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.
Archive for the ‘Theater of the Oppressed’ Category
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.
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.
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.
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,
the 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)
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.
No drumming allowed.
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.
The island makes a pleasant excursion from the dust of Dakar for groups of schoolchildren and regular folks.
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.)
He was also happy to point out the picture of the Khalifa when we saw it that afternoon in a taxi 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.
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.
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.
(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.
we boarded the ferry to return to Dakar.
Waited nearby the docks
for a bus like this one
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.
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.
On the way to rehearsal, some kids on a rooftop found us very amusing.
And I saw my name painted on a wall.
Well, no. Turns out everyone thought my name was spelled Dayanne. The word Diane, pronounced Djan in Wolof, means Serpent. Yay!
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.
Jërejëff to everyone who made this trip so inspiring. To Hector (of course) and to Diol and Angelo, seen here 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.
Now the house is empty.
So what were we doing there anyway?
My colleague Hector Aristizábal (seen here with the gift Anta made for him using pebbles and sand)
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.
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.)
(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.
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
as she did, as well, with the kids.
Carmen left LA last year to return to Spain, where she committed herself to grassroots activism in her hometown of Palencia.
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 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.
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.
Fax drew a torch that would bring peace and forgiveness to our world in conflict. It sells for the price of will and courage.
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.)
He also liked to bargain with vendors.
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.
There seem to be a lot of photos of people writing. We also had time for relaxation. Dior in the hammock.
Adama, charismatic actor, musician, theater director, was the only one in the group without previous experience with Theater of the Oppressed.
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.
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!)
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.
So many more new friends including Anta, Aminata, Adi, Cheik, Leity, and more. Here’s just a few.
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.
Lots 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.
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.
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:
Here he observes and comments on the improvisation.
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.
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.
I am so fond of goats.
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.
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.
Again, the children danced and rushed onto the stage before the show began.
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. 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 comes an intervention:
Not only did she intervene in the action, she tried to move the kids back from the stage area.
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.
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.)
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.
Tiel looks out the window as we travel.
I saw many more horse-drawn carts than private automobiles.
Here’s Dior whose name is pronounced more like the Portuguese name João than like Christian Dior.
Mornings, we came to life hearing her song.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Exercise on the beach led by Marianne.
Day by day, more and more people got curious about us. Children peeked over the wall.
People came in the door.
Here comes lunch.
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.
The very pregnant cat who lived in the house loved us most at mealtimes. We left before the kittens came.
Her relatives invited us into their home
and let us draw as much as we wanted from their own well.
Marianne joins the procession of women carrying water.
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.
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.
Next installment I’ll write more about people, developing our play and performing it in the village.