[caution! hugely long – and repetitive. pulls together some of the stuff that’s been moving through these posts, fragmentarily. newer stuff towards the end, tho – i do get back to the idea of the art workers hostel, an idea that i have yet to enact, but which will be coming up again after arts in the one world wraps in three years…]
I’d like to get at the activist thread that runs through the Humanities by taking on the case of Writing for Performance, moving to an appeal for curricular shift and a look at tools of assessment.
I’ll talk about writing
How it’s socially a giant mess, and salvific
About a faith in creation
How peace is necessary for creation
And justice is an instrument of peace
Then about what we mean by art for social change, for peace, for justice
Finally who says its good for anything and how they get away with saying it.
If there’s time we’ll look at examples from VT, AOW, ratconference, and anticipating Strum
Octavio was driving. We were in a rented van in south Texas with Raphael Parry, the co-artistic director of Undermain, and Jeff Schmidt, an actor in the company. It was late afternoon, the sun going down to our left. Literally Cormac McCarthy territory, coming into Alpine… We were on our way down a bleached swell on a counterclockwise arc, a steep drop to our right and a rock wall to our left, broken seabed, sharp and loose. A sedan came up the hill towards us, running at a good clip. In a very basic geometric exercise, the oncoming car drew a straight line when it should have continued on its curve – it left its lane and came right at us. We had to steer towards the drop to avoid the crash, and then swerve back sharply towards the wall to avoid falling. Our correction flipped us over and we rolled the van. In steadying himself, Jeff shot his hand up and held to the edge of the open shotgun window, and the weight of the van was on his fingers for a second as we revolved. This resulted in the only physical injury that was sustained. The enemy sedan was at a gentle stop uphill on the shoulder; we’d gone right to the edge of the drop off but not over it. We were upside down; I was sideways because I hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt. All we could do was pant and blink, then call out to make sure we were all right – listening in a round for everyone’s adrenalized voice to register. That done we crawled out, shivered and peed, then quickly got the small group lie in place – the fact was that Jeff had rented the car and Octavio wasn’t supposed to be at the wheel. The cops came quickly. Vehicles flip in Texas people know what to do. They forgave our exploded case of Shiner, twinkling amber atoms across the tilted highway (Shiner is America’s best bock beer; we weren’t drinking but had a game plan); we shared insurance information and that worked out fine, really fine; the opposite geometer joined us at the hospital (glass in his underwear, giving rise to theories concerning his distraction on the road), but eventually drove off, no scratches, no charges; angels guided thread through Jeff’s wound; we stood up under the giant midnight, saw the life in it with new clarity, and wanted in, wanted to run back into life – and life let us back in. Now it’s all a story. It happened about 12 years ago. Sensation is still returning to Jeff’s pinky and right ring finger; if you see him he’ll show you the scar. [TX PIX]
This comes to mind for a few reasons. Octavio Solis was a writer of note at the time and has since waxed symphonic; he remains a friend and co-worker and we remain in touch. I just got in from his home state of Texas a few days ago, where I’m working on a new project with Raphael; Jeff’s in it and designed the set.
We were out there in Alpine doing research for a play Octavio and I were writing together, literally together (shoving pages at each other across a thick table in his home in San Francisco). We wanted to go on a series of adventures and let the writing come out of that. So we decided to climb three mountains and visit three mothers (mine, Octavio’s, Raphael’s…); we were just coming back from Guadalupe Peak; cold air in mid summer that goes right to the bottom of your lungs, and satellites at night. The play we wrote is called Shiner… some of the material gathered then is in Diamond Dick – the play I wrote last year for Raphael. It’s about Tulsa – the race riot in ’21, and race relations in Tulsa is in the news. Diamond Dick is part of the Soulographie series, which we’ll hear about later; it’s what I go to bed and wake up thinking about.
