Friday, July 25, 2014

Imagining Human Rights in 21st Century Theater

Imagining Human Rights in Twenty-First-Century Theater (2013) [248pp] edited by Florian N. Becker, Paola S. Hernández, and Brenda Werth is divided into three thematic sections, “Transitional justice and Civil Society, “The War on Terror and the Global Economic Order”, and “Constructing Transnational Publics.”  The first part looks at the inherent theatricality of some of the processes of transition such as trials, truth commissions and the construction of museums.  The second section examines the human dimension of statelessness by shedding light on how states constitute individuals within zones of exception.  The third section examines theater as a tool for both bolstering and for posing challenges to the international human rights imaginary. 

The book’s Foreword opens with the performance of flo6x8, a collective that uses flamenco to mark out a “temporary space through embodied practice that both claims and enacts an alternative social economy.”  The performers temporarily transform a bank into a tablao and the customers into an audience.  The dance protests the situation of a man that the bank has thrown out of his home.  The dancers and the audience temporarily take over the space and suspend the existing norms and the prevailing social logic.  The purpose of the performance is to temporarily introduce an alternative social and political logic; to spark imagination.  Like the dancer at the bank, performance is able to pose challenges to prevailing norms by exposing the very theatricality of the prevailing system.  Through interventions such as the dancer in the bank, theatre documents and functions as an archive of knowledge, challenges existing public spheres and constitutes new ones.

In the introduction the editors argue that the emergence of a discourse of universal human rights is directly related to acts of imaginary identification in 18th century Europe.  One example of this is the boom of the epistolary novel and the identification across social lines proposed by scholar Lynn Hunt in Inventing Human Rights.  The book sets out to answer the following types of questions about the relationship between theater and human rights.  What does theater do for human rights?  How has theatre been used strategically in some cases of human rights abuses?  How does theater influence the imagination?  What types of knowledge (archives/repertoire) does theatre produce?

Anne Lambright’s chapter “Dead Body Politics: Grupo Yuyachkani at Peru’s Truth Commission” explores the role of the theater collective Yuyachkani in accompanying the Peruvian Truth Commission and the process of national mourning.  Lambright looks closely at how works like Rosa Cuchillo, Antígona and Adiós Ayacucho re-present dead bodies in a way that allows the audience to imagine “a dead to mourn.”

Luis Madureira’s “Where ‘God is Like a Longing’: Theater and Social Vulnerability in Mozambique” looks at theatre as a tool that unites divided publics.  He looks specifically at the example of Os Noivos ou Conferencia Dramática sobre o Lobolo; a play that contests the prevailing colonial cultural practice of bride-wealth by showing the impact of this tradition on families and couples.  At the same time the play also creates a sense of national identity by reflecting the cultural practices of Mozambique.

Paola Hernández’ “The ESMA: From Torture Chambers into New Sites of Memory” builds on the work of Diana Taylor to analyze how the Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA), a detention and torture center during the last dictatorship, has been transformed into a Memory Museum that also houses multiple Human Rights offices.  Hernández argues that the ESMA today is a performative space at the intersection of memory and history and what Diana Taylor conceptualizes as the archive and the repertoire.  In this piece Hernández goes beyond the binary of history and memory to examine what knowledge a place can stage and come to represent through commemorative acts.

Brenda Werth’s “Surprising Metaphors of Violence in Post-dictatorial Southern Cone Theater” takes up the metaphor of violence in Griselda Gambaro’s La persistencia (2007) and Gabriel Peveroni’s Sarajevo esquina Montevideo (2003).  Werth examines these plays as models of transnational violence that go beyond the dichotomies of North and South, First and Third Worlds, East and West (90).  Werth also examines also the role of spectatorship in the omnipresent figure in La persistencia and the photographer en Sarajevo esquina Montevideo.

Lindsey Mantoan’s “Place and Misplaced Rights in Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” looks at Guantanamo, a documentary play that allows the audience to imagine the daily existence of five “enemy combatants” in Guantanamo detention center.  The play is critical of how the US has created a state of exception and has constituted people as “stateless persons” in order to legitimize it’s treatment of prisoners.  The play uses real people with personal stakes in the events and the script comes from historical documents and records. 

Christina Wilson looks at how the “War on Terror” creates a state of exception for masking racist treatment of Iraqi and Afghan refugees.  “Challenging the ‘Fetish of the Verbatim’: New Aesthetics and Familiar Abuses in Christine Evans’s Slow Falling Bird” analyzes the Australian play Slow Falling Bird.  Both Guantanamo and Slow Falling Bird complicate the representations of the detention centers offered through the mainstream media and inspire audiences to take action and to advocate for the prisoners as refugees.

In “Stages of Transit: Rascón Banda’s Hotel Juárez and Peveroni’s Berlin” Sarah Misemer analyzes two plays that take place in transitory transnational spaces; the first, in a hotel in the border town of Juárez, and the second, at an airport in Berlín.  Both plays make visible what is otherwise invisible.  Hotel Juárez allows the audience to imagine the devastating impact of neoliberal economic policies in Mexico and Peveroni’s Berlín highlights the impact of the culture of fear left in the wake of the “War on Terror.”  Together the plays contest and complicate representations of global economics and global security that are portrayed in the mainstream media.

