theatre of the oppressed festival

tonight i took some of my students from my drama class to see theatre of the oppressed, which is currently touring palestine. although i’ve taught drama classes for years and taken students to see plays–in ghana, palestine, and in the united states–i’ve never had the opportunity to see theatre of the oppressed live. i’ve only read about it and been very intrigued by the idea of it. here is a bit about the concept and its founding:

Theatre of the Oppressed was born in 1971, in Brazil, under the very young form of Newspaper Theatre , with the specific goal of dealing with local problems – soon, it was used all over the country. Forum Theatre came into being in Peru, in 1973, as part of a Literacy Program; we thought it would be good only for South America– now it is practiced in more than 70 countries. Growing up, TO developed Invisible Theatre in Argentina, as political activity, and Image Theatre to establish dialogue among Indigenous Nations and Spanish descendants, in Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico… Now these forms are being used in all kinds of dialogues.

this is the second annual tour of theatre of the oppressed in palestine. there are several countries touring with their theatre troupes here: south africa, germany, bosnia & herzegovina, norway, sweden, and portugal. we saw the performance by house of azania today from south africa. they performed a piece called “who do you think you are?” which includes 8 interlinked acts, although we only saw 3 of them. given the way that theatre of the oppressed works i imagine that this is usual and given that they performed in nablus and had to return to ramallah tonight they had to leave before huwara checkpoint closed. they were performing oppression in a space of oppression after all.

theatre of the oppressed is unusual because the actors perform a scene that usually engages with a social problem of some kind. tonight they performed three such acts: one on ethnic cleansing, one on laborer’s rights, and one on xenophobia. the first one, on ethnic cleansing, was based on the group areas act, which later became the forced removal act, that forcibly removed black south africans from their land and their homes. here is a brief synopsis of that apartheid-era law:

The Apartheid Era was one of division and segregation based on the colour of one’s skin. The Group Areas Act of 1950 (Act No. 41 of 1950) was created on 27 April, the day that is today recognised as Freedom Day in the New South Africa. This act was created to split racial groups up into different residential areas of any given town or city.

The result of this act was that the best, most developed areas were reserved for the white people, while the blacks, Indians, and coloureds were assigned to the more rural outskirts of the major metropoles. 84% of the available land was granted to the white people, who made up only 15% of the total population. The 16% remaining land was then occupied by 80% of the population. This led to overcrowding, diseases, shortage of food and funds and a host of other problems. The areas assigned to the black people were dubbed the Tribal Homelands.

Once the areas were defined, anyone living in the “wrong” area was required to move, or else be forcibly removed. However, of the 3.5 million people who were required to leave the homes they had established for themselves, only 2% were white. And this group were moved to better areas than where they had been living.

Establishing the non-white areas on the outskirts of the metropole or city centre meant that they had to travel vast distances to get to work. But it also meant that they were isolated from basic amenities, such as hospitals, police stations and other emergency services. This created a sense of chaos in the homelands, an independent attempt at dealing with issues as they arose. This was dangerous for the residents, and led to many riots, outbreaks, and even deaths.

The only exceptions made were for non-whites who worked within the white suburbs, such as domestic workers. These workers were often required to stay on the white boss’ premises to avoid the daily commute and they were issued with special permission to allow for this. However, none of their family members were able to live with or even visit them. If they were found on the premises, they could be charged and imprisoned. This led to the splitting of many non-white families due to secular demands.

The assignment of areas to the black people was based on their tribal grouping, the record of which was often incorrect. The plan was that each homeland would eventually form a citizenship, so that blacks could no longer be considered citizens of South Africa, thereby relinquishing them of their rights and responsibilities. Between 1976 and 1981, four homelands were developed. The black people that had once occupied South Africa now needed a passport to cross the borders of their homelands into SA.

The Group Areas Act also stipulated that non-whites were not allowed to own or run businesses within the white areas. This limited their growth and financial development considerably, as they were only allowed to work in their townships and homelands. Even there, they could not usually afford major enterprises and would try to survive off small supply stores or basic services run from a shack.

of course this first sketch resonated quite well with a palestinian audience given the 122 years of zionist colonization making palestinians homeless and landless. one of the characters in this scene–the man playing the husband–tells his wife before the police bang on their door “they can’t take our houses from us. we’ve been here for generations.” sound familiar?

they performed the scene and then as with the style of theatre of the oppressed they performed it a second time immediately after. it is in the second performance that we see how augusto boal intended to use theatre for political ends. because in the second time an audience member is asked to yell “stop” at a moment when they want to join the actors on the stage in order to intervene in the problem. each scene is already set up in a way that there is a conflict–in this case between the family and the police–that is going around in circles and they cannot resolve. the audience member’s job is to solve the problem in some way by changing the action on stage. multiple audience members may join in and this was the case in most of their scenes tonight. a student from an najah university (not one of mine) got up on stage in this one and took over in the husband’s role because she felt he was being too passive. unlike his character–who in the end was willing to leave their house without much of a fight–she refused to leave the house and follow the colonist police officer’s orders. others eventually came up on stage taking on the role of neighbors who joined together to scare the police away and state that they would refuse to leave their homes and land. the first two pictures below are from this scene.

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the second scene was about laborers in south africa–particularly miners in the gold and diamond mines that made white south africans so very wealthy. the employer in this scene was unhappy with the workers because they sang while they worked. one of my friends got up on stage in this scene and staged a sit in for workers rights (next two photos).

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the final scene acted out was on xenophobia, which has been a big problem in south africa with respect to africans from neighboring countries moving to south africa and south africans feeling like their jobs are being taken, crime is increasing, diseases are spreading (americans should be familiar with this sort of racism especially as it is directed at mexicans). i found this to be a challenging piece for the audience here, however. the context is something that palestinians are not familiar with inside palestine. certainly palestinians have been on the receiving end of this whether as workers in the gulf or as refugees in places like lebanon banned from 72 different professions. but it is next to impossible for foreign workers to come here to work (my “work visa,” for instance, does not come from the palestinian authority, but from the israeli colonists and technically it is still a tourist visa, just a longer one on which they stamp the words “not permitted to work” ironically enough given that my university applied for it on my behalf). but two of my students got up and tried to intervene in this one. they did a great job, but i just think that the lack of context made this particular social problem a difficult one to engage with here (photos below).

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