When you think of the word theatre what do you associate? Is it a memory,? a smell?, an emotion? a sound or echo? Theatre is a sensory experience. It can preserve a moment in time, a mission, or even the smallest of wishes. It is so much more that just a performance. Multiple cultures have nurtured performance practices, using expression and demonstration to achieve many different collective and social goals because It's hard to deny that there is some information which is better processed and passed down in a community setting.
The act of gathering to reflect as a community has existed since the dawn of communication. which is what makes Theatre in my opinion a powerful tool. Theatre, as a form of community-building performance, very often branches out beyond asking the viewer to accept the given narrative. Theatre demands, by its creation and staging of environment, that we also to question or challenge ourselves to see how we connect. Looking in the collective mirror together, the lingering human contradictions and impact of structural and institutional bias and oppression, is experienced from a different collective view point. Besides you go to the Theatre specifically to have an experience, not just to view people on display. Whether it's cultural, community, school based, church based, or professional Theatre; we have developed over eras an infinite performance and art vocabulary, that when accessed injects our community building work with some much needed heart.
Community organizing a natural extension of my community building toolkit. Throughout our grassroots social and economic justice movements, we are sharing stories, experiences, and best strategies both locally and nationally to confront power and inequity. Sharing our performances, art or Theatre as community building provides a sensory expressive vehicle to understanding and unlearning the external and internalized systems of oppression. A key example can be found by looking at the history of The Free Southern Theater (FST). Co-founded by John O’Neal, Doris Derby, and Gilbert Moses in 1963. Created to be a cultural wing of The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The The Free Southern Theater (FST) was a crucial catalyst for change and community organizing . The 1963 performance of Freedom Election, a separate “mock election” timed to coincide with the state’s gubernatorial election of 1963, gave voice and action to the 80,000 disenfranchised "citizens" who could not "legally" vote, and recruited thousands into the fight for voting rights.
Theatre and Performance as catalyst can be a big intersection to reflect on as a community building tool. My P.S. additional food for thought comes from The Colored Museum, a play written by George C. Wolfe and premiered in 1986 at the Crossroad Theater Company of New Jersey. The first professional theatre devoted to developing and producing works on the African American theatrical canon. Directed by L. Kenneth Richardson, one of the founders of the Crossroad Theater Company, The Colored Museum explores a series of “exhibits” on themes and identities of African-American culture and our history in the U.S.. For a full experience let me set the tone for 1986:
In 1986 when the play premiered Ronald Regan and George Bush were leading the U.S. administration. We witnessed the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The first federal Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., being observed. The 58th Academy Awards with Out of Africa winning Best Picture. The Statue of Liberty is reopened to the public after an extensive refurbishing. In Edmond, Oklahoma, United States Postal Service employee guns down 14 of his co-workers before committing suicide. In Philadelphia the cargo ship Khian Sea departs from the docks carrying 14,000 tons of toxic waste to wander the seas for 16 months trying to find a place to dump its cargo. The Goldwater-Nichols Act was signed into law, making official the largest reorganization of the United States Department of Defense since the Air Force was made a separate branch of service in 1947. Democrats had regained control of the United States Senate for the first time in 6 years. Meanwhile National Security Council member Oliver North and his secretary, Fawn Hall shredded thousands of documents implicating them in selling weapons to Iran and channeling the proceeds to help fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. In December 1986 – Three African Americans are assaulted by a group of white teens in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens, New York. One of the victims, Michael Griffith, is run over and killed by a motorist while attempting to flee the attackers. At the close of the year 1986 a fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, killing 97 and injuring 140.
Now that the stage is set, I give you exhibit 1 performed by the illustrious Danitra Vance