Activist Performatives: Theater as a Practice of Hope and Transformation in the United States

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In recent years, especially since the 2020 uprisings across the United States intensified after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and far too many other Black Americans across history at the hands of the police, I’ve noticed an increased tendency among activists on social media to use the terms “performative activism” or “performative allyship” to describe easy public statements of solidarity that aren’t backed by any real transformative action. The kind of flimsy effort described as “performative” is often undertaken by predominantly white institutions or individuals who seem more concerned with publicly identifying themselves as being on board with the anti-racist cause than with suffering the discomfort that would come with doing the real work and sacrifice of actively dismantling the racist social structures and systems from which they benefit. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I am white (or, rather, I have been socialized as white, given that whiteness is a socially constructed narrative), and bear all the attendant privileges and responsibilities that entails. I am almost certainly guilty of the kind of action being derided, so my critique here should be taken with that giant grain of salt. But every time I see the term “performative” used to describe a practice that is devoted to maintaining an inhumane status-quo, that is disingenuous at best and most certainly harmful, I want with everything in me to push back despite an awareness that in these circumstances I am a better advocate when I listen.

It’s not the critique itself that bothers me – I often agree and sympathize with the frustration these kinds of actions inspire, even when I am implicated – but it’s seeing the term “performative” being popularized in this way that seems unintentionally damaging and misplaced. Not only does this use of the term “performative” in a derogatory way seem connected with an age-old conservative or right-wing bias against performance and theater, its use also denies an equally age-old connection between theater, performance, citizenship, and social transformation. To my ears, it suggests that performance and performers – and by extension theater – are not to be trusted and are non-productive and non-serious, and always work in the service of the status-quo. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.

Anna Deavere Smith recently gave a talk at the college where I teach. Deavere Smith’s work, in which she interviews people and then performs segments of those interviews verbatim as closely as possible to the way the speaker delivered them, is rooted equally in civic dialogue and theatrical performance, and has deeply influenced my work as a teacher of theater. Deavere Smith’s performance that evening included, among others, segments from her work in Baltimore (a couple hours up the road from the college) when she created Notes from the Field, about the school-to-prison pipeline in the United States. Her breathtaking performance allowed those of us in the audience to be, for a moment, in the same room with citizen/scholar/heroes from Kevin Moore, a Baltimore citizen who took the video that exposed the police who brutalized and killed Freddie Gray, to Congressman John Lewis, whose ghostly presence in the room, via Deavere Smith’s live and present body, moved many of us to tears. Before her presentation began, she stated that she thinks of storytelling as an act of hope, even when the subject is painful. I believe theater, at its best, participates in that kind of performative – it makes hope present and palpable, it brings us into rooms with people past and present in magical ways, it teaches us when and how to listen, it encourages us to speak out of necessity and to know when it’s our cue.

A “performative,” as it is understood by scholars within theater and performance studies, derives from J.L. Austin’s linguistic term that suggests a word that, when spoken in certain settings, does something, a statement that alters the circumstances of the world. Jill Dolan, a scholar of gender, sexuality, and theater studies with whom I studied in graduate school, wrote 20 years ago in Utopia in Performance that “as a performative, performance itself becomes a doing, in linguistic philosopher J.L. Austin’s sense of the term, something that in its enunciation acts—that is, performs an action as tangible and effective as saying “I do” in a wedding ceremony. Utopian Performatives, in their doing, make palpable an affective vision of how the world might be better.”

At its best, inside and outside institutions, theater is this kind of utopian public action that brings that better world into being, if only for a moment, and allows audiences and performers together to experience what such a world can feel like. (I often explain to students that classrooms and rehearsal rooms and processes serve as models, on a smaller scale, for how public life on a larger scale could operate.) This kind of performativity is key to helping activists reshape the world, and the need for it has perhaps never been clearer than during the pandemic-weary, grief-heavy environment we’re currently trying to navigate.

I can describe any number of these kind of electric performative moments as an audience member, often with pieces that focus on deep and transformative connections between performers and audiences. I saw a Shakespeare Behind Bars production of Pericles at the Luther Luckett Correctional Facility in Kentucky, and the nuanced, committed performances of incarcerated men who had chosen their own roles and rehearsed this play for a full year helped transport me to all the places through which that story travels. I felt truly changed as a person by the collective ritual of Aleshea Harris’s What to Send Up When It Goes Down, which I was fortunate to experience at the Duke Ellington School in Washington, DC as it toured several spaces in the city before it began its run at Woolly Mammoth back in the pre-pandemic world of 2019. For me, this is what “performative activism” means – or perhaps I should invert that term to “activist performative.” While I can recognize hints of it in most theatrical contexts, it is most palpable and fully realized in work that is in some way outside the walls of formal institutions, work that has a slightly altered relationship with its audience and serves communities in different ways than mainstream professional theaters often do.

