” It brought me to tears. In 2019, Latino, African, and Haitian children are asking every day “Where is my mommy?” as border patrols round them up, some never being reunited with their parents. Same story, different century. I give thanks to our group of eight.


Phyllis Labanowski: Dear White America

(sound piece: click to listen)

Will Chalmus: Ripples in the Water


I needed a vacation and this was the closest thing I was going to get. A compilation of noteworthy Playbackers and empathetic human beings traveled to Montgomery, each one intent on confronting our stake in the racial history of the United States. I purposefully avoided reading much about the museum, fearing I would taint the experience by over analyzing things before I went. To preemptively balance the emotional scales I expected to rock, I began a Facebook series, sharing daily videos of black people engaged in “black joy.”

I also invited two local Playback Theatre colleagues, hopeful we would transcend our thinking on the subject. To us, boarding the plane felt like going to a funeral. I set an intention to celebrate the lives of those lost, as it felt more culturally relevant and respectful than to use the time and space to mourn.

At maximum altitude we discussed the roles we wanted to play and which roles we did not. I am aware I have the most associations with people on this journey; it’s a privilege and burden. So many hats to choose from. I ponder how my role on this trip is to validate white people as they encounter their whiteness. How does having a “safe” black presence validate our journey to understand our ancestors? Are they OUR ancestors?


That second room at the museum happened. It was dark. Caged holograms demonstrated and named the pains of enslaved humans. I held onto the bars listening as if life depended on it… At some point my perspective just snapped; as I looked at my hands on those cold metal bars I begin to feel that I was the one in the cage. I carried this new perspective with me for the rest of the trip. It has become the filter through which I view life at home.

Before departing Alabama, I found myself increasingly revolted by the frequent statements that “more white people need to see this.” Is it possible for black people to have pride in anything without white people making it about them? At the same time I am fully aware of the positive impact these sites could have on any population. Luckily, I am amongst people that are ready and willing to discuss the paradoxical nature of these feelings.

Once home, I struggled to find someone to debrief the process with, and returned to work at Brandeis University. I excitedly brought the students of my Provocative Arts course to see Anna Deveare Smith receive an award. She embodied three theatrical monologues as part of her acceptance speech, each one based on personal narratives derived from interviews. Her final enactment contained the words of Bryan Stevenson reflecting on race in his personal life. I subtly wipe away the tears.


It doesn’t…but I need it to.

A month after returning, I sat in the living room of Annie, the white colleague I invited on the trip. I am surrounded by other, mostly older white, faces at a fundraiser she organized for “Families for Justice as Healing,” an organization that is working to end the incarceration of women. I am full of pride as Annie raised over $25,000 for the cause in a short time, but I am also torn. I can not help but see how much of the resources needed to help is in the hands of an oppressive class, and that salvation for my people requires coaxing that class into charity.

I have 8 jobs. After an unexpected phone call, I picked up a 9th…I cannot unsee how that is the evolution of forcing enslaved humans to work until the muscle literally fell off their bones. I am reminded that being invincible is in my DNA, and of the toll that it takes. Recently, I was gifted penthouse seats at an Alvin Ailey performance. I was perplexed as the audience clapped slightly offbeat to “Wade in the Water,” turning a secret message for freedom into pop culture. As I watched the black bodies physically morph across the stage I heard the song lyrics whisper in my ears that our secrets are still safe and necessary. That extension to my senses happens all the time now.

I used to call it the lynching museum. I understand now why it is called the Legacy Museum. We are still here! Still wading through the muck…


Brandon Sloan: Dirty south

This is not where my story begins but, I am the son of people who were once enslaved in America. I am also a son of the earth and I plan to reconnect with her dirt before, during and after I die. In the dirt, not the mind, may we find our liberation. The dirt of our past is the way to the now. The dirt that eats the bones of our ancestors is still here. The minerals of our body match the dirt, the same dirt where we will return. To face our past means we can see that we’ve never really left the past. The dirt is still all around us, calling us, beckoning us in life, death and re-birth. I am thankful for the dirty work we did in Alabama on some week in Black History month. I am thankful for the people and the work, for the art and the feeling. I honor messy life, clean death and the dirt we call earth. This is an unedited spontaneous poem I wrote in a hotel room with diverse Playback leaders from around the country. We were very hungry and tired after talking long and hard about race, and after having been at a museum that honored the ancestors hung up on trees for the crime of melanin, for matching the color of dirt. May we see ourselves more clearly now.

We are going to the depths
With humor and a flashlight
We will laugh, even cry…
Dancing takes place in the night

There is no space so vast
The deeper we go into humanness
Breaking and toiling in own soil and minerals
Going deeper into deeper meaning

Rich complex
Worms sliding, tangled
To the bedrock of our mother
To the core of our humanity

Heat deep in the earth’s core
May our water transform and cool it,
The core of the earth, the core of our being
In the depths, may we grasp for our own

And then birth
May we be born
Birth, birth in the depths
It is no longer so that death is the ending

Birth, birth
Is not a reaction
Birth, birth
Is a necessity in the depths

From this place we come
From this place we return
Human, once again

Sarah Halley: Breaking open

A few reflections…

I learned a new name. Racial Terror Lynchings.

