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December 26, 2010 / SCM

Aves de Paraiso: Theatre of the Oppressed in Cali, Colombia

Isabella and Elizabeth[1]; two displaced AfroColombian women are participants in Aves de Paraíso (Birds of Paradise) community theatre groups facilitated by La Máscara Theatre Company, the only feminist theatre group in Colombia that work with theatre of the oppressed pedagogies and methodologies. Displaced in 2001 from Nariño and Chocó states on the Pacific coast of Colombia they left the violence of state sponsored paramilitary groups and guerrilla groups to arrive into the violence of urban poverty and exclusion. Elizabeth is a grandmother, tall, proud with lines of sorrow around her eyes. Isabella is a single mother of five children, a deep voice and laugh yet with a well of sadness in her eyes. Ageless and yet with the weight of much suffering on their shoulders they have participated in the theatre group for 4 years. It is, as Isabella told me, a space of peace, of escape, of warmth and humanity. It is a place of laughter and creativity where for a moment the realities of physical, cultural, economic and political violence are overcome.

Cali has been a harsh place for them; a place of much racism and discrimination, of individualism and consumerism where the displaced are viewed as thieves, delinquents, uneducated, where their children suffered verbal and physical abuse at school, where they suffer the humiliation of poverty and the desperation of hunger. Isabella recounted an experience in the first years that she arrived in which her children and she hadn’t eaten for two days. She walked for miles to get to a health centre where they handed out fortnightly rations of food. She was at the point of giving up. The doctor met her. She wept pleading for at least a handful of rice to take to her children. But the doctor said no, there is nothing. Isabella knew there was food, and remembers this as one of those moments in life that marks you for the intensity of privilege, power and cruelty exercised. She walked back to her shack weeping. Arriving to see her youngest child on the floor not moving and her other children sitting still, their eyes lifeless and heads down. She let out a scream. No more. Her neighbors came; they bought a tuna fish, some rice, and a plantain. Yet her scream became transformed into a song, a song that speaks of her values and dignity and criticizes the values of pride, possession and power over others that she has experienced in Cali, one of the most Americanized and commodified cities in Colombia.

As both explained in their tierra (land) no one went hungry. There was always food as they lived in the countryside where there was abundance. Neighbors shared and supported each other. Now the region where Elizabeth is from has become taken over by multinationals supported by the Colombian Government who grow Egyptian Palms for export which destroy  the surrounding land further undermining further campesino (peasant) ways of life. There is obviously a lot more to displacement than conflict between paramilitaries and guerillas. To be violently displaced in this way from your land, way of life and community and arrive to more violence and displacement is a form of long term trauma. The violence in their lives is multi-dimensional; the way that the power of the US, the Colombian state and neoliberal capitalism has scarred and traumatized their lives cannot be understood or transformed from the outside or by a model developed in another place and another context. Such violence is intensely placed, subjective, affective, intellectual and psychological.

It is this multidimensionality of power, its affects and how one transforms these conditions into liberation and social justice that is one of the major problematics of La Máscara theatre which since 1972 has developed contestatory theatre and theatre of the oppressed based on collective creation dedicated to the thematics of gender and women. The theatre of the oppressed seeks to facilitate processes of collective understanding, representation and transformation through the development of theatre. Its objective- like popular education- is self-liberation from oppression, facilitating the self-liberation of people from the passive state of spectator to actors that self determine the theatre but also their everyday lives. As theatre is multidimensional – affective, cultural, psychological, embodied, physical and intellectual- it has the potential to transform the multidimensional nature of oppression.

