Books, Theater, Race Politics, Austerity

July 7, 2015

Thank you, Dick Price and Sharon Kyle of LA Progressive magazine for also hosting LA Progressive Live and inviting me yesterday to say whatever was on my mind.
You can watch the show on Youtube here.

Ain’t We Got Fun: War, Video Games, and the Nonviolence Playbook

July 3, 2015

Thanks to Número Cinq for publishing the essay I wrote late in 2014, inspired by a visit to the Marine’s grad school for combat. Best seen in the magazine here, but I’ve also pasted it below. Now I’m thinking of the Emanuel AME Church. Thinking the killing has to stop. Still trying to figure out how.

One morning in October I waited at the gate of the Air Ground Combat Center Marine training base in the Mojave Desert, Twentynine Palms, CA. I’d been invited with a community group about to take a public tour of what is essentially a grad school for combat. Marines from around the country–units 1,000 members strong–who’ve already completed basic training and are almost ready to deploy come here for 35 days of intensive work, including live-fire training and urban warfare practice in “Little Iraqi villages.”

The mockup of an Iraqi village for training

“I don’t care if you learn anything today,” said the retired Marine who would lead our tour. “I’m here to keep you entertained. At the end of the day, if you don’t have fun, it’s my fault.”

But first, our drivers licenses were collected. Quick identity checks “just to make sure you’re not a terrorist.”

We waited. A woman near the front of the parking lot stared, scrutinizing me.

For a few years, my emails carried an automatic tag at the end: I am a terrorist. By paying US taxes, I provide financial support to State-sponsored terrorism and torture. I don’t remember when I deleted the statement, but it occurred to me my past might have caught up with me.

The woman beckoned to me. “Are you a writer?”

Well, yeah, but I wasn’t there on assignment. A nonprofit I’m associated with was interested in doing outreach to vets and active service members in the area.

“You’re media.” Her definition turned out to be rather encompassing: Anyone with a blog. “You’re not allowed on this tour.”

I hadn’t planned to write about the day but I let her know I would damn sure write about being left outside the gate.

During the 4-hour drive home, I realized what I really needed to write about was the loaded word fun.

Warning sign at 29 Palms

* * * *
Does any culture have as much of it as we do? When I try to find “fun” in other languages, I can’t seem to come up with a true equivalent. I find terms I would translate as amusement, diversion, joke, prank, leisure. None of which to me quite conveys the same meaning as fun.

* * * *
A few days later I’m at one of the monthly workshops on nonviolent action led by civil rights hero Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr. We’re considering violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, and why governments see no alternative to war. Why is military force the default position? Why isn’t the peace movement effective?

I brought up the Marine base. What did the nonviolent movement for peace and social justice have to equal the promise of fun? To get people’s attention these days, so we have to compete with pulse racing, adrenaline-pumping excitement? The Civil Rights Movement was one of the most successful examples of nonviolence, and I dared to say it drew people to it through the promise of risk and adventure.

I knew the words were wrong, but I was trying to figure something out. What elements made it possible for the Movement to mobilize a whole nation, cutting across lines of race and class and gender?

Two of the Black participants in the group caught me at the break. Maybe it was an adventure for white kids who went to Mississippi for a month or two, they said, but for the Black people who actually lived there, there was no adventure. There was the same violence and oppression they had always lived under.

Of course they were right. And forgive me, insensitive, offensive, I kept talking. Instead of thinking aloud I should have just kept my mouth shut. Instead, I knew they were right so I stopped listening and kept trying to figure out what I meant, trying to account for the difference between suffering the constant threat of violence versus choosing to put your life on the line. There was something galvanizing in the Civil Rights Movement. Something made people embrace the cause and the risk. Wasn’t there excitement at the idea that through people claiming their own agency things might actually change?

* * * *
Rev. Lawson doesn’t often focus on what’s happening overseas. He’s said we must confront the culture of violence here, not over there. The road to peace is justice. Dismantling racism and poverty, stabilizing families by good employment, by health care in the United States–that’s what is critical for the security and wellbeing of the nation. “Only by engaging in domestic issues and molding a domestic coalition for justice can we confront militarization of our land.”

* * * *
“Our job is to engage and go through the enemy. Our job is not to take and hold territory,” said Mike, the ex-Marine tour guide.

I was back at the gate. See, after I gave up and drove home, Barbara Harris, who leads tours in the Joshua Tree area, wrote a complaint about how I’d been treated. The response came from public affairs officer Captain Justin Smith. I had his personal guarantee that I could tour. And he made no objection when I said I would, after all, write about it.

Mike said, “We kill everything that we see and let them (the Army) hold it.”

Mike wears a cap from Disneyland.

* * * *
1200 square miles of desert. Even for someone like me who loves the desert, this barren landscape is hard to love. Marines here are housed (when not out in the field) in small K-Spans, structures that used to be called Quonset huts. Concrete floors, no cell phone reception, no A/C, no heat for the freezing desert nights.

60# of gear.

But foodie-inspired MRE’s? I spot a pouch labeled “Chicken and Pasta in Pesto Sauce”–a far cry from what my father said the mess hall served during WWII: DVOT (Dog Vomit on Toast) and SOS (which I later learned–because he always refused to tell us–stood for Shit on a Shingle). Then I try to picture that grainy green sauce and imagine today’s Marines, too, have come up with a suitable acronym.

* * * *
Mike divides us into three groups to try out the Combat Convoy Simulator. Each group is in a separate room with a fullsize Humvee to drive, with gunners armed with M16s to provide security front, rear, right and left. We are to start off from Camp Dunbar and travel Highway 1 to the village of Asmar. Our mission is to get there and return without getting killed. “Don’t shoot people that are not shooting at you,” Mike warns. “If you shoot the noncombatants they get cranky and everyone will be your enemy.” The whole room becomes a 360-degree video game projected on the walls. We can see the other vehicles. We can see “Iraq” all around us.

iraq all around us

Captain Smith hands me an M16 and I hold onto it awkwardly as I try to put my camera and notebook away. “Here.” He takes it from me and replaces it with an M4– “the girl version.”

The rifles in the simulator fire compressed gas, making a sound like live gunfire. The recoil is just like real.

We’re the first vehicle in a convoy of three. I’m guarding the left side of the Humvee, watching for bad guys as video images move across the wall, and while I know I’m not as strong and fit as a young Marine, I’m still shocked at how much the weapon weighs, how my heartbeat speeds up and adrenaline surges from the mere stress of holding it in ready position.

We drive past market stalls where locals eye us, past fields where men move with their flocks, past kids on bicycles. Mike tells us to watch out for anything that might be a roadside bomb. Watch for people running towards us. They’re the insurgents. You don’t shoot at people running away.

Inside the Combat Convoy Simulator

My group wiped out some insurgents and didn’t kill any civilians. One of the other groups was too trigger-happy. In the end, we’re blown up by a roadside bomb.

Even after the exercise ends and I relinquish the M4, my hands are still shaking.

* * * *
Humvees are obsolete. Too vulnerable to IED’s. Defense contractors came up with the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle–the MRAP. The thing is, to make the vehicle adequately protected, it’s so top heavy that it will roll over even on an incline as gentle as 15-17 degrees. If it does, 8-10 Marines and sailors, with all their bulky gear, have to be able to open the 18″ x 18″ escape hatch and get themselves out, evaluate anyone who is wounded, and establish a 360-degree security perimeter. In 90 seconds.

Eight of us climbed in, fastened (with difficulty) our 5-point harnesses, held tight to our possessions as the MRAP tilted over on its side, and then the other side, back and forth and almost upside down as we screamed with shock and dizziness and delight.

We weren’t asked to escape. We climbed out, disoriented and shaken, asking How on earth do they do it?