This restlessness, baled with the stiff wire of persistence, is basically what writing is: fidelity over time, the convoy of stories; it is breathing, it is research, it is lies that let reality happen more elegantly; it is good luck – a salvation history. It is family, home, and mountains. In Zen they say that the mountain’s not high, it’s deep. The method is a plan for adventure that turns into adventures you hadn’t intended; your outcomes are the smallest part – actually the point of an event cone collapsing to nothing; what you end up with is not as impressive as where you come from. Writing is where I’ve been coming from. It’s what’s deep in me even when I can’t make my point. It’s how I’m based in the world; it’s how I make my love public, civic; it’s how I’m home. About this space of home:
Where I line up with what’s already been said by better heads.
When everything we know, and everything we can know and everything we can’t, lines up in satisfaction, when every thing is in relation to the whole and the concept of superfluity is voided, then the universe tunes to a sound; teleology is a stringed instrument, and the lines between phenomena hum.
Simone Weil points out that to exist, etymologically, means “to be outside of,” to be in exile. When I say “I am” I’m throwing myself; I am that. We could waste a lot of chalk debating “I am that” versus “I am this” – but for now let’s say that “I am” is different from (culled from) “it is.” To say “I am guilty” is different from saying “it is guilty.” If we exist, apart, then, we are demonstrably unable to survive wholly apart, and are eventually taken back up entirely. To make our sublimation authentic (like author, contains “auto” which may be the van again and is also the self): for reentry we describe creation back to itself, so that we recognize each other, so that we may be undifferentiated from each other: self and the world. To be recreated, we create; we are sung to – so we sing. Our authentic, authorial singing is an exercise natural to the operation of our being. It is the operation of our moral faculty, which we swing on its hinge like our jaw. It’s our moral jaw. It is how we break down action.
Singing is magical breathing. We carry inescapable personal experience – like, say a car crash – through to escape by means of self-destroying technologies of control, which is a quick definition of art – structures that melt in the process of making (palpable materials become ghostly and impossible events become solid – imagined experiences entering personal history; historical, collective fantasies made personal, and personal inventions feeding into a public lexicon).
To chart the process, I in exile make myself more than myself by abstracting my breath to rhythm and melody – singing makes my voice more than mine, and the medium of breath affirms the ultimate mortality of what I am, the set of loans that make me. What feels like my charity is really just happiness at having my debt forgiven – we are built to give ourselves away, and singing renders me to the not-me that makes me. Singing is a means of dispossession – a way of growing spiritually poor so that there’s more room inside the universal imagination that dreams us up.
If everything sings, and everything breathes, then what’s writing?
Writing translates breathing; it’s a notation meant to further firm rhythm, to make more space, using silence for singing so as to make more room for sound.
Writing is magical bleeding. It uses us up and takes us away from ourselves through use of a medium even more exhausting than living. It is circular breathing; breath that doesn’t stop; the moment of the breath doesn’t stop. [Alpine picures.]
Breathing and bleeding in that van in Alpine, upside down, adrenal, we were writing. We were and are writers, because we research, because we’re in family over time, and our models of family and home are open to the angels; because fear blows us open, because drama unhinges our doors and scatters our beer because we won’t need doors to be safe or alcohol to be mad when we live like life; because our own private experience jumps out past our teeth to ask, to hope, and to make room in us for hearing, which is more holy than speech. Because despite all our lost boy and girl running around there’s a deep silence in our blood that saves us, and that we protect.
Writing is research where research is understood as witness – we don’t make sense of the world, and even our admirable judgments are not as important as our waiting-with, our wanting in. To re-search or search again is like repentance or thinking again. We search and search as a way or sliding out of our understanding, slipping as water into water. It solves (or wants to) the existential; writing is resource, restoring us to source.
The Space is Complete
Breathing and bleeding, the stress falls on the exhale and the flowing forth, on kenosis, or self-absenting. If our radical possession is the self then our radical gift is the whole self. Theaters are built like people are built at their moment of salvation: sustained by their continual breakdown. A theater is shaped like a person – most active where it is most (apparently) empty.