For La Máscara the key elements of their work are that it is dialogical and integral in the types of collective and individual experiences developed, facilitates free play which accepts and values people’s life experience, diversity and expressions, facilitates experimental space in which communities have the time and space to reflect upon their realities and experiment with their transformation, and encourages rebellious thought, promoting ideas, perspective and actions that are non-conventional and which generate a plurality of options and alternatives (Restrepo, 1998). It uses the power of laughter in a way that relativises the power of order and control through the counter power of uncontrollable laughter. It opposes desperation and bitterness with the power of liberatory laughter. As Elizabeth expressed, ‘It would be so easy to be full of bitterness, to become cold hearted. Here we prevent this and keep it at bay. This doesn’t mean we don’t continue to suffer but it does mean that it doesn’t destroy us.’ Finally it is dedicated to public work, making visible to the public the self liberation and determination of otherwise excluded and demonized communities. As Isabella explained, ‘We have shown our work in Cali. It creates a bridge between displaced communities and Caleños. Our work really needs to be presented in every barrio (community)’. Theatre of the Oppressed brings the creative, affective and intellectual capacities of communities and individuals to the centre of the praxis of social transformation. As Pilar Restrepo Mejia participant in La Mascara explains, ‘Amongst the arts, theatre possesses the privilege of being a live art, which allows us to see the complexity of social relations and interpret reality in an inventive way, which develops an experience of reflection. Theatre becomes an extraordinary instrument for people and community development.’ In particular La Mascara aims to make visible women’s struggles, suffering, and the violence they confront and through this process make manifest the dignity, strength, knowledge and creativity of women who are otherwise represented as either merely victims or dangerous delinquents.

Working with women like Isabella and Elizabeth, they support the development of theatre groups in marginalized communities. In the case of the group in which Isabella and Elizabeth participate La Mascara had worked with la Hermana (sister) Alba Stella Barreto founder and director of Fundación Paz y Bien in Comuna 14, Aguablancas. The Foundation provided training and offered a meeting space to discuss the problems being faced by displaced and impoverished communities in the area. La Máscara through the Foundation put out a call for people interested in participating in a community theatre group. Those interested registered their names. The second stage involved the group of facilitators most from La Máscara but some specialized in questions of human rights and reproductive rights to meet over the course of two days to develop a methodology of work in the project based in that of theatre of the oppressed.

Subsequently a two day series of workshops which opened up space to discuss the key themes of human rights, reproductive rights and sexual rights with those that had signed up to participate in the theatre group was organized. The workshops used play, image, film, text and dramatological methods to develop a collective understanding of these key themes and their relation to participants’ lives. An example of the methods used in one of the human rights workshops is an activity called ‘the violence in my life’. The objectives of the exercise are to explore and identify how one can be both an object of violence but also exercise violence against others; strengthen the development of ways of dealing with violence and develop values such as solidarity and responsibility for each other and oneself (Medina and Teatro La Máscara, 2010).

The facilitator begins by explaining to the participant that this exercise is an opportunity to share ideas, feelings and experiences in relation to violence exercised against participants but also violence exercised by participants. Ground rules are set which are; respect for each other, maintaining the privacy of what is said in the workshop and that none need feel inhibited to say something that they think might make others uncomfortable. The participants are then divided into groups and asked to brain storm about types of violence that they know or think of when they hear the word violence. They make a list of these and then are asked to add examples of how this violence is exercised. Next there is five minutes for all to reflect about their personal experiences of violence in which either they have had violence used against them, used violence against another or themselves, or seen violent action and not intervened.

There is then an open discussion led by the facilitator in which the participants are asked if they found it difficult or not to think about themselves in relation to violence. They explore what they think the causes and effects of the situations of violence in their lives in their groups. Each group is then asked to choose one volunteer who will talk about their experience to support the general debate. The debate is geared around general questions; why did this violent situation occurs; why did the person act like this? How would other members of the group have acted? Are they suggestions of how one might act differently in a similar situation?

After the discussion the groups are asked to develop one or two improvisations in relation to the experiences discussed which are presented as forum theatre in which the audience have the right to interrupt the performance to ask the audience their opinion about something, to suggest a different next step of the performance, and to become actors that change what is happening suggesting solutions to the violence/conflict. This attempts to undo the traditional audience/actor partition and bring audience members into the performance, to have an input into the dramatic action they were watching. Through this process, the participant is also able to realize and experience the challenges of achieving the improvements him/herself suggested

These processes are highly emotional and potentially explosive. Thus the role of facilitator in supporting participants through the workshop and encouraging participants to listen and learn from each other is central to the realization of the workshop´s objectives, particularly as participants will make judgments about each others’ situation without necessarily knowing the context, conditions, or life story of the other. However, La Máscara facilitators continue to stress that without understanding the causes of violence it is impossible to change and overcome violence, however difficult that process of understanding is.