Equipment waiting for us at the MRAP
Captain Smith smiled and told of other impossible feats the Marines are trained to accomplish. As we walked on, I thought, but of course! It’s not a race. It’s not every man for himself. It’s about preplanning and teamwork. At least I think it must be. That’s what the training was for, so the men already know who opens the hatch, who climbs out (or gets boosted out) first, and how or if they help others, and where they stand in the perimeter and how the plan adjusts if someone is wounded and can’t perform his role. It would have been interesting to hear how men learn to cooperate. Instead, we had a Disneyland ride.

* * * *
90 seconds to egress an MRAP. 60# of gear.

A young man my niece dated for a while joins the Marines. He wants to serve and I insist he should have joined the Air Force where you get treated better. I don’t understand that being treated better isn’t what some young people look for.

How on earth do they do it?

First the sheer physical and mental endurance, the brutality of basic training. Then Twentynine Palms. I come to appreciate the thrill and the pride that must accompany the challenge of accomplishing acts that seem impossible until you actually accomplish them. Even before they’ve faced threats to life and limb, they’ve had to prove themselves in ways I can hardly fathom.
What do I do–what have I ever done?–that demanded so much of me, that was so worthy of stunned respect?

For an effective nonviolent movement, don’t we need to be every bit as committed? To accept that waging peace is every bit as difficult as waging war and demands just as much sacrifice? In the Civil Rights Movement, people knew they might be injured or killed. Those who were Black were in constant danger of being injured or killed with or without a Movement.

But there’s something Sisyphean about the young Marines.

What is the point of pushing men and women to the breaking point, training them to perform superhuman feats if all we’re going to do is send them off to kill and risk life and limb in unjust, ill-conceived wars? Wars we cannot win.

* * * *
World War I broke out in Europe in 1914 and a century later historians still can’t make sense of it. Millions of lives lost, carnage, destruction, suffering and no one can give a good reason why. The Great War was so horrific, humankind was supposed to have learned its lesson. Instead it turned out to be merely the prelude to more death, more suffering, more war.

To mark the centennial, the Goethe Institut-Los Angeles offered Make Films, Not War, a series of screenings, lectures, and workshops. When Ajay Singh Chaudhary, the founding Director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, and his colleague Michael Robert Stevenson presented their work on video games, I was there.

Please credit Chaudhary, Stevenson, and the Institut when I refer to gaming as prior to their workshop, I had never played a video game. I had never watched anyone play, none of which had ever stopped me from talking about how terrible the games are.

My only experience was this: Before Antioch University-LA moved to its campus in Culver City, when I taught there, classes were held in a modest building in Marina del Rey. The floor above us was occupied by a defense contractor developing video war games. A student might be reading her work aloud or we might be translating Chinese poetry or doing a rhetorical analysis of the Declaration of Independence, our words punctuated with explosions coming through the ceiling and walls.

More than 2,000 video war games are on the market. Some of the most violent games young people play for entertainment–for fun–were developed with funding from the Department of Defense.

* * * *
Do violent video games lead to violence? Chaudhary says the studies are contradictory and inconclusive. Wouldn’t they have to be? Every individual reacts in his or her own way.

Years ago I’m sitting in the auditorium at the New York Public Library for a free screening of Buñuel’s film, Un chien andalou. Insects emerge crawling from the hole in a hand and a man in the audience rises to his feet. “That’s what happens!” he cries. “I told them! It’s true!”

This year, while writing this essay, I rush to see American Sniper, sure that it will bolster my argument about fun and entertainment. I don’t even mention it in the early drafts. No point in talking about the politics of the film, I thought, when in spite of the violence, it’s really pretty dull. Such an mediocre movie won’t get much attention, I thought. Shows you how much I know.
While in the meantime, ISIS posts online graphic video of beheadings. Most people are appalled. Some are thrilled. Some conclude ISIS should be destroyed. Others, drawn by the display of raw power, want to join.

Do we have to think about how every conceivable person will react to every conceivable content?

Specially designed video games are being used experimentally, I’ve read, to treat combat veterans suffering from PTSD. Virtual reality puts them back into the extreme situations that caused the trauma. The hope is to desensitize, to let the veteran relive the experience but in safety and with the ability to stay in control. Virtual violence that heals.

We watch a little boy as he plays Call to Duty, his hands flying, his body moving rhythmically with the first-person shooter action. The scenery changes at high speed and the kid is shooting and killing. A dog appears on the screen and for a moment, the little boy stops and just looks. “Dad,” he says, “can I have a dog?”

The game, the fantasy of the game, doesn’t change who you are.

Or does it? You get to choose your weapons. There’s a whole array with all their technical specs. The game can develop some serious expertise about military arms and it seems to me that expertise is something a person wants to use, and using it to play a game may not be enough. When you become confident and expert, won’t you identify with the endeavor? Are these video games excellent recruitment tools for militarization and war?

* * * *
There’s a powerful resistance to killing deep in our moral structure, maybe even in our genes. Up until the time of the US war in Vietnam, most soldiers refrained from firing their weapons or intentionally fired above the heads of the enemies. So, as Lt. Col. Dave Grossman explains in On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by the time we charged into Vietnam, the military had developed psychological methods to improve the kill ratio by breaking down this natural resistance. But what happens afterwards? For some soldiers returning to civilian life, violence may no longer be taboo. For others, this sense of moral injury, of having become something he or she cannot even recognize as the self, remains an open wound. We can break down a person’s character. How do we build it back up?

* * * *
Can peace be fun? Well, the Sixties. Sex. Drugs. Rock n Roll. Make Love Not War. But did that bring peace?

How do we compete with kicking down doors and blowing things up?

Video war games have extraordinary production values. They put you right into the action. They are expensively produced, sometimes with funding coming right from the Department of Defense. Many of the pro-peace games I saw use comparatively low-budget graphics. Little more than cartoons. And instead of adrenaline-pumping excitement, they offer earnestness.

We Come in Peace, more sophisticated, uses 3D satellite imagery but apparently even the trailer is no longer available. It was designed so that when you play you see our earth. The goal is to move in on location after location and eliminate the stockpile of weapons. I see how a player can get involved in the task, but you can’t compare it to the excitement of a first or third-person shooter game. Instead it resembles more closely the experience of a drone pilot. Except the pilot is eliminating human beings.

The drone pilot may learn days later that he or she hit a wedding party or a funeral and will have to live with that knowledge. But it’s not quite the same as the player of Spec Ops: The Line who has a mission to accomplish in the Middle East. As the game progresses, you find yourself on a killing spree, women, children. By the end of the game, you realize you are not a military hero but a psycho killer.

Will some players smile with satisfaction? Embrace the identity of a psychopath?

* * * *
I strike up a conversation at the workshop. The guy is Israeli and he tells me about Peacemaker, a game which challenges you to bring about a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians and win the Nobel Prize. You can play as the Palestinian president or the Israeli prime minister. You are called upon to make decisions in response to events and you then see the consequences of your decisions.

When he played the Israeli side, he told me, it was relatively easy to choose actions that led to peace. But he was entirely unable to imagine his way into the role of the Palestinian president. “Why?” I asked, bristling. I thought he was suggesting that “they” don’t have the same mentality “we” do. No, he explained. From the Palestinian side, he found himself frozen. There was pressure and influence and problems coming from all directions. He’d never before appreciated how difficult and precarious is the situation of a Palestinian leader.

* * * *
If you’re going for true realism, much of military life is boring. Mike tells us that the Convoy Simulator, such fast-paced fun for us, is very boring for the Marines and sailors who use it for training. For 6-8 hours at a stretch, the Marines drive and drive and drive as they practice keeping their Humvees a set distance apart. It’s bad enough if a bomb takes out one vehicle. If you’re driving too close together, it could be two. Drive through the village and back to the base. No insurgents appear on the screen. Hold your weapons ready though most of the time you won’t have any reason to fire. Spot a possible roadside bomb? Stop and call for a security perimeter. Wait.

Staying awake–let alone staying alert–that’s a big part of going to war.

* * * *
The wind howls. The scene is bleak, black and white, and a soldier trudges head down through the snow in the aftermath of a terrible battle.