But we don’t actually operate in the empty space, personally or architecturally, we are sufficing the complete space. The space of our reunion, the space-enough for falling out of exile, is both completed by our yielding and also not finished; it works itself out perpetually. The space for performing isn’t empty any more than fasting is not-eating or silence is not-speaking. Fasting is a way of relating to food and in dialogue with eating; silence is a way of speaking (writing is a way of feasting through fast, singing with silence). The never-resolved equation of our circle repeats the moral lesson: that we are on loan. Performance says you may have this for now but what you will retain is the strength that comes from a shared practice in letting go. Just as you were here (in the performance) in a way, you are only anywhere in-a-way. This may be semantic, but it adds a stress: the empty space doesn’t make the invisible visible (this does a disservice to the invisible; let the ghosts be ghosts, leave silence alone); when our space works it makes us all invisible – not destroyed, but, I guess: Emersonian, or at least deranged.
For particularity to exist relative to the abstract (the universally inclusive) – if I’m to move my experience into something more dynamic and useful than private property, then I must cede ownership, go broke, break.
For a thing to break without being destroyed, duende is required; mysticism. We just got through Lent. The word is from the idea of lending, loan. The small sacrifices we make for a few weeks are a way of binding, of being held. Lent is waiting and witness: core ideas in theater.
[Gene Vincent: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UtCoc8nBFw ]
The Space is Meaningful but Not Descriptive
The space of performance is kenotic – emptied out for fullness. From there: the space is sacred, specifically – playful. Emptiness isn’t a premise but emptiness, it’s an aim; always emptying; we load ourselves out into this emptying.
[Dead tooth. What I lacked was patience; what the moment needed was emptiness. Noh skill/accomplishment, is space, stillness, silence, bending, withering.]
We are looking for meaning, in ways that are articulate, yet divert from knowing – ways of making meaning that are always breaking, reflecting the electric oscillation between existence and union.
In the happy (playful!) ruin of private property in theater’s irresolvable circle, there’s anarchy, in the sociable sense of chaos. Anarchy is not autonomy it is radical need; chaos is not unstructured, it is the civics of physics.
Performance is research: the discovery and navigation of patterns in lived chaos, Performance is research by means of ethic: by behaving socially, through both processes and performances, we bring together and test the status of civility. If any department across the humanities wants to know the health of their society, put on a play.
In the performance community, and in moving across communities, we want to move our expertise into situations where our expertise is excluded. This is the point of expertise. There’s no other way to construe mysticism, and if art isn’t about radical union, then go have a soda pop. I came to play. I’m only interested in the impossible and my only capital is invisible. There won’t be a winner because it’s play. It won’t be over because it’s play – it isn’t one game it’s a way of getting away with things.
We’ve fallen into the habit of talking about the sacred, the holy, the poor as if they were techniques; as if we could have them. Holiness without God is sugar; we’re diabetic. We’ve bolted together a dramaturgy of industrial acquisition, where rising action fattens us with steady, gouty acquisition of information; we end up informed; we are formed, we are more reified, we are more destroyed (Blanchot – destruction is different from chaos; the latter is dynamic). If we are serious about not having, the shape of our action moves more to nature – from Aristotle to jo-ha-ku. Where I understand it this is moving from shock to confusion to grief… (this is happening, what is happening, this just happened).
The anarchy of performance is our opportunity to be, fully, a self for others, exercising virtues elemental to the polis, and driving imaginative expansion that prepares us for dexterity in the face of coming crises.
The Space is Hospitable
About all this breaking. To break, welcome the stranger. Hospitality is risk. In causing connectedness, in evolving to an improved search engine and research tool, performance needs to pursue strangeness. To sustain welcome, one needs to sustain home, which is: the place where you preserve the option for danger – home, and family in particular, is the place where you may lose everything.
Network and home. I would say that most energy in the current scene – in the humanities (always looking for partners) and in theater – is going to this: pointed hospitality/intentional family.
Time, space and projects are always useful. But they have to be vulnerable to the breakdown that may come with the invasion of God or gods. We are not automatically rewarded for opening the door. We don’t bless ourselves with our own rituals. We open up and may be robbed.
Constructing intentional families: to whom do you most want to serve food; to whom do you most want to listen? Bring them together and make a promise to change your life in order to be serve and listen forever. We don’t have to serve plates daily, we don’t have to listen exclusively, and not every match will take. But we have to put everything at risk.
