Skip to Main Content

Theatre and Social Justice (January 2020): Theatre for Social Change: History, Theory, and Praxis

by Martha Schmoyer LoMonaco

Theatre for Social Change: History, Theory, and Praxis

This section picks up where discussion of alternative and radical theatre left off, but readers should note that works on some of the companies discussed above, especially the long-lived ones like The Living Theatre and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, could easily be discussed here. The titles in this section cover American and international theatre (including British) and demonstrate the influences of Boal’s TO and AT praxis throughout the world.

A good starting point is Theater and Social Change, edited by Alisa Solomon, which is a special issue of the journal Theater. The issue includes articles on the use of Boal techniques for training at the New York Police Academy; a profile of Reverend Billy and his political preach-in events as minister of the Church of Stop Shopping; interviews with Anna Deavere Smith, Bill Rauch (Roadside Theatre), the artistic directors of The Living Theatre, and others; a history of agitational performance, both in theatres and on the streets; and an article titled “How Do You Make Social Change?” The last of these is a compendium of brief responses to that question provided by artists and activists, including Tony Kushner, engaged in using theatre as a tool for social change. Also valuable in this special issue is Arlene Goldbard’s “Memory, Money, and Persistence: Theater of Social Change in Context,” which chronicles the persistent financial struggles of these theatres, many of which went broke and closed, leaving little documentary evidence beyond the memories of audiences and participants. Tony Kushner is, of course, arguably the United States’ foremost politically driven playwright, and his body of work is firmly seated in issues of social justice. The overwhelming success of his Pulitzer-prize winning Angels in America, widely considered the most important American play of the late twentieth century, has propelled a resurgence of social justice scripted plays. Isaac Butler and Dan Kois’s The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America chronicles, through oral histories, the genesis of Angels and its many productions throughout the world.

Crucibles of Crisis: Performing Social Change, edited by Janelle Reinelt, is international in scope. The essays in this volume document how performing arts “participated vigorously in social struggle,” contributing to new social formations. The volume provides detailed descriptions of performances in seven countries—the US, Ireland, Mexico, GDR, South Africa, Argentina, and Poland. The influences of performance studies and AT praxis are evident in Dwight Conquergood’s Cultural Struggles: Performance, Ethnography, Praxis, edited by E. Patrick Johnson. This posthumously published collection of Conquergood’s essays attests to his revolutionary melding of theory, method, and praxis within the academy via his fieldwork. Conquergood’s work is described as “co-performative witnessing”: he engaged with such diverse communities as a Hmong refugee camp, Chicago street gangs, and prison inmates facing the death penalty. Artistic Citizenship: Artistry, Social Responsibility, and Ethical Praxis, a substantial volume edited by David Elliott, Marissa Silverman, and Wayne Bowman, describes all the arts as inherently social practices that should be viewed, studied, and practiced as forms of ethically guided citizenship involving “civic-social-humanistic-emancipatory responsibilities.” The section on theatre includes essays on Puerto Rican community-based applied theatre, how to perform citizenship, and a rationale for participatory theatre practice.

Grounded in Freire’s theories of critical pedagogy, Kees Epskamp’s Theatre in Search of Social Change: The Relative Significance of Different Theatrical Approaches explores theatre practice in developing countries as a means for education and development from a sociological perspective. Of particular interest are Epskamp’s case studies of Wayang theatre in Java and Bali, popular theatre in Mexico, and traveling and development theatres in Uganda, Botswana, Nigeria, and Tanzania. Other significant resources on international work are Aparna Bhargava Dharwadker’s Theatres of Independence: Drama, Theory, and Urban Performance in India since 1947, Noe Montez’s Memory, Transitional Justice, and Theatre in Postdictatorship Argentina, and Tamara Underiner’s Contemporary Theatre in Mayan Mexico: Death-Defying Acts. Rounding out this section is Theatre and Activism, edited by Harry Elam, a special issue of Theatre Journal. Particularly noteworthy here is discussion of the worldwide staged readings of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata protesting the United States’ then-impending war in Iraq as a great example of political activism.