This short article is adapted from my remarks at a panel discussion held at the Playback Theatre conference in South Africa in December 2023. The panel followed a workshop on this topic that I led earlier in the year. I’ve decided to expand and publish my remarks here since these issues remain pressing in our community.
The Tension Between Inclusiveness and Social Justice in Playback Theatre
In the past few years I’ve witnessed and have sometimes been involved in situations in our Playback community where our foundational principle of inclusiveness has seemed to be in conflict with our commitment to social justice. The “For Palestine” festival in 2022 is one example. In order to allow historically oppressed and excluded Arab participants to feel free to tell their stories, Israelis were not invited.
A similar situation can happen on the smaller scale of a performance or workshop, where people from a socially powerful group may be asked to step back or stay away so that more vulnerable people can speak safely. In a series of bilingual performances for groups of immigrants in my local community, we asked non-immigrant audience members to simply listen, rather than to offer their own stories–until the end, when all were invited to reflect.
It seems to me that despite the tension between the goals of inclusiveness and justice, there must be a larger picture where they are not in conflict.
The principle of inclusiveness in Playback Theatre is based on Morenean theory: the idea that the creativity and spontaneity of any group is maximized when all members feel welcome and included. Moreno’s method of sociometry helps groups to move toward this ideal state of inclusiveness. We’ve adopted and adapted this method in Playback, sometimes calling it mapping. We acknowledge who’s present, we are aware of subgroups and power dynamics, we notice who speaks up and who remains quiet, we take steps to create equitable access to participation. And we see the results: again and again, groups come to life and build meaningful connections in a remarkably short time, whether in a Playback performance, a workshop, or other event.
We also see what happens when we do not pay attention to the sociometry of a group, including the social dimensions: some people readily participate, others do not. Without awareness and intentionality, the stories of the more powerful (in terms of gender, race, class, language, national origin, and so on) will usually dominate.
Leticia Nieto, a psychotherapist and trainer in anti-oppression and expressive techniques including Playback Theatre, psychodrama, and Theatre of the Oppressed, offers important insights in her book Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment . I want to quote at some length from “Understanding Oppression: Strategies in Addressing Power and Privilege,” by Leticia Nieto and Margot F. Boyer. Note that in their terminology, “Target” means a member of a vulnerable or marginalized group. “Agent” means a member of a more powerful group. In this theory, most of us are Targets in some categories and Agents in others. “Rank” refers to the unjust social order.
Using Inclusion, we focus on the similarities between Target group members and ourselves. We use verbal messages that emphasize similarity and connection, like “We’re all children of God,” “fundamentally, we’re all the same,” “treat everyone as an individual,” and “every human being suffers.” The physical posture associated with Inclusion is arms open, as if to embrace members of the Target group. As Agents, we experience Inclusion as liberating. It feels like we’ve finally gotten out of the oppression business. We can appreciate members of the Target group. This seems terrific, to us.
It takes a while to notice the limitations of Inclusion skills, and many of us never do. In society as a whole, Inclusion is often seen as the height of intercultural appreciation, diversity and liberation. Yet Inclusion is still an Agent-centric skill. Using Inclusion, we do not recognize the Rank system, the ways we are consistently overvalued, and the consequences of our privilege and of Target marginalization. Without realizing it, we see our own group, and its values and norms, as the standard, and expect everyone to align with Agent-centrism and Agent-supremacy. We want others to meet our expectations. We may host an intercultural potluck, but we will likely feel annoyed if the people who come bring up the topic of oppression. We feel happy to welcome Targets – but we unconsciously expect them to conform to our expectations, to make us comfortable and to avoid issues that we don’t want to talk about, and even to be grateful to be included.
One danger of the Inclusion skills set is that, being very clear that we do not subscribe to or hold negative views about Targets, we can resist the perspective that oppression is essentially a supremacy problem, rather than one of prejudice and discrimination. When we use Inclusion skills we are not conscious of the Rank system, and we can’t work effectively against oppression until we wake up. (Nieto and Boyer)
For us in Playback to “wake up” it’s necessary to consider not only inclusion, or inclusiveness, but also the principle of social justice—equally fundamental in our work.
Here’s a definition of social justice, from a human rights website:
Justice is the concept of fairness. Social justice is fairness as it manifests in society. For social justice to become a reality, four pillars must be built: human rights, access, participation, and equity.