You are that soldier. Men lie dead and wounded across the field. Some whisper pleas for help. There are bombed out buildings. There’s shelter in the distance and a fire–the warm orange flames the only color in the scene–and your mission is to comfort the suffering, to get survivors to that warmth before they freeze to death. Before you freeze to death with them.

The game, The Snowfield allows you to walk and to pick up objects. That’s all. You can pick up a bottle of whiskey. A rifle (but it seems you can’t fire it). Your movements grow slower and slower and more labored, your footsteps drag the further you get from the fire.

The Snowfield

The action is slow. Very little happens. I couldn’t stop watching.

The scenes are sad, horrific, but the game is created with such an eye to aesthetics, it all has a strange and compelling beauty.

Would a young male used to Call to Duty appreciate The Snowfield?

Could an action game include segments where to advance to the next level you have to slow down, you have to experience boredom, you have to face the ugly aftermath of killing? Of course such a game could be designed but who would bother? Who would market it?

The Call to Duty franchise has sold 139,600,000 games through the year 2013. Admittedly, sales have dropped. In 2013, only 14,500,000 copies of that year’s most recent game were sold.
That’s ten times as many people as actually serve in the US military today.

I look at the empirical study about civil resistance by Erica Chenoweth who was named by Foreign Policy magazine as among the Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2013. Looking at nonviolent social movements worldwide, Chenoweth she found that none failed “after they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population.” Doesn’t sound like much. OK, take the US population of approximately 316 million. They means you only have to mobilize a bit over 11 million people. A lot, but fewer than bought the new Call of Duty game in 2013.
3.5% can bring down a dictatorship. What can it do in a country where many people don’t recognize their own oppression?

* * * *
We’ve always known we can’t bomb our way to peace. We have to win hearts and minds. We just can’t figure out how to do it, even here at home.

When I bring up the violently misogynistic content of some games. Ajay Chaudhary suggests the greatest danger is when video games “reproduce social inequalities” by reinforcing stereotypes about identity, race, gender that are part of our daily lives.

The Stolen Lives Project documents cases of people killed by law enforcement agents. From 1990 to 1999, they collected over 2000 reports from public records. Most of the dead, people of color.
How much patience can we (of the up until now majority community) ask of people who’ve been waiting centuries for equal protection and equal rights and justice?

I want to get rid of the word “waiting,” as though African Americans have stood by passively. They have not been waiting, but rather working for justice, dying for their rights, struggling for centuries.

* * * *
In the year 2000, I had just begun working on a theater project with a Black actor and director named Anthony Lee. A week later, a police officer shot and killed him. A tragic mistake. I was horrified, heartbroken, angry. But I also believe the officer was devastated.

I attended the trial of Johannes Mehserle who shot and killed Oscar Grant. I saw no remorse. There was not a trace in the statements of Darren Wilson. Is it possible they really felt none?

Self-appointed security guard George Zimmerman showed us only self-pity. Do our legal system and our polarized society encourage self-justification and the angry refusal to accept responsibility?

When you take a life–justified or not–if you’re not a sociopath, you suffer a moral injury. How can it heal if you are not allowed to feel the guilt and to grieve?

* * * *
At Twentynine Palms, Marines drive through the desert terrain, slowly, 15-35 mph on the alert for roadside bombs. Roads signs are in Arabic as they approach and enter one of three mock Iraqi villages.

At the height of training for combat in Iraq, the Marines hired 1,000 roleplayers– men and women of Middle Eastern nationality or descent–whose identities were closely guarded to protect them and their families from reprisal. They were just intended to be warm bodies providing local color. They were given scripts to follow, but according to Mike, it soon became clear they were needed for much more: to teach cultural competence.

Furnished Iraq interior for practising raids

Furnished Iraq interior for practising raids


A Marine goes into a meeting with the town mayor and local notables and within minutes offends all of them.

A Marine passes an Iraqi woman in the street and greets her with a courteous “Good afternoon, Ma’am.” He’s immediately surrounded by a group of hostile Iraqi men, disturbed that an unrelated man has dared speak to a woman.

Surely it’s better to know something than nothing, but how much good did this training do when we were clearly in way over our heads? Marines learn a few words in Arabic, but Mike explains that in Afghanistan there are so many different languages, the military doesn’t even try.

I think of Anand Gopal’s book, No Good Men Among the Living. US misreading of situations and people in Afghanistan had us paying huge sums to dishonest informants, sending innocent men to Guantánamo, jailing Afghan allies because of false reports. However bad you thought it was, read the book and learn it was much much worse.

* * * *
So where do we (the nonviolent movement for peace and justice) find 11 million people?

* * * *
We love action. Video games with cars racing, weapons discharging fire and explosions all happening faster than you can blink. We love kicking down doors and blowing things up.
(But the little boy didn’t ask his father for a weapon!)

This essay is not concise. It meanders. On and on. Will anyone keep reading as I try to think my way forward?

We are addicted to the quick fix. Violence is instant gratification. When you want results NOW, with violence you can cut through the crap, the bureaucratic red tape, the naysayers, the law. But maybe not.

Shock and awe–the bombing of Baghdad by US forces–began on March 19, 2003, the strategy known as “rapid dominance.” We are still there.

Torture. Get a quick answer when faced with an imminent threat. Only the ticking time bomb scenario never actually occurred and torture yielded horrific injustice when we interrogated innocent people with no information to offer and yielded lies and misinformation when we tortured terrorists.

* * * *
CIA apologist Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr. has justified torture again and again by repeating the imminent threat and ticking time bomb scenario. But in his self-serving memoir (Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives) here’s what else he says. Of course they knew that people being tortured will say anything. That’s why, he says, they never asked a single question of the prisoners while they were being waterboarded. The “enhanced interrogation techniques” were intended just to break their spirits. Then, during the months that followed, interrogators hung out with the prisoners. Rented DVDs and watched movies and shared popcorn with them, building rapport and garnering bits and pieces of information over the course of months. His own words then acknowledge there was no ticking time bomb. No imminent threat. No justification.

* * * *
Peaceful methods take patience and time and skill. Violence is the quick fix when a person feels bullied, disrespected, ignored. When a person feels sad.

Only violence can resolve matters in an instant. Only it doesn’t.

After 13 years, the US leaves Afghanistan. Mission unaccomplished.

* * * *
You’ve heard of brainwashing. What if brains aren’t washed, but poisoned? By war, exile, oppression. By toxic stress when family members are killed, incarcerated, deployed, deported; by surviving violence, including the violence of poverty and of racism, the mother’s stress hormones flooding over the fetus during pregnancy. The pain of sexual violence, of torture, of being trafficked and sold. The list goes on and on in endless cycles of pain and abuse, pain and retribution. Can we at least stop contributing to the cycle?

Children growing up in some Los Angeles neighborhoods show levels of PTSD comparable to children in Baghdad during the worst violence of the war. But understand: Not every person who’s been traumatized will grow up violent, without impulse control, likely to self-medicate through substance abuse. Can we maximize resilience instead of vulnerability?

We’re talking about millions of people.

Can we re-humanize our society? I talk about nonviolence and compassion but lose my temper on the phone after 40 minutes on hold trying to resolve a simple problem with the bank. What happens when frustration has left many of us numb and deadened till the rage breaks through?

Know Justice, Know Peace.

* * * *
According to Commander John Perez, police officers in Pasadena feel really bad when they have to kill a dog–an attack dog which is also a family pet–in the process of making an arrest. So they tried alternatives. Foam didn’t work. Pepper spray didn’t work. One officer made a suggestion and was laughed at. He tried it anyway. Turns out at least some of the time, a Milkbone will tame an angry pitbull.

Our culture allows–even expects–police to express remorse over dogs. Out of remorse comes the search for solutions. If officers could be as open with their regret over taking human life, would they learn ways to de-escalate situations instead of relying solely on the gun?