Why to Call It and What to Call It
This way of working, ethical and diagnostic of ethics, a network of homes, inviting grace through risk, exists. It exists already. Because it exist it is apart. All art is art for social change. But. Just as everything has an art, and with enough language, everything is art, one may get better at singing by studying singing than by studying cooking. There is an art to brain science but I don’t want people sawing my head open just because they can sing.
Likewise with art and social change – there is training needed that is particular to a specific inquiry, apart from the work of either art or the social scientists.
If it’s a discipline, then we should be able to name it.
It’s a long, ineffectual hunt for the right term –
Art as Activism
Performance and Public Policy
Art for Social Change
The Onward Arts
Performance at Play
The Performance of Landscape
Arts in the One World
Theater Without Borders
Composition of Place
After seventeen years of looking, ten with the ratconference and seven with AOW, I’m ready to get back to the beginning: the Theater of Hospitality, and a network of art homes called the Art Workers Hostel (AWH).
Theaters in this community are required to have kitchens and beds – not nearby, as if home by simile – but on site. We need to see people wander the halls in their pyjamas from time to time. There are lots of these places: La MaMa and New Dramatists, AS220. Lots of places are close, but without the on-site aspect, an industrial control of risk substitutes for domestic management. We can’t compromise on immanence. Hakim Bey points out: anarchy favors intimacy.
There’s a lot to say about the Art Workers Hostel; a ton of language is archived at ratconference.com. The school should partner with the network (locally, nationally and internationally) to offer training (undergrad, the Masters level, MFA, PhD). This could happen almost immediately. There would need to be a new hire, someone to coordinate the cross-departmental possibilities; staff responsibilities and space needs could be shared with partnering homes. Speaking precisely from the point of view of the theater department – I would like to see us hire someone with a strong and specific craft practice – design is something we badly need to develop – who also has experience with civics. From a base in Theater this person would advise a small cohort of graduate students who would get in interesting trouble across Brown and Providence, building performance by, for and with various communities, with the aim of causing conversations that are presently blocked. This can’t happen without first, departmental, and then much broader buy in. But it’s something I want to work on. An art home would be a boon for the International Writers Project, for example.
On path to this, we need to have in place a sense of how to tell if we’re doing it right, or if we’re doing it wrong in interesting ways. Just because it’s well intentioned and has art in it doesn’t protect virtue. I love art and I love religion; I give myself to both daily. Both can do great harm and just as they structure my self examination, they also need examination.
Performance follows the money – it mediates in the spaces between the consumer and the seller – providing a matrix for sales, and preserving market philosophy. When there was slavery, it sold slaves, during the industrial revolution it made a market demographic of the working class (cohering them as a target), on the other side of the scale, during the Great Society, it creditably democratized academic culture. However to remain fluid/transitive, performance must also pull away from or resist the norm; we’ve said that it’s a spacious, charged area of discourse, it’s an apophatic or at least metaphorical space. Theater thrives as long as its system of delivery remains unstable.
The Great Society systems (fixed, regional theaters) have become stable (in concept if not in operation), and the ability of performance to move, to disturb, has drained away. Now culture so badly wants navigators, and we need performance to navigate alterity – especially differences as they emerge across a global span, across the divide between rich and poor, and the many misshapen relationships that blow up regularly in a massive population during a rapid era. Performance wants to move further, farther, faster – especially as a force cohering activism. Performance want to be activism, where the action is the construction of networked safe houses, promoting creative chaos.
Rigor, citizenship, legitimacy – these are words commonly used to hammer at activist art, community art. We need to switch these up – the terms come out of the old mouth… Maybe “citizenship” can be redeemed, though the right has its teeth in it.
To check our value, we used to use a business model… – sustainability was a matter of fiscal responsibility, driving not-for-profits to shape themselves like for-profit organizations but – without profit. The business model has yielded lately to social utility (yielded to whom? To what? Quantifiable social niceness is a business model by another name and need to insist to the end on mysterious wobble. But even mystics like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross could draw you a picture of what they were talking about – literal flow charts – souls the shape of castles, prayers the shape of mountains.)