Ana Puga’s chapter “Migrant Melodrama, Human Rights and Elvira Arellano” takes up theatricality in a broader sense.  Puga examines the media’s portrayal of undocumented migrant artist Elvira Arellano who received much media attention after seeking sanctuary at a Chicago church with her son.  Puga argues that people in positions of privilege cast immigrants in different roles that impact immigration policy and shape dominant views on immigration.  For example, immigrants are sometimes viewed as refugees and other times as economic migrants depending on how they are constructed by journalists, politicians, activists and scholars.  According to Puga, the viewing public, despite the fact that human rights apply universally to all people, receives immigrants as “good” victims or as “bad” economic opportunists.

In “Get up, Stand up, Stand up for your Rights”: Transnational Belonging and Rights of Citizenship in Dominican Theater” Camila Stevens examines the transnational identities of immigrants that move between countries.  For example, in Mondongo Scam, Casiano defends himself in immigration court and embodies one personality after another while explaining his strategy of using dead people’s identity documents.  Imitating others has had a profound impact on Casiano’s own identity and has changed him as a result.  Mondongo, a metaphor in the play that represents this transcultural identity, is the Dominican stew that “evokes a mixture of ingredients that compose a Dominican identity in a constant state of transculturation”(185).  The audience learns that contact with other cultures deeply changes the immigrant.  In this case theater also works to build bridges of empathy with immigrants.

Joi Barrios’ “Theaters of Vigil and Vigilance: A Playwright’s Notes on Theater and Human Rights in the Philippines” and Elizabeth Anker’s “The Spectacle of Our Suffering’: Staging the International Human Rights Imaginary in Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul” shift the focus to transnational activism and explore theatrical representations of activists in human rights work and also push back against the limits of the international human rights imaginary.

In “Broadway without Borders: Eve Ensler, Lynn Nottage, and the Campaign to End Violence against Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo” Kerry Bystrom takes up theatre as a tool that humanizes human rights discourse.  In the instance of Congolese women’s portrayal as victims of traumatic fistula, for example, theatre is a tool that reminds the audience that these women’s’ lives extend beyond the experience of victimization (239).

In conclusion, Imagining Human Rights provides a global perspective on the relationship between performance and human rights.  Together the editors and authors argue that theater creates a temporary stage to document human rights abuse, to imagine abuse, to identify with others, and to inspire advocacy in the audience.  Theatre has been used strategically in some instances such as in the case of Yuyachkani, where performance was used to encourage people to give their testimonies to the Peruvian Truth Commission.  In the opening case of the dancer in the bank, performance becomes a way to suggest alternative logics and to help the audience imagine other possible ways of living.  Theater stores a repertoire of knowledge as we see in the case of the ESMA where knowledge is tied to the space of the ex-detention center and to commemorations and other performances in the space.

An interview with one of the Editors Paola Hernández published in UW Madison's Spanish & Portugese Magazine Tinta (2014) follows:

In her new book, Paola Hernández, co-editor (with Brenda Werth and Florian Becker), examines not just theatre, but theatricality and performativity: “There are chapters written by practitioners and playwrights and others that understand theatricality in the sense that a public can see theatre even when they are not seeing a ‘play.’ We wanted to look at different aspects of theatre and examine different understandings of theatricality.”

On how the discourse of human rights has changed in the 21st century:
 I don’t think it has changed; the word that I would use is “evolved.” The reason that we chose the twenty-first century is because we really wanted focus on what is go- ing on now in the post-Apartheid, post-dictatorship era. For example, one chapter looks at memory sites and museums because we have seen these explode in Latin America, in Africa, even in the United States and Europe. One of the evolving aspects of human rights is that we are talking about the right to memorials, memory museums, and memory sites.

On the importance of “imagining” human rights:
 One of the ideas that we worked with is imagining the audience; imagining the public and imagining spectators and their role. We also work with the idea of imagining the impact of theatrical work.

On what theatre can do for human rights:
 We hope that it calls attention to something that might be invisible to the eyes of society and make situations more evident. For example, the ESMA is not just a museum; it is a theatrical space that performs embodied memory and absence through tours, escraches, signs, plays and conferences. So theatre and performance call attention to human rights.

On reconciling the aesthetics of theatre with human rights activism:
 Theatre and performance are the most political of all the artistic and literary genres. The fact that you use a body and have a stage gives you power and a space that you wouldn’t have otherwise. Theatre
is ephemeral compared to poetry and the novel, but it has a presence and force, an aura in the Benjamin sense of experiencing something in the moment. So aesthetics is always a part, but it is not the main goal.

On new insights the book offers: I hope that our book goes beyond the highly theoretical and referential mode of many existing books on human rights. We give the voice to the experts in their fields in order to understand how theatrical practices on the local level speak to and with human rights discourses.

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