[This article is one of six contributions to the Jadaliyya roundtable launching the Latin East Initiative. Click here to read the introduction or read other contributions by Amal Eqeiq, Eman Morsi, Ali Mirsepassi, and Ella Shohat.]
As part of the cultural activities celebrating Jerusalem as the Arab cultural capital for 2009 (an initiative organized by the Arab League under the auspices of UNESCO), Palestinian theatre artists organized a theatre festival based on the liberatory praxis of Brazilian theater practitioner and theorist Augusto Boal (1931-2009) from 18 April - 22 May. The festival welcomed international groups working with Boal’s theatre techniques and lasted one month with over forty performances. At the opening ceremony, Boal himself spoke to Palestinian audiences via Skype (as he was too sick to travel) and praised their cultural work under the oppressive conditions of a colonial military occupation. Already by the late 1990s, a number of Palestinian theatre artists had adopted and had been systematically using Boal’s praxis of Theatre of the Oppressed (TOP), which he originally devised in South America in the early 1970s with aims of revolutionary change.
As we consider encounters and linkages between Latin America and the Arab world, including the circulation of revolutionary figures and texts, I want to briefly consider the travel of methods and techniques. In taking the practice of TOP as a case, we see non-linear trajectories of travel that are not deliberately intended to be South-South, nor focused on building solidarity or social movements. In contrast to more deliberate links that have been made, whether between revolutionary struggles and within Third Worldist movements, or in more recent neoliberal trade and military cooperation,[i] TOP travels are less geographically and ideologically targeted. As TOP is focused on a community’s analysis of structural power dynamics, an investigation into the ways TOP travels foregrounds the various ideologies, networks, and multiplicity of actors involved in producing TOP in Palestine. Here I offer a brief sketch.
Boal developed his praxis within the Marxist and anti-imperial movements of the era. He drew on the work of fellow Brazilian Paolo Friere’s critical pedagogy to devise theatre methods and exercises that arose from his work in oppressed communities. The aim was to analyze structures of oppression that defined their daily living. The theatre space is used as a forum to investigate and rehearse ways to alter the power relations in our lives. Audience members enter the stage and experience and strategize how methods of resistance may play out. The rehearsal for the revolution as Boal called it, is meant to leave us unsatisfied. There can be no catharsis inside the theatre; we must take our action outside.
Most often the story of Boal’s praxis in Palestine focuses on the power of TOP and its capabilities, whereas even in what is termed the “entrenched conflict zone” of Palestine and Israel, the praxis is pertinent. Or, the story reaffirms Palestinian cultural practices as modes of resistance to Israeli occupation with little reference to Boal and his Latin American context. The first scenario details and ultimately praises the workings of TOP, and the latter promotes Palestinian cultural work as a “nonviolent” tool for socio-political change. Less often the story told focuses on the means by which Palestinian theatre artists encountered, trained in, and became trainers of TOP techniques; or potential parallels that can be made between artists situated in anti-colonial and anti-imperial contexts, such as the work of the Syrian playwright Sa’dallah Wannus (1941-1997) who wrote a short play in the late 1960s that could serve as a brief but lucid articulation of what Boal later developed as his praxis.[ii]
In thinking about how South-South relationships evolve, in the case of TOP, the relationships are not direct, exclusively or linearly-built, and also are not always centered in the South. Most Palestinians’ encounters with TOP have been entwined with European artists and are funded by US and European foundations. It was only later that more direct links were built with Boal himself and main members of his troupe in Rio de Janeiro, which continue to this day. Palestinians subsequently translated two of Boal’s books into Arabic (one with the support of the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs)[iii] and distributed them locally and regionally in areas where Palestinian artists themselves have conducted trainings (sometimes multiple) in TOP such as in Sudan, Yemen, and Iraq. As international humanitarian agencies and non-profit development organizations that tend to be contracted by or US-based facilitated those regional connections, we can trace unintended trajectories across the South that have not been premised on solidarity or movement building, although forms of solidarity may arise as a subsequent result.
