Theatre and social justice are natural and frequent bedfellows; many theatre scholars and practitioners cannot imagine separating the two. In the West, this pairing harks back to the ancient Greeks, whose dramas focused on issues of justice, ethics, and morality. From a study of these plays, Aristotle identified the power of drama to promote empathy in audiences, an idea that continues to be a motivating drive of theatre to this day. Broadly defined, social justice theatre is theatre that provokes in the audience an empathetic response to characters suffering various forms of injustice. There has been a wealth of theatre produced over the past two-and-a-half millennia—from Sophocles to George Bernard Shaw, and well beyond—that can be gathered under the wide umbrella of social justice theatre. Ideally, audiences become more socially conscious as a result of these productions; historically, however, typical theatregoers were rarely motivated to political engagement. Theatre was the province of polite society, not social activism.
The theatres of social justice that are the focus of this study are those dedicated to activism, to actually changing society. These theatres developed as a consequence of the tumultuous changes in the West in the nineteenth century, when the term “social justice” emerged as a concept deeply imbedded in Marxist and socialist ideologies. Ideologically driven individuals, frequently in concert with theatre collectives, worked in opposition to the commercial theatre industry, which had become firmly established in the United States and Europe by the late 1800s. Creators of social justice theatre eschewed both the form and content of bourgeois plays and the stultifying physical structure of traditional theatres that emphasized a strict division between actor and audience; experimentation, in all realms, was the order of the day. Many advocates of social justice theatre had little training or practical experience in theatre, but they understood the inherent potential of drama as a weapon for social change and learned on the job to develop the skills required to create powerful theatre.
Complexities emerged, however, as the new theatre makers, and the scholars writing about them, searched for language that described their particular interests and practices. For many, the implications of what they understood as social justice did not accurately describe their work, hence, alternative terminology was employed. These new theatres of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, consequently, bear a wide variety of monikers: workers’ theatre, Left-wing and Leftist theatre, social activist theatre, protest theatre, radical theatre, alternative theatre, ethnodrama, and applied theatre, among others, and the scholarly literature chronicling them follows suit. This essay highlights the commonalities of these theatres rather than their differences, and argues that any serious study of social justice theatre needs to include them all.
A perennial critique of social justice theatre is its frequent inability to propel audiences to action. Certainly, theatregoers are often deeply affected by performances, but how often does that translate to discernible action? How often can societal change be directly linked to theatrical productions? This nagging question will be addressed in many of the studies cited here.
This essay is organized in sections that follow the rough chronology of developing ideologies and techniques for producing social justice theatre in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The essay begins with a consideration of the term “social justice,” offering definitions and debates that help to situate how theatre makers might interpret this contested term for their own purposes. Subsequent sections treat how social justice theatre developed over time, looking at the influence of Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud, Augusto Boal, and the academic discipline of “performance studies,” as promulgated by performance theorist Richard Schechner. The essay concludes by looking at the various types of social justice theatre mentioned above and, finally, at social justice theatre in the twenty-first century.
Dr. Martha Schmoyer LoMonaco is professor of theatre and American studies at Fairfield University, where she regularly teaches courses in theatre and social justice.