If art is for “social change” (as weak a term as “interdisciplinary”? As unavoidable?) then, what’s changes, exactly? If the changes are wholly unmeasurable – even longitudinally, even anecdotally – then can we say that they really happen? Where and how does our work happen in the world in the terms of collectively constructed meaning? If we’re not collective, if we don’t make meaning, if we aren’t in action, then I don’t know what we are.
Some theater is intended primarily to wake up/destabilize perception – to open and sometimes direct seven senses. This can be measured. Where were the senses directed prior to the art event, and where after? Art’s impact may be collective; to what collective impact does a particular work contribute? Where is your home? (This is a way of asking “what is your impact?”)
These great questions should be asked by the artists but answered by anybody else. We should not be responsible for the outcome of our own assessment. We enter assessment at the level of questions – this is our home: in questions. That’s the shape of a theater – a question mark. We’re functioning poorly in supplying answers – the act of assessing can actually diminish our capacity to the extent that it takes us out of process. We have minds. We examine ourselves. But a too-great burden on historicizing our accomplishments jams our faces into property. We spend our lives ruining private property. Who should assess? Granting organizations and school administrations, in concert with the artists, so we all know what we’re talking about.
What were al taking about: Some theater is meant to be explicitly about bodies – in address to material needs.
A Sum of the Aims
The work that I’m talking about needs to be horizontal, inexplicable, useless and sublime.
Horizontal: In moving between communities and disciplines one wants to avoid tourism. Work, then, with persistence. Otherwise you move to generic effect with generic materials. If strangers put together your work, on behalf of strangers, in estranged locations – rooms stripped of articulation and with no purpose other than to make the general, general – then there is no hospitality; no one is risking or expending the personal point of view. The deeper your work, the longer the read; to share language with audiences/collaborators, you need to persist, and associate (operate in a culture). You can function serially (visit a class once, road a show), but then you bring associations and methods with you, or – return to the same place again and again (even if the local population changes, the arm of your conversation persists). You can work in the same place on a special scale of time (a long residency, an organic development process).
Inexplicable: In cases where representation is involved – you are reporting, or documenting – especially in cases of trauma, the language, to be accurate, should be primary, meaning non-descriptive, non-historical. The language should be an event in itself, the cause of thinking, not thinking. You are not speaking for, or at; you are speaking inter-molecularly – space matches space.
Useless: There is a heavy push to outcomes; this puts the work everywhere but the present – what will occur, and what will survive. This outcome orientation, aligned with ownership, is the chief source of misery in the arts. Our mission is to provide a ground of being; to be-with, and to give permissions for everyone involved to experience a change of heart – not to change hearts, and especially not to change hearts from this to that, but to provide the environment in which the change may occur. Peace is permission to be; justice, a tool for peace, is this attitude of revelation: nature shows up. (Solomon.) Theater for peace is a moment where a people happens, embodied, fully alive (fully mortal). Theater for justice is a moment where people happen to be themselves.
Sublime: Art that simply has the right opinions about the right subjects, done the right way, efficiently – is fraught with sanction. The misery of getting it right, for performer and audience, is debilitating. This is as true for theater of the oppressed as it is for mainstream political drama. So arts better vector is sublimation – as Rebecca Schneider points out, not a disappearance, but a change of state.
Or: show up, listen for an invitation, respond with process, and never make a promise you can’t keep.
Back to assessment –
Performance is live and held in common. It is therefore a work of corporal mercy.
The seven works of mercy as outlined in Matthew are:
Feed the hungry
Give drink to the thirsty
Shelter the homeless
Visit the imprisoned
Tend the sick
Clothe the naked
Bury of the dead
Or, more broadly understood –
How does our work redistribute resources to the material benefit of our community? What are we giving away to whom? How are we defining our community to include rather than exclude those in need? Citizenship is move from the personal to the civic. How have we performed the give-away, concretely?
What are we giving away? To whom? For what cause? What personal rights are we ceding to the group, and what group rites are we drawing down?