When a society is just, it protects and respects everyone’s human rights. When a society respects and promotes human rights, social justice flourishes.
A just society depends on access to essentials like shelter, food, medical care, and education. If access is restricted based on factors like gender, race, or class, it leads to suffering for individuals, communities, and society as a whole.
Social justice isn’t possible if only a few voices are respected. Unfortunately, the voices of the marginalized and vulnerable are often silenced in favor of those with more wealth, cultural influence, and political power. Participation must be promoted, encouraged, and rewarded so everyone – especially those who haven’t had a chance to participate before – can speak.
Many people believe “equality” is one of the principles of social justice, but it’s actually “equity.” What’s the difference? Equity takes into account the effects of discrimination and aims for an equal outcome.
These elements are all relevant to social justice within Playback, especially participation and equity. We humans have inherited an unjust world. We all live with inequities that are a consequence of history, perpetuated in the present. Playback is potentially a counterforce: it offers a way for ordinary voices, including the voices that are usually silenced, to be heard; for their stories to be honored and remembered by transforming them into art; for the tellers to be empowered and the listeners changed.
In these ways, Playback Theatre has the capacity to contribute to justice. Arguably it has the ethical responsibility to do so. Many of us are committed to using Playback to address injustice—to strengthen human rights, access, participation, and equity.
To encourage participation and create equity, we must intentionally foreground voices that are unheard because of historical unfairness. Equitable access is not the same as equal access. It means that some who have inherited privilege have to step back. They have to listen, or in some situations, to stay away. This is where the tension arises. Asking some people not to take up space with their own stories, or even asking them not to attend, can look like a violation of the principle of inclusiveness. It can be very painful, especially where historically empowered people have not yet acknowledged their relative privilege.
In that situation, it’s essential to understand and accept the purpose of the exclusion, which is to create equity by correcting for the inequities of the past. Vulnerable or marginalized people need space and safety to tell their stories.
We also need to understand that in the large frame of history, this is a temporary situation, a steppingstone on the way to healing historical harm. It is a slow, gradual process. It may take generations.
Social injustice exists both within and between societies, and it’s always complicated. An individual, a group, or even a country can be powerful in one dimension and lack power in another. It is also very common for a segment of the population that wields power over others, perhaps unjustly, to deny that reality and claim to be the victim. When that happens, it is because the dominant group is not owning the power that they embody. At the Bangalore Playback conference in 2019, for example, when women led the closing in a gesture to counterbalance the sexism that had emerged during the conference, some men complained that they were being excluded and that this violated Playback principles.
Calling Out or Calling In
The damaging fallout from this particular event highlights another danger: the current “call-out” culture, where people accuse others of disrespect or ignorance or prejudice, often on social media. Even when the complaint is justified, it only makes things worse to call someone out publicly, especially online. It invites defensiveness and, dangerously, a sort of mob response, with others joining in without understanding the complexity of the original situation. The African American activist Loretta Ross talks about “calling in” instead of calling out: speaking directly and lovingly, if possible privately, to someone whose words or behavior are problematic, with the intention of communicating, not shaming. Growth on both sides can result. We in the Playback community can learn from Loretta Ross’s teaching.
Today’s world, with its grievous conflicts, with the injustices of the past heaped onto the present, demands that we strengthen our capacity to navigate painful contradictions especially as they manifest in our companies, our performances, our teaching, and our communications with each other. Learning to tolerate temporary limits on inclusiveness is part of it and can help us in building the just societies that we all long for.
Nieto, L., & Boyer, M. F. (2007, March). “Understanding Oppression: Strategies in addressing power and privilege, Part 3: Skill sets for Agents”. Colors NW Magazine, 6, 34-38.
Ross, Loretta J. (2021): TED talk: “Loretta J. Ross: Don’t call people out — call them in.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xw_720iQDss&t=1s&ab_channel=TED
Salas, J. (2008, 2021) “Immigrant Stories in the Hudson Valley.” In Personal Stories in Public Spaces: Essays on Playback Theatre By Its Founders by Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas. 234-245. Tusitala Publishing.
Social justice definition: https://www.humanrightscareers.com/issues/what-does-social-justice-mean/
Jo Salas is the cofounder of Playback Theatre and the curator of Playback Theatre Reflects.