* * * *
If we can get rid of “waiting,” I’d also like to get rid of “police brutality.” Certainly we have too many examples of just that, but going after brutal and sadistic cops won’t stop the tragic mistakes, the deaths of Black men like Anthony Lee and like Akai Gurley, gunned down in a Brooklyn stairwell. Or Kendrec McDade, killed by Pasadena police responding to a 911 call that turned out to be false.

The word “brutality” won’t help us correct a culture in which Michael Brown’s family was treated with offhand disrespect, and which teaches central nervous systems to respond instantly, signaling “Danger!” when a Black man comes into view.

Instead of turning their backs on Mayor de Blasio, officers of the NYPD should thank him. By teaching his son how to conduct himself when faced with the police, the mayor protected his son but also made it less likely that a cop will have to carry the lifelong burden of a “tragic mistake.”

* * * *
“Tragic mistake” = the least damning phrase I can offer for the US bombing, invasion, and occupation of Iraq.

* * * *
From the immigrants rights movement I learned a principle, expressed in a slogan: Nothing About Us Without Us. The people most affected must be heard. If we’re going to reform policing, communities of color must be at the table. So must the people who best know what the job requires of them: the police.

* * * *
Gandhi wrote, “We win justice quickest by rendering justice to the other party.”

* * * *
Every small victory proves the oppressive power isn’t omnipotent after all. Every step is one crack in the edifice of unjust power. In the Civil Rights Movement of the Fifties and Sixties, mass marches raised awareness and spirits, created solidarity, forged alliances and suggested the power that might lie behind such numbers. If many white consciences remained untroubled by racism, they were still shocked by the brutal repression of peaceful and dignified resistance. (In those days, unlike now, mainstream media coverage advanced the struggle.) Local campaigns targeted local issues–buses, lunch counters, voter registration. Each local demand was focused but part of something bigger. Each victory, no matter how partial, advanced the larger goal of equal rights and justice without regard to race.

* * * *
Wait a minute. Isn’t that what’s been happening?

* * * *
May Day 2006, millions of immigrants and some of their allies took to the streets in nonviolent protest. No legislation passed. It seemed nothing changed, but as people came out of the shadows, the marches helped organize and mobilize local grassroots organizations and find new supporters for groups that had struggled for decades all over the country. Local groups championed the cause of specific immigrants and convinced judges to use discretion and cancel deportation orders. The young people who became known as DREAMers won executive action that protected them from deportation and allowed them to work. Undocumented immigrants are gaining valid drivers licenses. Some are about to win temporary protection.
Slowing down doesn’t mean waiting. It’s not that sort of patience. It’s about moving forward, step by step.

* * * *
At the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza, panelists spoke about considering everyone a “client”–including the government agencies and entities often seen as adversaries. Instead of fighting them, educate them.

The system won’t come to you. You must go to the system. Department by department, person by person.

I’ve seen examples here in Los Angeles. Here’s just one: Community-based organizations that offer an alternative to incarceration won over people from the D.A.’s office after they gave tours of their facilities and programs to show their effectiveness and share information about what they do. Of course it helps that we elected a new, very receptive D.A. Now Jackie Lacey’s office plays a role in educating hundreds of prosecutors, judges, and even defense attorneys who’ve had no idea what might be possible.

Vote in local elections. D.A., Sheriff, School Board may matter to you more than Congress or even the President.

* * * *
On Monday evenings, leaders from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network bring Latino musicians to the street in front of the Metropolitan Detention Center. They serenade the immigrants locked up inside the building awaiting deportation proceedings, offering solidarity and a little joy while commuters, watching the scene from the elevated Gold Line, learn just what is going on in that strange edifice downtown.

So, music. I remember the Freedom Songs of the Civil Rights Movement. Rhythm is the heartbeat. Voices raised together in song create a force.

* * * *
At the grassroots, people agitate. Allies in law, the faith community, professionalized nonprofits don’t take the lead, but stand in solidarity, lobby, negotiate.

* * * *
I’m sick and tired of marching. There are other ways I can offer my support. No more shifting from foot to foot for an hour or more waiting for the damn thing to get underway. Of the self-anointed leaders shouting through bullhorns and giving each other adulatory introductions. Of every fringe group in existence showing up to push every conceivable agenda.

But then I’m on the phone with Laurie Cannady, educator, Army vet, and author whose memoir of girlhood in the ‘hood–Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul–will be published this year. We’re talking about Ferguson and about Eric Garner and she is convinced this is the tipping point. There’s a new Movement now and we’re going to see change. I’m skeptical. Where was the change after Trayvon? Oscar Grant? Anthony Lee? And now, months later, will we have reached that elusive tipping point with Walter Scott?

I Can't Breathe shirt to protest the death of Eric Garner

* * * *
Laurie came to mind when I heard through social media about a nonviolent march scheduled for December 27th in the streets of LA to protest the killing of unarmed Black Americans. I’d never heard of the organizers. Turns out they keep a low profile not because they have anything to hide but because they are committed to an organization based on We, not Me.

How many more

The march starts with thousands of people, on time, at the scheduled hour of 2:00. The 500 of us who want to join in conversation arrive at noon, seated in an amphitheater, not shifting foot to foot. It turns out to be a youth-led movement, almost everyone under 35. We meet each other, listen to poetry and spoken word and song, not speeches, though we are given rules: No aggressive language, no F the police. No leafletting, no soliciting, no outside organizations. We’re here, said a speaker to “promote healing, peace, and love in order to process pain and anger turn it into effective action.”

I wish Laurie could see this. I can see 3.5% now within reach.

We set off, chanting, and I think I’ve gone about this all wrong, looking for excitement, adrenaline. Having fun is just one way to feel alive. There’s something about fun and games–purposeless frivolity–that breaks through the constraints and tedium that weigh us down and trap us in so much of daily life. But purpose–being engaged and interested, committed and active–is every bit as enlivening.

Hands up! Don’t Shoot!

Millions March LA 042

I used to imagine people marching in silence. Yes, we want to raise our voices and be heard. But I always thought if you could get a mob of people to stay silent, that would be an extraordinary show of discipline and power. That would send a message of serious, unwavering intent. I never thought I’d see it till we stopped and observed 4-1/2 minutes of silence to mark the 4-1/2 hours that Michael Brown’s body was left in the street. At the end of the almost 3-hour march, we stood together, no chants, no shouts, no drums, no bullhorns, no words. We stood together sharing a powerful silence.

* * * *
When you play a game, I think, anything can happen. Same with being part of a Movement. You can’t predict the outcome but you play to win.

Remembering Maria Guardado

June 18, 2015

The Second Chances LA website would hardly be complete without the story of Salvadoran torture survivor and activist Maria Guardado. But weakened by cancer in the last few years, Maria had no energy for interviews. We lost her on May 16.

What I’ve just now posted at the website is a very brief tribute, but with a link to the brief documentary about her by Randy Vasquez which includes–warning–a graphic account of what she endured.

Here’s the mural LA artist El Mac painted in Mexico City back in 2012 to honor Maria Guardado and her decades of service.

Maria de la Reforma

Maria Guardado – ¡presente!

Playing Telephone in Senegal: Installment #3

June 4, 2015

Carmen and Kim

Carmen and Kim the last night of the residency.

Ça va? Tu as bien dormi?

Every morning our Senegalese colleagues offered this courteous greeting along with handshakes or hugs. We internationals learned quickly to reciprocate though, if my memory serves me, we were not so consistently courteous with one another.

But the morning of my departure, the morning ritual was dampened down. Many Senegalese had already left the night before. Hector, Marianne, Carmen, Antonio, Tiel, and Kim–who all had several days before flying home–took off early in the company of Dame to visit the Saloum Delta National Park. Jamillah and I were headed to Dakar.

Angelo had told me how to catch a ride and transfer and transfer to get to Dakar and we enlisted Thierno (who was not in a hurry to say goodbye to Jamilah) to accompany us so we could figure it out.

Thierno and Jamillah

But Diol said he would arrange transportation.