There are all kinds of interesting sevens in the world. Seven story mountain, so on. For today, let’s line up the works of mercy with Richard Schechner’s seven functions of performance, and Cynthia Cohen’s seven elements of reconciliation.
- to entertain
- to make something that is beautiful
- to mark or change identity
- to make or foster community
- to heal
- to teach, pursuade or convince
- to deal with the sacred and/or the demonic
“Almost every reconciliation process will include some, perhaps all, of the elements listed below, not necessarily in this order. The form in which each element is engaged will be inflected by the cultural context:
- Rehumanizing of other (and of self, own group)
- Telling stories, listening to stories, sharing stories, revising stories.
- Mourning losses
- Emapthizing with the suffering of the other
- Addressing injustices
- Letting go of bitterness
- Imagining and substantiating a new future”
to make something beautiful
to mark or change identity
to make or foster community
to teach, pursuade or convince
to deal with the sacred and/or the demonic
Rehumanizing of other/self
Telling stories, listening to stories, sharing stories, revising stories.
Empathizing with the suffering of the other
Letting go of bitterness
Imagining and substantiating a new future
To feed the hungry
To give drink to the thirsty
To shelter the homeless.
To clothe the naked
To visit the prisoners
To visit the sick
To bury the dead
- Is the work live and held in common? Keep flesh to bone, satisfy us to the limit of our skin – Zeami. Etymology of entertain – <<hold together, stick together, support>> Does it lead to the redistribution of material resources?
- Is the work invisible (Holy Saturday, buried in Christ – feast of invisibility); is it in motion; is it active/activist – operating in vulnerability to chance/nature
- Does it protect alterity? Is it Diverse?
- Is it hospitiable? In danger of the other.
- Is the wound fecund – moving to mutuality without obviating the wound?
- Does it wait? Does it learn? Is it faithful?
- Does it persevere?
Does it love? Does it trust? Does it test/discern in a spirit of indifference? Is it useful – to chaos.
A few words about the Soulographie project, then Tulsa, then the Project X play, and finally our purposes.
Soulographie is a series of 17 plays about genocide I’ve been writing for 20 years. The first centers on events in El Salvador – the murder of Jesuits there being a marker of policy. Una Carrona was written in 1990. Later cross-border research with Raphael expanded the view to a broader Latin American perspective. The slides you see are from East Africa. Having awakened to a theme and a language for it – broken language, meditative language – I was alert to the news, especially stories that had the breath knocked out of them, that were too short and trying to say more than they understood. I had no handle on the Rwandan genocide – 800,000 in a hundred days. Then there was a small article in the NY times about two Rwandan nuns on trial in Belgium. I went to the trial, and later went to their convent. That’s the first picture. 7,000 people were killed here. The Mother Superior and her assistant not only watched, they helped draw list, form lines, they called the militia back week after week to finish the job. They pulled relatives of their own sisters out from the ceiling where they were hiding. They pulled children out from the bushes, not for their deliverance, but as a goodbye – they handed them over to militia who killed them there and then. The song is the grief of a mother who loses her son – the play is being rehearsed with an international cast in Uganda now, the language is Ateso:
I have two sticks
They break they burn
I have no sticks
To boil the green
I have no son
Tree made of sticks
Sticks shake out in this bitch of a wind
Stick by stick and splinter
There is no tree
We lose our land
And I have no son
To begin to write this story, I new I would have to pledge to a kind of intimacy of witness that would change my life. To be permitted to look at all I would have to look persistently. To speak responsibly about the unspeakable I would have to pledge to speak with my language broken, and to never understand. This brought me into contact with many stories that can never find a comfortable place in my spirit. Perpetration, death, and most miraculously of all – survival burned with shock into a stable mark on me. But shock itself is, medically speaking, a numb place. After the violence of the intrusion – there’s a kind of shut down that prohibits investigation. I wanted to investigate, and that’s where the word “policy” comes back. It grew clearer and clearer to me in case after case that in genocide – the effort to destroy the ability of a people to be a people – the course is only facilitated by hate. It is driven by coordinated decisions, by years of preparation. The hate is not spontaneous or uncontrolled – rather the opposite. It is an invention of the state and culture. As culture workers, it is crucial that we acknowledge complicity and work with fever to pull ourselves away from future planning and ongoing negationism.