I thought I knew about lynching in America, about slavery and the cruelty white people, my ancestors, inflicted on African people. It’s clear to me that I knew very, very little. Even now I can see I have barely scratched the surface of our collective history.

In thinking about making the trip I asked myself “how could I face this history?” I also asked myself “how could I not face it?” And then I bought my plane ticket.

For days, and even weeks leading up to the trip I felt queasy, uneasy, unsettled, agitated. I knew I had to go, I knew some part of me wanted to go and look this terrible past in the eye.  Part of me was scared, resistant. And part of me knew and knows that the past has not gone anywhere and this terrible present begs for me to look at it. Daily. Daily I am confronted with the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and racial terror lynching. Daily I move with the legacy of white supremacy and the protection it offers me. Daily I struggle with keeping my heart open and finding actions that confront injustice and offer some repair, some shred of healing.

Somehow I made it there – we made it there – to Montgomery, Alabama.

We gathered together in the hotel for breakfast before setting off to the Legacy Museum. We shared our feelings and what support we might need. Most of us did not know what we would need…we were in new territory, individually and collectively. One white woman said she would be leaning on the other white women for support. Later on I was so grateful for that insightful naming, as I reached for a white woman in our group at one point and we became 3 white women holding each other up, keeping each other open and present to the immense story unfolding in and around us.

Three steps into the museum, in the first room, my tears started. I willed myself to stay present, open, brave. A part of me has longed for the truth, for the chance to break through the hardened shell around my heart. Part of me is still in that first room, and in every step that came after.

At one point I found myself surrounded by advertisements, floor to ceiling, of people for sale. I felt dizzy, the ground disappearing under my feet.  All the stories of children ripped from their parents, families torn apart, heart after heart broken again and again, and again. We were literally standing in a place where people were held, after being transported by train, boat, or their own feet, held captive until they made their way to the auction block in front of the capital building to be sold, down river.

I learned another new name – the Domestic Slave Trade – that grew once the transatlantic slave trade was made illegal in 1808. A brutal, devastating system that broke up over ½ the families of enslaved people. And once slavery was made illegal (except if someone is convicted of a crime), people spent the rest of their lives searching for their loved ones, with little success.

It has been 6 weeks since our time together in Montgomery. I have been in many racial dialogues, trainings, and meetings since then, and I am still processing the experience.  I feel grateful for all the people I know and interact with who care deeply about healing racial trauma and confronting white supremacy. I feel devastated by the ongoing overt racism around me and especially in the US right now. I continue to feel like I am simultaneously unraveling and growing stronger, that I am profoundly insignificant and that my every action matters.

Most recently I was on vacation in Arizona, hiking. My 5-year-old son was wearing a t-shirt I got him from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (aka the lynching memorial). Two older white men on the trail asked about it and I told them it was a new memorial in Montgomery that honors the over 4,400 victims of racial terror lynchings in the US. They seemed surprised and did not respond and we continued on the trail. I was struck by how simple the exchange was and I was curious about what they were left with.

In the past 6 weeks I have this strong and consistent desire to talk about the museum, the memorial, and to encourage white people to go there. The path from enslavement to mass incarceration is so clear and I want white people to see it, to take it seriously, and to engage in working for racial justice.

Life goes on, and part of me is still there…breaking open.

Jo Salas: Seven Playbackers And An Artist go To Alabama

The idea of visiting this epicenter of American racial history started with Jonathan, who suggested it to me and then to Pamela Freeman in Philadelphia, our longtime friend and colleague, and a leader in the efforts to address racism within the Playback community. The vision took form: we would make a pilgrimage to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and the Peace and Justice Memorial, about 1,000 miles away, in the company of a small group of fellow Playbackers. We reached out to Will Chalmus, a young Playback teacher and performer; and to Sarah Halley, who’s worked for racial justice for years, often in partnership with Pamela. Will brought in Brandon Sloan and Annie Hoffman, his close Playback associates in Boston. Pamela brought in Phyllis Labanowski, an artist and activist in rural Massachusetts, the only one of the group not a Playback practitioner. So we were eight–three African American, five white, five women, three men, from 30 years old to mid-70s, and all but one with strong Playback Theatre backgrounds.

Why did we choose to have this experience with fellow-Playbackers? Most of us have non-Playback activist friends who might have been interested in going to Montgomery. What did difference did it make that this group was connected primarily through our shared involvement in the practices and philosophies of Playback?