Arrangements got complicated. In the meantime, we were out of safe drinking water. The only CFA (Central African francs) I had were in large denominations and I knew the little corner stores would not be able to make change. (Which would also have been true of the public buses and vans.)

Maybe this is the time to talk about money for anyone planning to go to Senegal. The currency is pegged to the euro, so I knew to bring euros rather than dollars, and I was told I could use my ATM card to withdraw francs directly from ATMs which I would find in Dakar, but most likely not in the village. But in Dakar, when I arrived, the banks were closed and my attempts to use ATMs were failures. I only learned at the very end of the trip that ATMs and the few places that do accept credit cards only accept cards that meet the European standard with an embedded chip. Which my cards did not have. (A few days after my return to the US, what should come in the mail but a replacement card complete with chip.) I would have been entirely stuck if I hadn’t been able to borrow francs from Hector and change some euros with Angelo. But, what to do with 10,000 CFA bills?

Jamilah and I headed to one of the small restaurants on the beach. Chez Baby always did good business so I thought there would be change. The owners were used to us. Here’s Hector at Chez Baby with an imperialist Coca-Cola.

hector witih phone

Be back in an hour, Diol warned. Well, there wasn’t any change but the employee in charge agreed to go look for some and let me have a soda. We waited and waited. She was unable to find change but agreed I could send money back to her via Thierno. At that point, I was afraid to ask for another drink.

J & I headed back for the house but by then I was dehydrated and disoriented and somehow we managed to walk right past the usual landmarks — the house up on the cliff with the white spiral stairs heading to the beach,

dog and spiral staircase

the kindergarten next door

kindergarten next door

and the house and continue north for at least a mile. Every now and then I commented on how interesting the rock formations were and how I’d never noticed them before.

By the time we turned around, I couldn’t believe we hadn’t seen how far we’d gone astray. Densely populated stretches of fishermen family homes, men out on the boats, (not like the lonely unused pirogue that outside our house)

neighborhood

children who–unlike the kids who were used to us who would run up to hold our hands and want kisses–glared at us and called out Toubab, the West African word for a European, or white person, or stranger who is presumed to be rich; kind of like Sahib in India. (I had asked at one point about the origin of Toubab Dialaw, the name of the village. Dialaw reminded me enough of diable that I wondered if we were staying in White Devil. Dialaw turned out to be the name of that particular geographic area and the Toubab part refers to the history when Europeans began frequenting the area to trade.)

I was dead on my feet when we got back to the house. It was another couple of hours before we had a car and I didn’t reach Angelo’s till 5:30. And I can’t thank him enough. On top of playing matchmaker between ImaginAction and Yaddu Karaax so that the residency could happen, I took full advantage of his hospitality–a couple of nights on his couch, his help navigating, plus conversation and insight, and another loan!

In the morning, Jamilah, Thierno, Adama (who’d gone on ahead to Dakar before us) and I met at the ferry dock for the boat to Gorée Island.

boarding ferry

No drumming allowed.

no drumming on ferry

on board
The island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and largely known to Americans because of its role in the slave trade. US Presidents on African trips have to visit. But if Jamilah and I thought this would be a sort of pilgrimage, it’s not quite that at all. The UNESCO designation has more to do with the preservation of the colorful colonial buildings and streets that could easily have been lifted directly from France.

Rue

The island makes a pleasant excursion from the dust of Dakar for groups of schoolchildren and regular folks.

Goree seen from ferry

Arriving.

cargo unloaded at Goree

There’s an artists colony, people showing paintings and assemblage work, handcrafts. Little restaurants by the water.

Thierno and Adama led us first to the island’s museum housed in the old fort. (Thierno was annoyed that the Americans were charged extra to visit Gorée and argued that all people are equal regardless of color or nationality, but to me, it’s fair for foreigners to contribute in this way to the upkeep.)

Jamilah and I didn’t realize we were going to see exhibits about the neolithic and paleolithic eras and about Europeans in the region. The exhibits got interesting to me once we moved into the era of resistance, in large part because Adama now had a lot to say.

There were two forms of resistance, armed and cultural with the cultural resistance based on Koranic teachings. He pointed out the picture of a young woman who is a Senegalese hero. She organized exploited Senegalese to go on strike instead of serving European masters. She was arrested and exiled. Adama said violent resisters when caught were executed; nonviolent were sent away, I think usually to Gabon, to break their power and influence without martyring them or causing retaliatory unrest.

There were photographs showing the lineage and genealogy of prominent marabouts. In Senegal, overwhelmingly Muslim, Sufi Islam predominates and that means fervent worship combined with respect and tolerance for other traditions. There seems to be no sectarian tension. People usually belong to what I guess we would call a brotherhood or sodality or–Adama used the word family–led by a particular holy guide, or marabout, whose role is passed down father to son. Adama belongs to the family of Khalifa Ababacar Sy whose portrait hangs in his room. (Also note mosquito net tied up when not in use.)

Adam with picture of

He was also happy to point out the picture of the Khalifa when we saw it that afternoon in a taxi cab.

marabout in cab

Adama is also working on a play about another marabout from a different family tradition who is respected throughout the country. The marabouts have a lot of influence in the community and therefore also with the government.

I remember reading a Sufi book many years ago that talked about fountains springing up at different places all over the world and people drinking from these fountains and recognizing them as Truth but also having to know that all these fountains came up from the same deep river under the earth. The way people talked about belief seemed to go very much with this idea.

We went to the top of the fort and there and elsewhere on the island visited the centuries-old cannons.

Thierno and cannon
Finally, to the Maison des Esclaves. The dungeon cells where people were kept. The even more cramped spaces for the “Recalcitrants” which made me think of solitary confinement in California prisons. The so-called Door of No Return which at this location most likely was not actually the space through which people were forced onto the slave ships.

Maison des Esclaves

I understand this house hasn’t the scale or intensity of horror of the massive slave-trade fortresses in Ghana, but in a way it was particularly horrifying to see the small-scale normalization of keeping human beings like livestock and selling them–if they survived the conditions–to potential buyers an ocean away. Here was a lovely little French village, comfortable little homes, and underneath most likely every pleasant house, people held in brutal captivity.

pleasant scene

(Which makes me think of the eastern seaboard of the US where so many fortunes were made through the crime but most traces of the past have been erased.)

Nearby, this statue represents Liberation.

Liberation

After lunch,

lunch at goree

waitress

we boarded the ferry to return to Dakar.

ferry passengers

harbor birds

people waiting to board

Waited nearby the docks

stalls near docks

for a bus like this one

Dakar bus

and grabbed a cab when we were tired of waiting and headed for the northern suburb where Adama lives with his grandmother.
It was truly an honor that he invited us home to meet her.

Adama and his grandmothe

at home of Adama's grandmere

We had accompanied him in order to watch a rehearsal of new work-in-progress by his theater company. (Sorry, no photos.) First we visited the room he rents near his grandmother’s house, a place to go for privacy and solitude when he is working on a script.

Then the home of his friend, a member of the company.

friend with drum

at home of Adama's friend

On the way to rehearsal, some kids on a rooftop found us very amusing.

kids on roof

And I saw my name painted on a wall.

Diane

Well, no. Turns out everyone thought my name was spelled Dayanne. The word Diane, pronounced Djan in Wolof, means Serpent. Yay!

serpent

We also had the honor of meeting M. Gueye Ndiaye, percussionist and griot who has performed with Youssou N’dour and taken his music and workshops, especially for at-risk youth, to many cities in Europe. He invited us into his home in the neighborhood where he has created and supported community education and culture programs and is the great benefactor of Adama’s theater company.

I think I mentioned in a previous installment that Adama’s company is called SantiYAllah, or Thanks be to Allah. They began and ended their rehearsal with prayer. So it was particularly interesting that Adama explained that while he is respectful of his religion and culture, these don’t belong onstage. There’s no place for God onstage in theater. Maybe, at most, God can be in the audience, but theater is about the feelings and thoughts of human beings, freely expressed.

(I hope I’m expressing this accurately. By this time, I was exhausted and my shaky French even shakier!)