I returned year after year to Rwanda, for nine years, bringing students and artists to study the history, and to learn from Rwanda’s recovery. The convent (Sovu) is down the street from Murambi, (second slide) where 50,000 troops were killed. French troops assisted in the cover up, guarding the mass graves and facilitating the escape of the killers. They famously set up a volleyball net near a body dump. Bodies preserved in lime are on display in the small rooms.
Research in Rwanda – a complex, fast changing society – led to trips to Uganda, with a special focus on the north, where government policies in the south promoted civil war and genocidal action against the north. This is where Kony and the LRA operated with abducted children. We visited schools and villages where survivors trained and labored to crawl out of twenty years of killing. This is the third picture.
Right by this building is where we interviewed four young women. One of them, 16, had been in the bush for 4 years. At age ten she was forced to kill her father, she lived as a slave. She’s now in the 4th grade and can’t afford the school fees to advance. We met many students who couldn’t move past primary school for want of about a thousand dollars. We met people who want to be social workers, engineers… and in some cases there are no desks, pencils, notebooks…
The problem grows less and less anomalous, more and more integrated into the whole of society and reaching into every corner of the soul. The 16 year old woman suffers deep trauma – and is also pariah. She is so marked by violence that her village won’t take her back. Poverty, guilt, few mechanisms for reintegration and coexistence, deep poverty, and lack of expressive outlet slow the strong will to peace.
As part of the research compact we guard against the impulse to make the circumstances exotic – tied to perceived dysfunction in foreign cultures, or monstrous in foreign souls. So for the past seven years I’ve also hosted the Arts in the One World conference, in LA and now in Providence where I work. Scholars and artists-for-piece gather to share global experiences, including work in the US, with the aim of creating critical mass, encouraging collaborations, deepening curricula, and fortifying advocacy.
So, another shock came when one summer after Africa I was visiting my mother in Tulsa, when I saw another small and strangely passive article. It pointed to the discovery of a suspected mass grave in the middle of the city, and also to the decision not to exhume it. The article made reference to the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. A young black man, called by the press Diamond Dick, but not called this by his friends, was accused of raping a white woman in an elevator on Memorial Day. Whites mobbed the jail to break him out for lynching, blacks mobbed to prevent the lynching; a gun went off, there was mayhem, and then, a coordinated effort to marshal a range of civic resources to wipe out the avatar of black prosperity. As many as 300 people were killed, block after block of a prosperous black neighborhood were destroyed, and a highway was subsequently slammed through the area as a way of nailing it shut forever. We don’t know all that went on – there has been so much willful obfuscation. But it was plain that the conscious equipment of genocidal ideology and practice were at play, in Tulsa as in Kigali as in Lira as in El Mozote and San Salvador. There is the construction of race, the disabling of conversation across differences, dehumanization, the arming of civilians, the support of the state (some police collaborated, state troops were brought in), the support of the culture (newspapers, historians, schools blotted the record)… and there is a sense of complexity that is made daunting rather than taken up as a mandate for deeper witness. When precision is hard to reach around all the facts, it doesn’t prevent us from establishing central facts. And when forgiveness or understanding are hard to come by, it doesn’t obviate the tasks required of us to achieve coexistence, recognition and contemplation. Denial – on a spectrum from negationism to elective blindness – is an elemental mechanism of genocide, which, remember is not first about killing – it is about preventing a people from being a people, poisoning memory and mummifying language.
This is where the project means to engage – Diamond Dick and Soulographie overall. There are facts in the plays, but the scripts are not meant to be informational. Historians are better at it – they have more room (infinite room) – and an excess of simplicity is as dangerous as an excess of complexity. We are poor in resource – our minds lack concept and our energy balks… We promote the raw action of witness. Where we are unable to describe or resolve, we can create a space where we can be with the events, with the dead and living where the sorrow is not yet purged and where hope also has not yet been worn away. Be with the disaster; turning away is key to its success, be with, and don’t understand – until you understand, or forgiveness comes to you as a grace. Prior to grace we must be athletic with our patience, waiting at ready, waiting in rhythm, meaning alive, pulsing, our hearts open.