In the settler-colonial context of Palestine in the post-Oslo era where international and developmental organizations have been increasingly invested in using the arts for sociopolitical means, Boal’s techniques are promoted as a tool to be used by Palestinians, by Israelis, and also at times by groups of Palestinians and Israelis that are brought together either by North American or by Israeli artists.[iv] The South and North are not discrete entities bounded in themselves, which is very clear in the settler-colonial context, and so to think about the use in Palestine of a radical cultural practice developed in South America is also to think about the multiple trajectories and routes of travel, which condition how the methods are being practiced, including who are the individuals that travel, what are the texts that are translated, and who is investing in such work.
The first systematic TOP work being done by Palestinian artists in the West Bank was funded by USAID,[v] and external evaluations have been conducted by funding agencies to trace what they call the “effectiveness” of TOP methods in Palestinian society. Palestinian artists are aware of the power relations of institutionalization and funding as they perform their work in such a system. A pertinent example is a 2011 theatre production that was based on a TOP model called forum theatre. The play, which was funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, addressed the ways that local infrastructure and basic services, as well as cultural production, in Palestine have become dependent on foreign funding and the attendant efforts of fundraising. We can see how the use of TOP by Palestinian artists engages local communities as it does the multiple political, cultural, and economic geographies that define its very practice.
A few months ago in Palestine, I spoke with Barbara Santos, who worked with Boal’s troupe in Rio for years and has been coming to Palestine since 2003 to train and work with Palestinian artists. She explained how TOP back home in Rio was continually developing and devising new methods of working. At its core she said is an element of never being satisfied. There is the need to constantly re-evaluate and adjust methods. She noted that in Europe and elsewhere, she found groups practicing the same method over the years, one could say being loyal to Boal’s method but not necessarily his praxis. In contrast, according to Santos, Boal and his troupe had the liberty to depart and re-think the techniques with the aim of interrogating and transgressing the dynamics of power relations.
As Boal acknowledged, TOP is not a revolutionary practice in itself, although it could be. His call early on when devising TOP was to decolonize the theatre, in part from the roles we play that have become mechanized and that have been defined by forces to subjugate us. We can still take heed of Boal’s call, as we analyze the intricacies of cultural production in our contemporary contexts and the work we do in writing about them.
[i] See for example other articles in this collection such as Lena Meari’s “Reading Che in Colonized Palestine” and Omar S. Dahi and Alejandro Velasco’s “Latin America-Middle East Ties in the New Global South.”
[ii] The play is titled al-Fil Ya Malik al-Zaman (The Elephant, the King of All Time) (Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 1977) and has a four-part structure. In the first part titled “The Decision,” the community of oppressed people take the decision to confront the king. In the second part titled “Training,” the people practice voicing their complaints to the king. In the final two parts, we see the people pacified as they are ordered to play their role of being submissive subjects. The characters fail, but the playwright Wannus had the actors come on stage following their performance to encourage the audience to intervene in their lives in order to avoid the bloody future that will follow if they remain submissive subjects.
[iii] Ashtar Theatre undertook the translation and publishing in Ramallah of Boal’s two books Games for Actors and Non-Actors (2005 in Arabic) and Legislative Theatre (2010 in Arabic). The latter translation was supported by the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
[iv] Perhaps the most prominent example of Israelis and Palestinians working together in TOP are those affiliated with the group Combatants for Peace who use TOP to address the violence of Israeli military occupation of the West Bank. The group was not initiated by an international organization. See Chen Alon, “Non-Violent Struggle as Reconciliation. Combatants for Peace: Palestinian and Israeli Polarized Theatre of the Oppressed,” Counterpoints 416 (2011), 161-172.
[v] On USAID in Palestine, see Lisa Bhungalia, “‘From the American People’: Sketches of the US National Security State in Palestine,” Jadaliyya, 18 September 18, 2012.