It was these kinds of experience that led me to an interest in what is referred to in the United States as “community based theater” (which can be confusing because it is slightly different than “community theaters,” which are also often wonderful and necessary groups who usually produce work that is already well known from having been previously produced in professional contexts). Community based theater is sometimes created under the purview of a publicly or privately supported professional institution, and is sometimes developed by non-professional community ensembles, but is broadly defined as theater created in, with, by, about and for very local communities and specific groups of people. It often has as its goal examining particular issues or subjects of concern to the communities at hand and, as Jan Cohen-Cruz, who has written extensively about the field, notes, is appropriately considered not just in the context of art, but in a “larger social frame,” which she defines as “the systems we inhabit with other people to acquire basic human needs such as food, shelter, clothing, employment, education, health, peaceful coexistence, meaning, and recreation.”

One of many examples of companies doing this kind of work is Cornerstone Theater Company, based in Los Angeles, CA. Almost a dozen years ago, in the summer of 2010, I stood in line with my fellow actors, waiting to move through the audience onto a stage we had spent the past few weeks building at Project Youth Green in Pacoima, CA. It was the night of the first performance of It’s All Bueno, an adaptation of Voltaire’s Candide written by Sigrid Gilmer in collaboration with residents of the neighborhood. The project was the culmination of the 2010 Cornerstone Theater Company Summer Institute, and, as the company’s website states, “The cast of 54 included 43 local residents and 8 more community members worked backstage.”

I had been a participant in that summer’s institute and was an outsider who had known Pacoima only for a short time. It was thrilling to experience the buzz of excitement as community members anticipated seeing their family, friends and neighbors onstage as the long process of work came to fruition. The total involvement of that community, and the sheer joy of that moment for everyone involved, moved me to tears. In the Austinian sense of performatives, this kind of theater does something remarkable – it generates collaborative local processes where people laugh, argue, sing, think through things, mourn, dance together, and re-imagine the world in ways that surprise them. It’s the messy process of collective creation that moves me about theater, and the gorgeous triumphs that come with building something together despite so many daunting bumps in the road helps all involved imagine and rehearse how to reshape the world.

Cornerstone is not alone in this work. There is a long history of companies who create theater with specific communities and train and support artists to continue making work of their own – Roadside Theater in Whitesburg, KY, Junebug Productions, which developed out of the Free Southern Theater in New Orleans, Bread and Puppet Theater in New York and later Vermont, El Teatro Campesino and San Francisco Mime Troupe in California, and more recently Sojourn Theatre, Free Street Theatre in Chicago, In the Heart of the Beast and zAmya Theater Project in Minneapolis, and National Disability Theatre, among so many others.

This history of transformative performance is as much a part of the history of theater in the United States as Broadway or the not-for-profit regional system, and contains an even wider range of performance styles, histories, devising processes, audience engagement practices, and ways of working together than those professionalized forms do, but it is often marginalized by a false binary. There is “theater,” and then there is “theater for social change” or “political theater.” Professional for-profit and not-for-profit theater are the default; performance created by communities in a broader social context is something different. In many ways, it is this same false binary – set up by capitalism – that leads activists to use “performative” in a derogatory way to describe self-serving and self-centered public statements. What if we began to think and work outside of this binary, valuing what theater and performance can do for activist causes, and removing the dichotomy between arts institutions and theater as a public social practice? What if we frame the conversation in a way that celebrates and centers an allegiance between performance and activism?