The next step was the building of a theatre group with the participants in their community. The group in Comuna 14 – one of 8 groups formed- was comprised of women and children, all displaced AfroColombians from the Pacific coast regions of Cauca, Chocó and Nariño. They built on the rich traditions of song, dance, story telling and poetry of their communities. Elizabeth is a poet and Isabella a story teller. Yet the traumas they have faced meant that for both their everyday experiences of hunger, homelessness and humiliation left little space for reading, writing or story telling. Their participation in the theatre group helped, at least in the time they are in the space, to develop these skills and talents challenging them into thematics of displacement chosen and developed by the participants. Their last work Tierra en Guerra (Land at War) was a shout of dignity in the face of discrimination and demonization. It captured their lives as they had been in their tierra, land; the richness, knowledge and histories of their communities, as well the experiences and causes of their displacement. Using body, mind and spirit it was a means of representing their reality and humanity to each other and the world, of turning upside down the stereotypes and representations of Caleña (Colombian) media, politics and culture.

Scene from Tierra en Guerra, Universidad Nacional Colombia, Bogotá. 28 Agosto 2009

The process of collective construction itself was a process of self-determination and discovery and strengthening of voice. In Elizabeth’s words she described ‘when I arrived in Cali I couldn’t express myself. I was panicked and shaking all the time. In the group I have built the confidence in, myself and my abilities’. Or as Isabella explained ‘they say we are ignorant and we can’t talk Spanish properly. I knew what I wanted to say but my tongue wouldn’t work. My self esteem had been destroyed. The projects, Lucy and others with their love and warmth and sincerity have helped me feel I have knowledge, understanding and rights. I still shake, I still suffer but there are lights of hope, places of breathing’.

Facilitators are trained in a number of elements to enable them to bring to fruition the development of plays and help build and sustain the group. These are corporal expression, vocal and instrumental techniques, introduction to theatre conventions, stimulation of dramatic creation of narratives, non verbal language, acting and concepts of improvisation and dramatic organization. An example of an exercise used to develop dramatic creation of narratives is through written texts. As it is possible to develop a work of theatre through a poem, a song or a written text by one of more participants the exercise begins by asking the participants to write a text o poem in relation to a chosen theme. In groups improvisations are developed to explore how one might use such a text to develop the theatre piece. Oral elements are also introduced in the improvisation such as oral stories, dreams, anecdotes, life stories.

Facilitators need to be able to recognize that which is most needed in the group and therefore how to orientate the work and process of collective construction. The facilitator of Aves de Paraíso used yoga as a way of helping the affective psychological healing from the long term, and ongoing traumas experienced by participants. This all meetings, once a week for 4 hours begins with yoga work. She also encouraged participants to build on cultural traditions of story telling, enabling a re-telling of stories of trauma as a means to transform these stories creatively with a pedagogy that facilitates a distancing from the most painful experiences. Collective processes of story telling and improvisation create links of solidarity and enable an overcoming of the monologue of isolation into dialogues of understanding, voice and pleasure. As Pilar continues ‘Telling stories is a way of reconstructing reality, and sometimes, it also enables the healing of deep wounds.’

Aves de Paraíso’s next work moves away from a focus on displacement and violence, which as Isabella and Elizabeth explained they feel they have exhausted, are exhausted by. Instead it develops a utopia of how the world would be if all women joined together to overcome violence, to encourage men to move way from violence against each other, over money, power, resources and pride. It is an act of envisaging a different world. Whilst a representation, it fuels their everyday struggles against violence and attempts to construct moments of paradise on earth.

Medina and Teatro La Máscara (2010) El Teatro de Género: Memoria del proceso, Medellin: Editorial Lealon.

Restrepo, P (1998) La Máscara, la Mariposa y la Metáfora: Creación Teatral de Mujeres. Santiago de Cali; Teatro La Máscara.

Interview at La Mascara Theatre, 13 December 2010 with Isabella and Elizabeth, participants in Aves de Paraíso, Theatre Group, Comuna 14, Santiago de Cali, Colombia.

Interview with Pilar Restrepo, participant and co-founder of La Mascara Theatre, at La Mascara Theatre, 13 December 2010

[1] Names have been changed for reasons of security and safety.

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