I had seen a video of a play of his, one that he was invited to take to Ravenna, Italy by a Senegalese theater artist who was an immigrant there, Mandiaye Ndiaye, who became his mentor. (Ndiaye died several months ago and Adama would now like to continue studying with Hector.) The production was gorgeous. Much of the dialogue was spoken in chorus by the men on one side, women on the other, in perfect synchrony. Individuals would stop forward to play out particular scenes. The production incorporated music and dance. (At the risk of sounding like an idiot, let me say the work is original and African but I want to describe it as a powerful mix of ancient Greek drama and Bollywood.)

Anyway, I loved the rehearsal. The company warmed up in a circle with very vigorous running and fast, sure ensemble movement to the beat of a drum. They are all dancers so in great shape. The new piece stunned me. Our last day together Hector had facilitated an exercise of men against women. One group would advance on the other with violent or insulting gestures, up to a dividing line, where that group would be driven back. Advance and retreat, advance and retreat, until Hector told us to change to seductive, welcoming or loving gestures. In this way, we transformed vigorous action from hostility to affectionate connection. That was just a couple of days ago, and Adama had already used some of that action, some of the visual imagery, for a piece about marriage.

Then came a new piece he said I had inspired with an exercise I led. But this one was almost all dialogue, and in Wolof, so when Adama put me on the spot and asked for a critique I was entirely at a loss. I was moved that something I’d offered had inspired him and very sorry to let him down by being unable to comment. Jamillah stepped into the breach and asked a question. (Thank you.)

It was hard to say goodbye, and with Adama worried as in the middle of all this he received a call that his beloved mother was in the hospital. I write this now hoping she is recovered and well.

Adama,
Adam and rocksthank you for your friendship.

Jërejëff to everyone who made this trip so inspiring. To Hector (of course) and to Diol and Angelo, seen here conferring.

Diol and Angelo conferring

And it’s hard to come to the end of these posts, knowing how much I’ve left out, how much I gained, how much I failed to understand. I hope Moustapha Seck will further enlighten me!

Here we are (most of us) when the residency was at its height.

our group

Now the house is empty.

boys at the open door

Playing Telephone in Senegal: Installment #2

June 2, 2015

So what were we doing there anyway?

My colleague Hector Aristizábal (seen here with the gift Anta made for him using pebbles and sand)

Hector with Anta's giftwas facilitating a training session for people developing their skills as Forum Theater Jokers. Ummm, so what’s that?

Here’s a quick oversimplification: Forum Theater is one of the most important components of Theater of the Oppressed, a set of techniques created by the late Brazilian theater artist and activist Augusto Boal. The idea is that a community–in particular a marginalized or oppressed community–can use theater to explore and make visible negative conditions in their lives, seek alternatives, and explore possible consequences of different courses of action. The Joker functions as the facilitator, the director, playwright during the development of the play which emerges from the community itself through improvisations. The play always ends badly. The Joker then invites audience members to leave off being spectators and to become, instead, “spect-actors”–that is, anyone in the audience can come up onstage, replace an actor, and intervene in the action by trying out different words or behavior to see if a better outcome can be achieved. While remaining neutral and not imposing his/her own point of view, the Joker leads the audience in analyzing the interventions that are presented.

Mouhamadou Diol,

Diol

who invited us to Senegal and therefore gets my most sincere thank you, is the Joker for the Dakar-based company Kaddu Yaraax.

Kim works with people with disabilities in the Netherlands and wants to bring theater techniques to her work. Here, Dior is turning her into a Senegalese woman with braids.)

Kim gets braids from Dior

(I was sorry to hear from Kim that deep cutbacks are threatening the social programs that have provided such a strong safety net in her country for decades.)

Tiel is a friend and supporter of Sekou Odinga, imprisoned for 33 years for his role in the Black Liberation Army and the prison escape of Assata Shakur. He was freed in November and Tiel carried his story (and many T-shirts showing his face) with her. Children always flocked to her. Tiel made friends with everyone and taped shouts of support for Sekou that she would bring back to the US to share with him.

Tiel Be Sekou (Odinga)

I was very happy to meet Jamilah, from Oakland, who it turned out was instrumental in some of the programs I’ve learned about and so admire to reform school discipline practices in California. Jamilah and Thierno (who stayed with us but is from the village and was our connection to the community) connected right away

T & J happy

as she did, as well, with the kids.

laughing Jamillah carrying child on back

Carmen left LA last year to return to Spain, where she committed herself to grassroots activism in her hometown of Palencia.

Carmen writing She held the portfolio for arts and culture for the progressive association she helped get off the ground. While we were in Africa, she learned she’d been elected to one of 25 seats on the Palencia City Council.

Babacar has 30 years experience as a theater director in Senegal. He said he always told actors where to stand, where to move, what to say. In the workshops, he said he learned to trust the actors to use their own creativity to live their roles.

Babacar taking notes

Babacar says to him the most precious thing in life is freedom.

Marie Ngom was an invaluable addition to the group and much admired by me. If there’s a better example of a strong and independent woman, a Senegalese feminist, show her to me because she’d have to be Marie’s twin.

Marie A visual artist, I don’t think Marie had a lot of theater experience, but she has vision and intelligence. She did a great job advancing the creation of our play the day she served as Joker. And we, especially the women, relied on her for Wolof-French translations. Merci, Marie, et jërejëff.

When I did a (non-theater) exercise asking people to invent a magical product that could solve a social problem, Marie invented this microphone that speaks the words of people who’ve been silenced.

ta voix

Fax drew a torch that would bring peace and forgiveness to our world in conflict. It sells for the price of will and courage.

Fax's invention

Antonio, a superb photographer so that I wish you were looking at his photos rather than mine, came to us from Italy. He also lived for years in Uruguay so I sometimes lapsed into Spanish with him making the language situation more complicated still. (Thanks for this photo, Kim Potter.)

graziano

He also liked to bargain with vendors.

fruits and trinkets

You met Marianne in the first installment. Dare I mention she is a psychiatrist!?!?! And one with years of experience as a circus performer. She’s been with activist projects around the world, recently with the Freedom Bus in Palestine.

Marianne writing

There seem to be a lot of photos of people writing. We also had time for relaxation. Dior in the hammock.

Dior in hammock
Moustapha thought he was there as an observer to film documentary footage but was quickly induced to be a full participant. Here he’s preparing tea during a break.

Moustapha prepares tea

Adama, charismatic actor, musician, theater director, was the only one in the group without previous experience with Theater of the Oppressed.

Adama

In addition to working with his company, SantiyAllah (probably misspelled, the name means Thanks to Allah), he travels the country to work with children and youth and he thought TO techniques would be valuable. We spent a lot of time together. His intellectual curiosity meant he wanted to learn everything, and then some.

The language barrier kept me from getting to know Ndoumbè well till the very end when I learned more and was deeply moved by her story and her courage.

Ndoumbè

Dame (pronounced Dahm). He attended a Koranic school so his education was in Arabic. He learned his excellent French and his growing knowledge of English by looking words up in the dictionary and practicing. He has a great sense of humor and the most provocative dance moves. (Senegalese youth have copied crotch-grabbing from US music videos. It’s considered as vulgar there as it is here and as impossible to stop!)

Dame 2

Of course, many more people: Pape Sidy (whose name, until I saw it spelled, I heard as Vassily). Here he is as Joker, preparing to direct a scene.

Pape Sidy directing (2)

So many more new friends including Anta, Aminata, Adi, Cheik, Leity, and more. Here’s just a few.

