In NYC, Activism Begins With Lessons In Theater
On a sidewalk in the Village in downtown Manhattan, an African-American woman leans on her elbows and knees, wearing only black underpants. Scrawled in black marker all over her body are the words "Ain't I a Woman?"
Across the street, another woman lies face down, sunbathing on a large sheet of tinfoil. The sentence "White Supremacy Is Terrorism" is inked across her white skin, which is turning pink under the hot sun.
Nearby, a young, black man is kneeling. His body is wrapped in duct tape inscribed with the phrase "Black People Die in Public."
Traffic rumbles by on Washington Place. Some pedestrians ignore the scenes and scurry on; others stop to take photos and ask, "What's going on?"
The three sidewalk artists are part of EMERGENYC, or Emerge, a program at New York University's Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics that since 2008 has been training emerging artists whose work is a vehicle for social and political activism.
Emerge co-director George Emilio Sánchez says this type of training is more relevant than ever.
"In the Trump era," he says, "it's critical to understand how do we speak to each other as people, as individuals. ... I think, politically, we need arts and artists to be more engaged in the process."
The 20 students in this year's class are mostly in their twenties and thirties and come from all over the world. As Emerge's other co-director, Marlène Ramírez-Cancio, puts it, the 3-month program aims "to create a community of people ... who might not have exactly the same position on everything but can work together on larger battles."
Emerge's activities are designed to help students create change through art, by sparking dialogue and bringing attention to the marginalized.
"My work represents the alienation that I experience as a black woman and mother daily," says Nicole Goodwin, the student who bared her breasts marked with the words "Ain't I a Woman?" — the title given to an 1851 speech by the African-American abolitionist Sojourner Truth.
"[The exercise] made me feel vulnerable but also empowered," says Goodwin, a 36-year-old poet, "because despite the fear I had, I continued with the piece, which allowed me to confront my helplessness, loneliness and fear of scrutiny."
She says some passersby heckled her. But there were also women who "congratulated and celebrated my boldness," she adds, saying the activity taught her that challenging the status quo "is not only wanted by the public, it is necessary."
This kind of exchange was the point of the group's sidewalk performances, called "public actions" — meant to interrupt a public space where people are often in a hurry or distracted.
"Public spaces open up an artist's communication and dialogue with more than the very narrow part of the population that feels comfortable going into a gallery, theater or museum," according to Ed Woodham, a multidisciplinary artist who led the activity. "You never know what will happen in a public space."
"Theatre of the Oppressed"
Some of the techniques used by Emerge are derived from "Theatre of the Oppressed," a form of political theater developed by Brazilian dramatist and activist Augusto Boal.
In the 1960s, Boal began bringing audience members on stage to act out ways to address social problems. This participation, he felt, empowered people to bring about change, turning theater into grassroots activism.
In his 1973 book, Theatre of the Oppressed, Boal described the rationale behind this approach. He wrote that people in power try to use theater as "a tool for domination." He believed that for theater to be used as a "weapon for liberation," it had to be transformed from a "monologue," in which actors speak to an audience, into a "dialogue" between actors and audience. In that way, theater would no longer be an oppressive experience for spectators; instead they would be able to express themselves, question concepts and challenge injustices.
Boal's teachings were controversial, and in 1971 the military regime then ruling Brazil forced him into exile. Boal eventually returned to Brazil, where he established the Centre for the Theatre of the Oppressed. As a city council member in Rio de Janeiro, he organized events where residents participated in performances to share their needs and discuss new laws.
In 2008 Boal was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for using theater as a tool for social activism. He died the following year. But his techniques have spread around the world, inspiring organizations, educators and activists to link art and activism.
Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, for example, invites audience members to join actors in scenes about immigrant rights, policing and homelessness. In one performance, with city officials looking on, a "spect-actor" took on the role of a young gay man who was told he didn't meet the funding requirements at a homeless shelter.
"Who funds you?" he asked an actor playing a staff member at the shelter.
"It's several organizations...."she replied.
"OK," he says, "can I have a list of those organizations?"
The audience applauded as he pushed for more answers.
"The events shift power dynamics and raise awareness about racism and other forms of oppression," according to the group's founder, Katy Rubin.
While Theatre of the Oppressed techniques get spectators involved with actors, Sánchez uses them to get Emerge's participants to think and work together in class.
"Theatre of Oppressed sparks people's creativity and curiosity," says Sánchez, who studied under Boal in the early 1990s in New York. "You don't speak down to anyone. It brings people together. It also creates a space where you can learn to disagree, vehemently."
Sometimes the activities cause a sense of unease. That's what David Sierra, a junior at Columbia University, felt during a "human sculpture" exercise in which Sánchez instructed a student to illustrate the word "sexism" by positioning the bodies of two classmates. A female student went into a handstand, and a male student stood behind her, holding her feet in the air. Then the class began discussing whether the arrangement depicted "sexism."
"I feel a huge tension with the exercise," David, a gender non-conforming artist, told the other students gathered in a dance studio at NYU. "We're seeing a picture like that without knowing the context and interpreting a lot of identity politics from what we're seeing." The whole thing, David says, was uncomfortable.
This discomfort, Sánchez explained to the class, was valid.
"It's difficult," he said, "but I invite you to be honest about the tension and difficulty."
After the session, several participants said they welcomed the tension.
Goodwin, a U.S. Army veteran who has published a book of poetry about coming of age during the Iraq war and after her return home, says the human sculpture and other Theatre of the Oppressed exercises have helped her feel comfortable with discomfort. "Having conversations due to race, class or gender ... brings up issues I was normally afraid to talk about in mixed company," she says. "I call it the art of being uncomfortable."
"I want people to come together through my work and talk," she says. "We don't have to come to a solution."
Emerge has 155 alumni, including award-winning playwrights, directors and university professors.
Ricardo Gamboa, a Mexican-American writer and performer, says after he went through Emerge in 2010, he came up with an idea for a web series to represent people seldom seen in the mainstream media. This year he released the dark comedy Brujos, which follows four gay Latino graduate students who are also witches.
"Part of what Emerge teaches you is to get really creative about how you think about not only your identity but also the pressures we endure because of our differences," he says.
Gamboa adds that Theatre of the Oppressed exercises reminded him to look for knowledge and experiences from everyday people instead of experts. He's now preparing a play based on stories collected from Mexican Americans about "growing up, surviving and thriving while being brown and down in Chicago."
For Andre Dimapilis, a Filipino-American theater artist and drama teacher in New York, getting to know his diverse classmates in Emerge taught him to interact better with people who think differently from him. "[I learned to] come from a place of understanding so I can communicate with that person in a polite way," he says, "so coming from an open place of listening."
Some alumni have collaborated on projects, making music and working on plays together, according to co-director Ramírez-Cancio. "Networks in general are powerful but even more so for people of color and traditionally underserved groups like queer and trans communities," she says. "It's a big deal to have this support."
Several participants say Emerge is inspiring them, especially as communities become more polarized. "We need to find ways outside of language to connect people," according to Elena Rose Light, a 26-year-old dancer from California. "We're so caught up in our vocabularies of difference." Light says she's exploring playful ways to blur the distinction between audience and performer through her dancing.
Anooj Bhandari, a 25-year-old Indian-American actor and community organizer, says Emerge is helping him reflect on how to use art to help marginalized groups. "I want to create art that is about self-love," Bhandari says, "and what it means to consider the self worthy of anything it desires in a world that tells it otherwise."
Roxana Saberi is a freelance journalist and author. Follow her @roxanasaberi.