Independent Jewish Voices hosts Theatre of the Oppressed event in Renison Chapel to explore the question “Is Palestinian Solidarity Anti-Semitic?”
On Thursday, January 11, 2024, the St. Bede Chapel at Renison was filled with community members, students, and faculty. This time not for a service, but for a theatre performance. With the events happening in Gaza, Niomi Cherney from Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) of Waterloo Region, reached out to organize an event to promote dialogue and challenge structures of oppression. IJV is a grassroots organization grounded in Jewish tradition that opposes all forms of racism and advocates for justice and peace for all in Israel-Palestine. Once connected with Renison, Niomi, along with Renison Chaplain Scott McLeod, and Culture and Language Studies professors Amir Al-Azraki and Vinh Nguyen, began crafting the vignette that would become the centre of the interactive theatre event.
Forum theatre is one of the techniques of Theatre of the Oppressed, originated in Brazil by theatre director and activist Augusto Boal. In a Forum Theatre show, participants are transformed from being passive spectators to active participants (spect-actors), engaging in critical dialogue and rehearsing for change. Essentially, after watching a scene through once, audience members can stop the action and either offer suggestions on how to change the outcome of a scene, or in some cases, take the stage themselves. In Forum Theatre, “spect-actors” (participatory audience members) initially see a short scenario dramatizing oppression. Subsequently, the scenario is replayed, and the spect-actors are encouraged to actively intervene, with the goal of altering the scenario's outcome. Facilitated by the Joker, the audience's involvement may take the form of suggesting actions or dialogue for the actors, or even substituting an actor on stage. Dr. Al-Azraki, an experienced Forum Theatre practitioner, was one of the event organizers, who coached the actors and the joker in Forum Theatre technique.
Niomi took on the role of facilitator/joker to help audience members engage with the subject matter and interject. Though it’s a very particular vignette, the goal of the event was to encourage conversation, realizations, and hopefully give participants a new perspective on a complex and difficult subject matter.
For this event, the scene was set in the home of a Jewish family during Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest that extends from sunset on Friday evening to sunset on Saturday evening. The players each fulfill a role within the family dynamic, and represent the varying perspectives of Jewish people . The adult child of the family represents an anti-Zionist perspective, and has just come in with their friend carrying protest signs. They begin a confrontation with their father explaining that they are not anti-Jew but that they disagree with aggressive government action. The father takes on a pro-Israel perspective, and is angry at his child. The grandmother is a Holocaust survivor, and gives a historical viewpoint, which we come to understand as having resonance with the experiences shared by the fifth character, the adult child's visibly Indigenous companion. The mother tries to navigate the conflict that arises between father and child. In addition, the Indigenous friend character interacts with the father in a short interchange, where the Indigenous friend comments that they can relate to feelings of oppression as a member of another oppressed group of people.
Audience members were very engaged, thinking creatively about how to diffuse the conflict in the family, and began to challenge the structures that perpetuate oppression. These perspectives, of course, are not just within the family being shown, but represent varying viewpoints on the Israel-Hamas war and the military action being enacted against the civilians of occupied Palestine.
Was there a clear conclusion at the end of the event? No. There are no magic solutions, and the event only scratched the surface. But that’s the point of Theatre of the Oppressed, to catalyze social and political change, promote empathy and understanding, and give a voice to those who are often marginalized and oppressed in society.