Anta in Shadow

Power Girl

Adi - better picture

Many of the Senegalese use theater for HIV/AIDS education and prevention. Senegal 101

But I was supposed to be writing about the play. For about a week we talked about issues and the community and did multiple improvisations about the issues that emerged.

an improvisationLots of gender issues: sexual double standards, rejection and stigmatization of women who don’t get pregnant, polygamy. In Toubab Dialaw, a fishing village, there are also issues about the economic exploitation of the fishermen by the boat owners.

fisherman perf

Finally, this is what we came up with. A young woman loves a poor fisherman who works alongside her uncle. The boat owner is cheating the workers but slips extra money to the uncle because he wants to marry the girl. The arranged marriage takes place, everyone happy except the bride.

wedding

The new husband is cold and angry when he discovers his wife is not a virgin. On top of that, she doesn’t get pregnant. The marriage is unhappy but the uncle and mother want her to remain with her husband and the mother prepares a potion and steps to take so her daughter can conceive a child and create a better marriage.

In the meantime, the boat owner is looking for a second wife for a legal polygamous marriage.

The union organizer has been talking to the fishermen. The real life organizer for the fishermen’s union attended a rehearsal to make comments and make sure the actors understood the actual issues and content. Here:

fishermen's union organizer

Here he observes and comments on the improvisation.

improv under eyes of union man

The fisherman who loved the girl joins the union and tries to convince others. Another is uncertain. The uncle, who is deriving benefit from the boat owner, is completely against the union. But the boat owner is angry at the union drive and at the girl’s whole family and fires all three fishermen.

He then takes the young woman he wants for a second wife to his home. There he is discovered by his first wife and her mother. The first wife pours the potion over his head in disgust. Her mother is torn between berating her son-in-law and placating him.

Dior pours water

We ended it there with the actors freezing. The audience could then intervene in the action at any point — in the relationship, in the issues involving the fishermen.

Development and rehearsals took play in three languages with us internationals playing some roles. Performances were in Wolof only and performed only by Senegalese.

We walked north through the village to the first performance.

boys play with tires

boys playing fussball

corner store

horse cart, motorcycle, goats

Michelin

quartierSenegal 344

I am so fond of goats.

me with goats

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The stage was a weathered concrete platform outside a community training center. Children came by the dozens and Adam played Pied Piper till the show began.
chldren

The audience: audience

This boy found a good vantage point. watching from fence

first performance

Interventions were in Wolof. Here’s the first brave spect-actor to come up from the audience, but I don’t know what she proposed.

first intervention

We could have used more adults in the audience! We really needed to have spoken ahead of time with the local chief and local imam or marabout.

For the second performance, the next evening, in the south village, we should have taken the inland route. Instead we climbed over rocks and waded through tide pools in the Atlantic. My camera was tucked safely away so I didn’t not record our somewhat frantic scramble.

Senegal 418

Again, the children danced and rushed onto the stage before the show began.

child and drum

children dancing onstage goats in background

children dancing 2

children at 2

Hector likes a performance to move quickly, get right into the action, but the Senegalese like to introduce characters and address the audience before getting started. Watch!It really makes sense that way when it’s not as though people have tickets and take their seats when the lights go down.

Here, even more than the first performance, I gained such appreciation for the Senegalese actors. Performing in the open air, they can’t miss a beat when children and goats cross the stage.a little better with goatchildren and goats may wander onto stage

When a child chooses to watch from a tree in the middle of the stage. watching from treeOr when a horse cart cuts through the audience to make a delivery. and then a horse wagon comes through

Some scenes: aminata and adam

Anta's scene

first scene

Here comes an intervention:

An audience member comes up to change the scene

Not only did she intervene in the action, she tried to move the kids back from the stage area.

intervention

not only did she intervene

I understood from the translation that this woman intervened to tell the husband it might be his fault that his wife could not get pregnant. When a man mistreats his wife, the stress may make it impossible for her to conceive.

Four young women consulted together before one came onstage and proceeded to beat the actress playing the second wife. She had to be restrained. As Diol put it later, they were sending a message to the men of the village, making their opposition to polygamy very clear. Though we didn’t have many adults in the audience, Diol thought this intervention would be the main topic of conversation in town the next day.

Our last full day in Toubab Dialaw a drowned child washed up just steps from our house. Later that day, one of the wonderful women who cooked for us was possessed by a spirit and went into a trance. I will write about these events more seriously and in (I hope) more depth when I collaborate with Moustapha on our intercultural essay.

The next day, we prepared to leave. Some people departed early, needing to be back at their jobs. It felt so sudden and so very sad, breaking up the creative village we had made together.

Next installment. Thierno and Adama accompany me and Jamillah in Dakar.

First, I’ll include some more photos here. This little girl, related to Anta–oh, that face. She was so dramatic, so compelling, I could have taken pictures of her all day. But to be fair, I’ll close today’s installment with pictures of some other beautiful children.

oh that face

children

Senegal 291

girl in red and fingers

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boy on bench

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girl

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Playing Telephone in Senegal

June 1, 2015

Our ten-day residency in the fishing village of Toubab Dialaw was a collaborative project by Hector Aristizábal’s nonprofit ImaginAction and the Senegalese theater company Kaddu Yaraax, under the direction of Mohamadou Diol. Eight “internationals” from the US and Europe lived with Senegalese colleagues from different regions of the country, all of us engaged with using theater–especially Theater of the Oppressed (“TO”)–to promote positive social change and community health. None of this would have been possible without the help of Angelo Miramonti, an experienced TO practitioner who lives in Dakar while managing UNICEF projects in West Africa. Here’s Angelo talking to Marie, a wonderful visual artist who lives in Dakar. After she joined the group, we took full advantage of her as a Wolof-French interpreter. (And there will be better photos of her–she’s beautiful–in the next installment.)

Marie and Angelo

I say we were playing telephone because in addition to potential misunderstandings due to cultural context, our communications went through three languages, translations from Wolof to French to English and back and what I think I understood…well…you remember the game of telephone. Senegalese documentarian Moustapha Seck (who is also the author of a forthcoming book on Malcolm X–known in Senegal as el Hajj Malick) and I are going to try to parse some of this out in a collaborative bilingual essay. For now, I will give just a more touristy account of the trip as so many people have asked about it.

Much of the group assembled in Dakar on May 16 for the minibus trip to Toubab Dialaw, about 50 km south of the capital. Here are Hector and Carmen.

Carmen and Hector in van en route to Toubab Dialaw

Tiel looks out the window as we travel.

Tiel looking out van window

I saw many more horse-drawn carts than private automobiles.

more horsedrawn carts than private cars

Here’s Dior whose name is pronounced more like the Portuguese name João than like Christian Dior.

Dior

Mornings, we came to life hearing her song.

Dior always singing

Arriving.

Arrival

We shared a house–basically a hostel devoted to our group alone. Basic rooms with a mattress. Four bathrooms which were wonderful when there was water. Looking down into the patio from the second floor, you can see the sandy area to the right. Getting acquainted.

Getting acquainted

view of patio

view from above

You often find this, like a big sandbox that serves as a gathering place. It’s where we played theater games, exercises, did improvisations, created a play and rehearsed it.

rehearse

fishing improv

And where we had circles for checking in and discussion. In the Senegalese tradition, such circles are called pinch (in Wolof, spelling unknown by me). We did quite a bit of pinching.

People draw diagrams in the sand or just, as you see with this boy, make designs with shells and stones.

boy making design in sand

Mornings we had bread and coffee prepared and served by Adama and Dame. Here is Fax. Pronounced Fox. I forgot he didn’t speak English and so didn’t understand why I kept calling him Monsieur le Renard.

Fax breakfast

Exercise on the beach led by Marianne.

Morning exercise

Day by day, more and more people got curious about us. Children peeked over the wall.

spy child

People came in the door.

people looking in

Here comes lunch.

lunch is coming

lunch on head

Oilcloths get spread on the floor, we sit around sharing large platters of thiébou dienne, usually a short grain Thai rice that’s almost more like risotto or couscous topped with stewed vegetables, mostly squash and cabbage, topped with a fish and sautéed onions, flavored with some sort of spice. Eat with a spoon or with hand.

lunch we share tray of thiebou dienne

The very pregnant cat who lived in the house loved us most at mealtimes. We left before the kittens came.

cat and fishbone

A pipe broke and the village was without running water for three days. The second day we headed out with containers to the public well. We were turned away.
the public well

Here’s Anta.

