by Phui Yi Kong
I was born, raised, and currently live in Malaysia.
When I was facilitating Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) workshops in college in southern Maine, USA, TO offerings were easier to set up and support. Groups would instinctively grasp the critical nature of the process, diving deeper into it to milk the form’s potential. These participants were a combination of academics and seasoned activists. They already carried a belief in individual social change. When given a chance to work collectively on an issue, these primed groups would self-mobilize. Almost all the time, they would teach me about the issue at hand. My role, as a facilitator/Joker, was to keep the dialogue and problem solving hats rotating through the group members. I became a container for everyone to talk to each other using their true voice. Things changed when I returned home.
Fast-forward to the time my TO Mentorship began, I had just resettled in my childhood home of Malaysia and began a career as a secondary school teacher. The conversations I was having and hearing around me changed from questions about how to set up guerilla activist action outside the statehouse to how lessons are getting through to learners. Both questions are important and factors in pushing social change, but the latter had dulled my senses. If “slumping” was a participle, it would aptly describe the circumstances through which I operated in the past year to facilitate Theatre of the Oppressed:
Failure is a lovely teacher. Through this mentorship, I have failed aplenty. In the first three months, 14 year-old girls stared, puzzled, at the prospect of the Columbian Hypnosis game. For the next six months, workshop participants at a senior cum abandoned folk centre wandered in and out of sessions, while management reluctantly provided a private room for the work. Ten months after the Mentorship began, my school administrators mandated staff to donate money and tied their attendance, at a forum play I facilitated, to their performance review. (The TO troupe consisted of Afghan refugees living in Malaysia.) The vehicles of anti-oppression seem to run in the same streams as forces antithetical to liberation. I would try a different tactic to practice TO and each intervention seemed only partially satisfactory. What next?
TO practitioners, who have gone back to a different community than the one they first practiced in, require a reminder that the values underlining TO may not be reinforced by the community they are now in. It is insufficient to say that different communities have different values. Instead, each community brings an enveloping cloud of operational values that potentially drain the facilitator’s inclination to propose liberating and embodied forms of expression. A facilitator can support a group’s process, but not at the expense of core TO values. This paragraph is worth a close reading, as the ideas echo Paulo Freire’s “fear of freedom”.
This draining predicament is not something outwardly expressed in a group of people but a product of being treated as objects for others rather than subjects of history (again Freire is at play). The people are not the ones who resist embodiment; the hiccup lies within the facilitator’s relationship with the powers of authoritarian management. The caretakers, the bosses and the expectations towards the role of a teacher (as bankers of knowledge not as liberators) stir the pot, not the individual. And here, I am explicitly including myself as an object of oppression. I am a member of this urban, Southeast Asian, authoritarian society. To use tools of Theatre of the Oppressed in Malaysia, mobilizing Malaysians as historical actors, I would have to better comprehend the circumstances behind the reluctance to freedom — perhaps my own.
It is insufficient to merely acknowledge the region’s colonial past, national affirmative action policies barring education and economic attainment for minorities, draconian laws against freedom of speech, and the consenting poor treatment of the elderly and the abandoned. There must be a deeper critical tackling of each of these systemic injustices with first hand interface with groups of stakeholders. Education must interlace with TO and be led by those under institutional regime, not the regiment leaders.
One mistake I have made since starting this TO mentorship is working in groups where the people are different than I am in age and background. There is overlap in terms of vernacular upbringing and being from the same area, but the groups who may more readily meet the clarion call of collective resistance using theatre and art as a medium are the overseas-educated civic-minded yuppies – perhaps the English-speaking, Chinese-educated urbanites who WANT to make their voices heard. I have witnessed and am privy to the immense privilege in these slices of society, but I also have personally experienced difficulty in setting words to opinions. And rather than euphemize actual sentiment, I self-censor. A fundamental literacy about the political voice is lost, has been lost.
In this self-reflection of the purpose and use of TO back in my stomping grounds, there has been an intense uncovering of my deeper intentions as a newly returned member of this urban community. The ongoing-ness of this effort is made easier by the TO Distance Mentorship’s support. This year didn’t feel as solitary because I was reminded in our monthly calls of the humanizing potential of the work.
To do this work, a person has to take a deep look at their own limitations of political voice, identify the barriers to its expression, and be prepared to stutter and babble their way into a stable inner discourse on the self as actor (rather than object) – so that others may do their own liberating. And this process is best done with others.
“when suddenly she realized . . . words were . . . what? . . who?. . no! . . she! . . [Pause and movement 2.] . . . realized . . . words were coming . . . imagine! . . . words were coming . . . a voice she did not recognize at first so long since it had sounded . . . then finally had to admit . . . could be none other . . . than her own”
– Mouth in Samuel Beckett’s “Not I”
– Mouth in Samuel Beckett’s “Not I”