One element was the possibility of actually doing Playback for ourselves during the trip. But there was also something less concrete: a way of being in the world that develops in most of us who practice this work. Here are five aspects of this way of being, and how they played a part in our Montgomery experience.


As Playbackers we understand the importance of sociometric connection in creating a group. Confronting our society’s anguished racial realities—in the present as well as the past—was certain to be painful. We were likely to feel vulnerable and exposed as individuals. Feeling well-connected to others would help us face what we had to face. Our group grew organically around a nexus of people with longstanding relationships, with further outreach to others not known to all of us but linked strongly to at least one member. This network of connections allowed a basis of trust—not unshakeable, and proportionate to how well we knew each other, but still, an attitude of trust.

Emotional presence and honesty

We consciously entered a zone of uncertainty. Comfort was not the goal. We had to be open to wherever our responses to the exhibits and to each other might take us.

In preparatory phone discussions we discussed our wish to be present with whatever arose, including grief, shame, rage, and despair. Emotion is the currency in Playback. Without the sincere expression of emotion Playback does not function. The feelings we anticipated came up full force, almost unbearably, as we witnessed brutal images of racism past and present. And how to express those feelings? In the museum I shrank in horror from a life-size photo of white people grinning beside the dangling limbs of a murdered black man. Whose shoulder do I weep on? Am I imposing my grief onto someone who is struggling even more than me?

Spontaneity and creativity

We could not know what we might encounter nor how it might resonate within us. We leaned on our capacity to respond spontaneously to whatever we saw and heard. Our artistic imaginations were stirred by the stunning artistry evident at the museum and the memorial. We said yes to creative impulses. At the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, after our guide Wanda Battle had shared generously from her knowledge and her life experience, and then led us in a heartfelt song, it felt right to offer her a moment of Playback Theatre. At the end of an exhausted evening after the museum and memorial, we said yes to the suggestion of using Playback to listen to each other.


Eight people, eight life paths, eight points of view. Ancestral connections, known and unknown, to the racist history documented in Montgomery. Differences of ethnicity, age, class, and nationality. Our responses to the experience were as diverse as we were and we needed to hear from each other. Playback has taught us to listen, knowing that–when there is readiness to speak–our deep listening opens new spaces and fosters understanding. During our long Saturday we had grouped and regrouped, sitting all together over a meal, drifting in twos and threes, sometimes alone, as we walked among the exhibits, sometimes receptive to one another’s turbulent currents of thought and feeling, at other times struggling with irritation or misunderstanding. At the end of the day, saturated and weary, we gathered in the small living room of one of the hotel suites to listen to one another and begin to digest what we had seen. But there was so much. Where to start? On what level do we share? The dialogue began scratchily and grew complex. We decided to use Playback and cleared a tiny stage area, taking turns as conductor, actors, teller. With the invocation of the ritual the atmosphere became capacious. One voice at a time. One story. Full attention. The actors’ empathetic, aesthetically formed responses.

It was the first time that Phyllis, the artist, had seen Playback. “Now I understand,” she said thoughtfully after everyone’s voice had been heard. “I see how the dialogue slows down. We really hear each other.”


Of course stories are at the heart of Playback. It doesn’t take long, when someone immerses herself in Playback, to start experiencing her own life as a series of stories: whatever happens to us, we imagine how it could be told, shaped, and enacted on the Playback stage. Plenty of stories were told in our short time together, over meals, squashed into the minivan, walking along Montgomery’s wide and surprisingly empty streets, or sitting outside a little grocery store in the warm night on chairs kindly brought out for us by the owner. A few story fragments were enacted: Wanda’s, that first day in the church, and then our sorrow-laden moments on Saturday night. But here we are again, in this collective article, choosing what to tell, how to tell, shaping and sharing our reflections, in order to metabolize what happened to us and to offer our perceptions to others.


Will Chalmus (Will C.) is a performing artist, educator, and consultant that specializes in Playback Theatre, and also enjoys creating artistic events that develop positive relationships across difference.


Jonathan Fox is the co-founder of Playback Theatre with Jo Salas.



Pamela Freeman is a psychotherapist by training and occupation, and activist by choice. She is the co-founder of Playback for Change in Philadelphia as well as founder and co-leader of the People of Color meditation group in Philadelphia.


Sarah Halley is a playback practitioner, organizational consultant, coach and mom who is committed to working for racial justice and equity.



Annie Hoffman is a daughter, friend, sister, mother, lover of earth, abolitionist yogi woman.



Phyllis Labanowski, an art worker in western MA, was raised working class in a racist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic community which has fueled a life-long passion for justice.


Jo Salas is a New Zealand-born Playback pioneer, writer, and social justice activist.



Brandon Sloan is a somatic healer living in Boston, Massachusetts. He does playback with Will Chalmus of Playback in the Port. He is excited about how embodiment, art and social justice can come together for public works and as tools for transformative change.