Theatre of the Oppressed: Imagination as Social Change

By: Alexandra Stein

This piece originally appeared at PursueAction.org here.

I came to Pursue’s Theatre of the Oppressed workshop with limited theater background (oh hey, high school Acting 1!), limited knowledge of Theatre of the Oppressed, and a lot of curiosity. This year in AVODAH, Sarra, our program director, has repeatedly emphasized that social change work requires a lot of creativity: creativity to imagine a world more just than this one, and also creativity to begin to build that other, better world. As a lover of art and occasional writer of stories, I’m a huge fan of this point – and always eager for opportunities to practice social justice creatively. Pursue’s Theatre of the Oppressed workshop seemed like a great chance to do just that.

Theatre of the Oppressed involves creating scenes depicting real-world injustice, and then inviting the audience to interrupt and change these scenes. After spending the morning leading some games and exercises meant to help us “get confused! We’re trying to shake up the social order and imagine new possibilities here!” Concrete Justice, the collective leading our workshop, performed a scene from their newest show, which is about injustice in the NYC shelter system. In the scene, several characters are denied a place to spend the night: one because he is trans and his identity documents do not match his gender; another because by the time he gets to the front of the line, he is four minutes past the check-in deadline, even though he arrived to check in with ample time.

Then, our leaders challenged us to make our own scene, framed around a time we had been denied access, or been allies to someone denied access. My group built a scene about the eviction of Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park, complete with an evasive speech by Mayor Bloomberg, and police violence against a protester attempting to point out that a court had actually ruled in favor of continued occupation. The other three groups performed scenes about an unresponsive landlord, police who let a rich man break the law but harassed a young woman and arrested two homeless people, and a landlady who would only give housing applications to people who met her very narrow definition of “acceptable” tenants (people who didn’t make the cut included an interracial couple, a formerly homeless individual, and a single mother).

As I watched the scenes unfold, my anger grew. How could it be that we lived in a world, a state, a city where these things were allowed to happen? What could be done?

And this is where things got awesome – because the goal of Theatre of the Oppressed isn’t just to get you angry; it’s to get you creative, in every sense of the word. After we performed our scenes, our workshop leaders informed us that we would now have the opportunity to revisit the scene of our choice and, this time, instead of just watching, we could swap in for any character experiencing injustice. The only rule was “no magic:” sexist, racist, classist, homophobic characters could not suddenly decide they loved all people equally, someone without money couldn’t spontaneously find a thousand dollars, and so on. But within the confines of the real world, we could do whatever we wanted.

We voted to revisit the scene in which a landlady was denying housing applications to everyone left, right, and center. The landlady was not telling tenants that they were unfit for her building outright (in New York City, this is super illegal, as is more covert discrimination – it’s just harder to catch someone) – instead, she was telling all of the tenants she didn’t like that the vacancy had been filled or was out of their price range. How to get around her conniving? The audience took a variety of approaches. One person, playing a white woman in an interracial relationship, attempted to catch the landlady on tape quoting different prices for the apartment before and after meeting the white woman’s black partner (presumably, this tape could be used in litigation). Another person attempted to seek out other applicants who had been illegally denied housing applications, and organize them to work together. A third person, playing an unwed pregnant woman, attempted to trick the landlord into giving her an application by being evasive about whether or not she had a husband.

In the end, the woman with the tape recorder was foiled (the landlord wasn’t fool enough to quote a price until she had both members of the couple in front of her), but both the organizer and the evasive pregnant woman were successful. The success of the pregnant woman in particular lead us into in an interesting discussion about what kinds of actions we as social change agents wish to pursue – after all, the woman had not deposed the unjust landlord or even challenged her prejudices – she had just acquired an application and her own housing. But, as our group leader put it, sometimes you just need to live to fight another day.

After we had run, and interrupted, the scene to its fullest, we settled down to learn about Theatre of the Oppressed more broadly. Our group leaders told us about their work: as Concrete Justice, they have successfully performed at homeless shelters and at wealthy venues on the Upper East Side alike. The key to the mobility of their show is that it asks all viewers (soon to be performers) to ask themselves “What would I do in this situation?” and then to actually do it. Theatre of the Oppressed doesn’t just stop at consciousness-raising (which, though important, can leave people with nowhere to go with their anger or sadness) – it takes the next step and asks us to do something, something concrete. As one of our group leaders told us, the kinds of actions we take are often only limited by our imagination.

Alexandra Stein is from Washington, DC and attended Yale College. As a New York AVODAH Corps member, she works as a Case Assistant at the Break Free Program at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, The Kaplan Center.

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