In the talk I mention above, Anna Deavere Smith also noted, before she began her presentation, that the pause in live theater necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic offered a window of opportunity to change – a window that won’t stay open forever. She said she hoped the theatre in the U.S. would take this opportunity but acknowledged that it’s possible it won’t. In the U.S., a contemporary anti-theatrical bias of a sort on the part of anti-racist activists skeptical of “performative activism” certainly might be justified in many ways. Despite having the potential for and sometimes truly succeeding at creating great beauty, community, and social critique, theater that is created within professional institutions – both the commercial institutions of Broadway and not-for-profit regional theaters throughout the country – has also long been fraught with racism, misogyny, transphobia, ablism, and general abuse of power perpetuated by the hierarchical, capitalist structures that support them.  In response to the nationwide uprisings in 2020, many theaters issued statements of solidarity and support for protesters (I crafted such a statement for my academic department, for example), and many were subsequently called out for these acts of “performative allyship” while maintaining troubling practices within their own houses. A group of Black, Indigenous and People of Color artists who generated “We See You, White American Theatre” issued a set of principles for change, noting, “We insist on this reckoning precisely because of the successes of those artists of color working in the theatre, as those victories have come at a steep cost. Our love of theatre has also meant surviving an industry-wide culture of fear poisoned by racism and its intersecting oppressions. But when we lift the veil of white supremacy, we know how best to support our theatrical expressions, our culture, and ourselves.” As this list of demands was circulating, many artists who are Black, Indigenous, People of Color, LGBTQIA+, disabled, or neurodivergent responded that they had been working outside mainstream white supremacist theatre structures for generations and continued their own ways of working from the margins to which mainstream histories have so often relegated them.

In part as a response to the calls from “We See You, White American Theatre,” and as a result of transformed leadership, there are certainly people working within established theater institutions in the U.S. calling for this kind of reframing and change. For example, Taylor Leigh Lamb and Sabine Decatur from Baltimore’s Center Stage Theater published an article entitled “Change in the American Theatre Begins and Ends Outside the Theater,” subtitled “The work of organizing for a better world is already being done, and theatres have the chance—and the responsibility—to join it.” Lamb and Decatur have also published an open-source archive on the web-based publication HowlRound (“a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide that amplifies progressive, disruptive ideas about the art form and facilitates connection between diverse practitioners”), documenting and celebrating “the many impulses and actions that led to collective liberation from the oppressive and exploitative structures that defined the theatre field in ‘America’ for many years.”

As an Associate Professor of Theater at a public liberal arts college in the United States, I recognize that post-secondary education is one place in which this change can begin, educating theater students to imagine their work as existing alongside, supporting, and enhancing the work of activists and lawmakers. In my work, I find that I am often put in the position of having to justify the presence of theater as a field of study in an institution that increasingly is asked to prepare students to enter a professional “workplace” equally as much as it prepares them to be citizens. As a result of a recent “program prioritization” process, my program was reduced from a major to a minor area of study, and a student writing for the college newspaper reached out to me for comment on why theater is an important field of study for the college to offer. My reply echoed what I often tell people who ask similar questions: “Telling stories, thinking critically, working across disciplines, paying attention to the way our bodies work in space and time, building a world together with a group of people, working through conflict and disagreement in productive ways, solving problems on the fly, empathy, joy, beauty, transformation, community, navigating power and politics and boundaries, budgeting time and resources – these are just a few of the experiences theater majors have and skills they develop, and they are essential to any career and the practice of good citizenship.”  I try to emphasize the last part, “the practice of good citizenship,” in all my classes – the scholarly ones as well as the practical ones, the course on community-based theater as well as the one on the fundamentals of acting. It’s my small effort toward placing the transformative and collaborative power of theater performance at the center rather than at the margins so that my students emerge into the world outside of college understanding the activist potential of their work.

At some point, I posted online my dismay about the use of “performative” to describe disingenuous activism, and a colleague in political science responded, “I remember having this conversation with you before, so now I call these actions ‘publicity stunts.’” I appreciated her savvy shift from an arts-based metaphor to a business-related one, which seems far more appropriate to me. Perhaps to forge a stronger allegiance between activist practice and theater process, one way to reframe the conversation is to align moments of self-serving “allyship” with the structures of capitalism, with which they belong. As activist and prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba noted in “So You’re Thinking About Becoming an Abolitionist,” “Changing everything might sound daunting, but it also means there are many places to start, infinite opportunities to collaborate, endless imaginative interventions and experiments to create.” Perhaps one such intervention is to experiment with calling hollow statements of allegiance “publicity stunts,” or “false advertising,” relegating them to the realm of public relations. Tamara K. Nopper, in her editor’s introduction to Kaba’s collection We Do This ‘Til We Free Us takes a more generous and complex approach, using the term “symbolic acts,” supporting the idea that there is room (and the necessity) for multiple strategies for change, including both symbolic and more direct action, but with a caveat borrowed from Fannie Lou Hamer: “I’m sick of symbolic things. We are fighting for our lives.” With this in mind, perhaps a way toward forging a strong bond between artist and activists is to celebrate “activist performatives” and place strong, transformative, courageous acts on the part of artist-citizens working in theater and performance at the center of conversations about art, citizenship, and structural change.






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