Anta 3

Her relatives invited us into their home

Anta family

masonry work

and let us draw as much as we wanted from their own well.

at the wall
up comes the bucket

Marianne joins the procession of women carrying water.

procession

She lives in the South of France and did a valiant job as French-English interpreter. Marianne was concerned about how she would be seen as a Frenchwoman. There’s resentment toward the colonial power and, in addition, in Toubab Dialaw for example, many French nationals are seasonal residents, escaping the winter, and spending months but never socializing with the Senegalese. Marianne shattered that stereotype.

Marianne carrying on head

Some members of our group who did speak French preferred not to. Babacar called Wolof the happy language, as opposed to French which was imposed.

Moi? It was a trip to recover some of my high school French. I thought it was perfect. I could usually make myself understood but I spoke it so poorly no one could conceivably mistake me for a French person.

We returned able to flush the toilets. And even the cat was happy.

cat drinking water
Evening on the beach. The sun goes down and children play soccer, men exercise, come out for a walk by the water.

exercise on the beach

night on the beach

Next installment I’ll write more about people, developing our play and performing it in the village.

Solitary Confinement Is Torture

May 14, 2015

I met Ernest Shepard III at a demonstration calling for an end to solitary confinement in California prisons. He was carrying a sign from NRCAT, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

web size Ernest Shepard III

We started talking and I learned he’d spent more than 45 years inside California prisons, including three years on Death Row (where, incidentally, he was interviewed by Truman Capote who gave him a carton of cigarettes and a case of Coca-Cola).

We met a few more times so I could hear his story because as many of you know, I’ve been posting stories of torture survivors from around the world at the Second Chances LA website. But torture doesn’t happen only “over there”. And when Americans torture, it’s not just at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. I couldn’t continue with the website without including a look inside US prisons.

Ernest Shepard III now works for the Fair Chance Project, a movement led by liberated lifers (formerly incarcerated men and women), prisoners and loved ones organized around the demand for just sentencing laws and fair parole practices. Additionally, the group integrates formerly incarcerated men and women back into society enabling them to “give back and to help build strong, self-sustaining communities.”

You can find his narrative at the Second Chances LA website or go directly to his page here.

fair Chance project

LitReactor review of Confessions of a Carnivore

April 27, 2015


Bookshots: ‘Confessions of a Carnivore’ by Diane Lefer

REVIEW BY DEAN FETZER APRIL 27, 2015

IN: BABOONS BOOKSHOTS DIANE LEFER REVIEW

carn
Bookshots: ‘Confessions of a Carnivore’ by Diane Lefer

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review

Title: Confessions of a Carnivore

Who wrote it?

Diane Lefer, a playwright, activist and author of ‘Nobody Wakes Up Pretty’ and ‘California Transit’ (awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize, Sarabande Books, 2007).

Plot in a Box:

In the lead up to the second Iraq war, retired high school teacher Rae, now a volunteer at the LA Zoo, spends hours observing baboons, chimpanzees, gibbons and various other primates, but spends her free time driving around with her best friend Jennie, drinking margaritas from a flask. Feeling she’s closest to her cat, Molly, Rae drifts, not feeling anything. After a near miss on the freeway, she and Jennie join a theatrical activist group protesting the treatment of animals. In the paranoia of the period after 9/11, a pregnant Jennie disappears, presumably taken by the authorities for possible terrorist activity. Meanwhile the only person who can possibly clear Jennie has become involved in a religious cult fixated on clean colons.

The only person who can clear her friend has become involved in a religious cult fixated on clean colons.

Invent a new title for this book: I would call it: The Mating Rituals of Drill Baboons Humans [Fetzer has a strikethrough over Drill Baboons. I couldn’t make that come out in this post]

Read this if you liked:

I had trouble deciding on one book. It’s sort of The World According to Garp crossed with Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus.

Meet the book’s lead: Rae is a 50 year old retired teacher with suppressed feelings toward anything but her cat. Like many at a mid-life point, she seems to be drifting, falling into situations and wondering how she got there — and always looking for some focus, be it a lover, purpose, or job. Her ex-husband’s an alcoholic and in jail, her best friend has disappeared and she’s not sure how to find her again.

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by: Kristen Wiig

Setting: would you want to live there? LA in the heat and smog — not my idea of a good time.

What was your favorite sentence? I was arrested once, in 1968. I waited for Des the first time he went to jail. But now? Getting busted was, to use Devon’s turn of phrase, so over.

The Verdict: To start with, I wasn’t sure how this was going to pan out: the narrative feels like a series of snapshots and reminiscences told in no particular order and was confusing at first. That said, I soon had a handle on the characters and there is a thread tying the various vignettes together, mainly through the person of Rae, a retired teacher now observing the sexual behavior of primates at the zoo.

It soon becomes apparent after she joins Gorilla Theater with her best friend Jennie that the observations of primate sex parallels the relationships of the humans she comes into contact with. Through the theater group, she and Jennie meet new people and Rae meets the father of Devon from the group; David works at a lab with primates, but not observing, doing experiments on them to better understand how they relate to us. Between protest performances, marches, visits to a cult called the “Neo-proctologists” and a local Native American reservation, the book covers a lot of ground, both physically and metaphorically, and spends a lot of time talking about George W. Bush and the actions of the US — and within the US — in the wake of the attacks on the Twin Towers.

This book walks a fine line between preaching/informing the reader about how scary things are in the US for average citizens and telling a story; but it must have worked for me, as I wanted to know what happens at the end. The adventures of Rae and the descriptions of how the various primates behave made for a compelling read and I will be looking for her back catalog.

Animal Rites, an essay review from Talented Reader

April 23, 2015

Wow! George Ovitt of my favorite litblog, Talented Reader, reviews Confessions of a Carnivore along with The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim al-Koni. Really an essay review in which he has a lot to stay about animal consciousness and our relations with animals–while citing Kant, Hume, Montesquieu and more. The New York Review of Books should hire him. Now.

The blog usually covers literature in translation that I wouldn’t know about at all if not for Ovitt and fellow blogger Peter Adam Nash. So click and read about my book, and then subscribe if you care about literature.

If you’re as tired of looking at my cover as I am, here, instead, is a photo of Ibrahim al-Koni.

Ibrahim-al-Kuni_8026

First review of Confessions of a Carnivore

April 20, 2015

When you admire someone’s fiction and his politics, it can be nerve-wracking to know he’s going to review your novel. So I can only breathe a sigh of grateful relief and say thank you to JJ Amaworo Wilson.

Confessions of a Carnivore – by Diane Lefer

Posted on April 16, 2015 by JJ Wilson

carn

Wow. Diane Lefer’s new novel is one wild ride. With all the animals involved, I mean that literally. She somehow mixes activism, alcoholism, protest theater, cat-love, animal observation in L.A. Zoo, and race politics in one story and comes out the other end smelling of roses.

This novel is about all of those things and about none of them. It’s all about the voice. The narrator talks directly to us and it soon becomes clear she’s not all there. She’s half-dead with grief, reeling from the fallout of a failed marriage to an alcoholic and now unable to love anything or anyone beyond her cat. She gets mixed up in a protest theater group (based on Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed) and then involved in a series of increasingly bizarre incidents.

The novel is by turns hilarious and tragic. A lobotomized woman lives, barely, among hundreds of cats; the theater group lurches from daft stunt to even dafter stunt; and the ‘baddie’, it turns out, is just a naive fool on the wrong side of the political tracks.

To try to summarize the plot would be a fool’s errand, but I found this book terrifically entertaining in an absurd, where’s-she-going-to-take-us-next? kind of way. And just when we’re waiting for the next laugh, the novel surprises us by becoming something altogether more moving.

As a follow-up to the shimmering, award-winning California Transit, Confessions of a Carnivore doesn’t disappoint. It’s full of wild ideas and crazy conceits, and still manages to warm the heart.

* * *

More info and to order.


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