The last picture is from last year. We were in Lira, in Northern Uganda. The camps have been emptying out, and people are trying to return to lives they’ve been cut from for 20 years. This in the middle of drought, corruption, neglect. But through the experiences of the camp stories and performances survived. There is one dance called the Ikole; it requires a huge array of carefully tuned drums, and precise singing and dancing from a large squad of young men. These women are from a community starved of young men. So the old women preserve the preserve the tradition. Dancing this dance on a contest day – which went on for 7 or so hours without interruption – the women had no drums. So the leader not only sang, not only danced, but when it came time for the music to take off, she jumped out of formation and drummed the earth. This is what we want to do with Soulographie. In our poverty we want to take our bare palms to the Earth itself and find rhythm with it – our pulse to the life of the earth. Where we fail to know we can witness forth; where we may fall short of happiness we can practice peace, which is the civic exercise of faith in becoming – the belief that we are ultimately all caught up in a project of creation, and the truer we are to our shared humanity, the fewer obstacles we place before co-creation. Peace is permission to be, it is a condition that must be maintained continuously. Justice is a particular practice elemental to the maintenance of piece – it is the proactive provision of the materials with which people may reveal their true beings, a witnessed staging.
“And the Lord brought over us the wrath of his anger and scattered us among many nations, even unto the utmost part of the earth, where now my littleness is placed among strangers.” – from St. Patrick’s Confessions
“Violence is known; peace is a mystery. By its very nature, therefore, peacebuilding requires a journey guided by the imagination of risk” – from JP Lederach’s The Moral Imagination
With Soulographie we choose to take on something big to know our true scale, which is little. We put our self awareness in the site of strangeness (where – to borrow a phrase from PhD student Bevin Kelly’s thesis – we are the speculative fictions of our audience) in order to know we exist (Weil – to exist is to be estranged) and how we exist.
We make it something we can’t do, and something that we can’t see, that we can’t get our heads (or wallets) around, so that our growth takes place in the radical imagination of risk.
Theatre for Social Change…
There’s the thinking into esthetics on the one hand (where craft is polished and bodies are decided to the point that spectators are caught up wholly in the experience, possessed by it), but sometimes – it’s not all about the play. It’s also not all about the community (cheering good effort on the part of who we all are; the play as an excuse to enjoy each other’s company) –
We can’t look at reality, because we’re in it… and a play is incomplete – if it were complete it would be redundant. So in some cases, we’re not looking at either the play or the world. A play is cast out there to partner reality and make a space between the real and artificial in which we can navigate if not a new understanding of reality then a new relationship with it. You don’t judge it, or interpret it… it reminds you of something – reminds you to do or be something you have long intended.
A play is not our mirror; the world is the play’s mirror – we look at a play not only to see ourselves, but to watch something watch the world; we improve as witnesses.
A script can be set up as a dump for decisions – a site where esthetic choices (made; having been made) are stored, then researched and endlessly rearranged. Or the success of a play is in its instrumentality for the formation of a community (in reading it, one is compelled by what is not there to bring people in – not to fill the lack, but to not-have it together… By gathering around what is mortal (leaving; the present tense is that which leaves), we make ourselves lighter, collective manifestation of spiritual poverty (the levity – the essential lightness of drama, is this feeling of ownership going away). Theater is live and held in common. Meaning – it is dying (in the finest sense) and our of control (out of personal control).
Theater isn’t made-believe, it’s make-believe. The making results in belief – which is social, invisible, permanently imperiled, and is the fulcrum essential for the past to operate as lever into the future.
Basically what I’m saying is:
I’m looking to share in the building of a vital focus in contemporary performance, namely the Theater of Hospitality manifest in the Art Workers Hostel, and assessable by the rubric we’ve defined here. And I’d like to see a hire, a track and a degree at Brown partnering with AS 220, Mathewson Street Church and other operators.