By Dr. Vivian Appler
As an assistant professor at the College of Charleston, I am one among many faculty members who work to empower students to exercise their freedoms of speech, action and thought in the face of nationalistic sentiments resurfacing across the globe. I offer a course on feminist theater, and the experience of teaching this class has taught me that there is no better time than now to educate from an explicitly feminist position. The undergraduate theater classroom can function as a safe space to thoughtfully articulate questions and devise critical actions in response to an unjust world.
The intersectional feminist position that I seek to convey involves recognition, identification and intervention into social problems that impact people who come from a variety of class, gender, racial, ethnic or differently abled positions.
Two “activist performance interventions” are at the heart of the class. Each intervention is an opportunity for students to collaboratively create performances that respond to a social issue that they understand to constitute a personal, community, national or global problem.
When I taught the class in 2017, Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban surfaced as an issue that students felt was an impediment to the values of intersectional feminism. Their first activist intervention was called “Bon Bons to Ban Bans.” It was affiliated with the international protest, “Bad and Nasty: Not My President’s Day” spearheaded by Holly Hughes, Lois Weaver and Mary Jo Watts. Students distributed homemade candy that was wrapped in paper upon which the students had printed an explanation of their feminist opposition to the ban.
This year students addressed a number of different topics for their first project; three groups addressed the issues of LGBTQ+ acceptance in religious communities, the accessibility of Narcan on campus, and the public’s awareness of demonized women in history. Their performances took the forms of personal testimonials, a poster campaign and public trivia quizzes.
Performing protest in public without the comfortable anonymity of a proscenium theater proved both daunting and invigorating. For many, the actions constituted their first public performance. One student from the “demonized women” group wrote of her surprise at being “the one actually attempting to attract the crowd and talk to strangers.” Another student, who participated in the “inclusive religion” group, commented that the experience of sharing testimonials encouraged the feminist practice of listening: “taking a step back and simply listening can be one of the most feminist things I could do… by listening to the stories of my LGBTQ+ comrades, I reminded myself that sometimes it’s much better to listen than speak.” The first action empowered students to share their experience in public while also developing skills in democratic collaboration and clear communication.
The second action stems from an analysis of the play “Oh My Sweet Land: A Love Story from Syria,” by Amir Nizar Zuabi. The play is a one-woman show in which a single actress embodies the stories of the many different kinds of people impacted by the war in Syria. In 2017, the class staged a reading of the play as a part of an international awareness-raising campaign that took place on Global Theatre Day. “Taking Refuge” was organized by Pittsburgh-based activist theater director Cynthia Croot and Noor Theatre co-founder Lameece Issaq. The day consisted of concurrent readings of Zuabi’s work and other pieces that engaged with the plight of Syria and its people held at different locations around the world. This year, students will devise their second round of interventions in response to the play’s themes of refugeeism, migration, war and diasporic identity. In the play, the protagonist prepares the Syrian dish of kubbeh (a fried meat pastry) as she embodies the many characters that she represents throughout the show. The students’ final performance responses will also involve food and will be produced through Global Foodways, the 2018-2019 World Affairs Signature Series sponsored by the College of Charleston’s School of Languages, Cultures and World Affairs and South Carolina Humanities (a subsidiary program of the National Endowment for the Humanities). Final performances will be staged from 2 to 4 p.m. April 5, at the Bob Waggoner Kitchen, 164 Market St.
Global Foodways is also producing two additional events intended to engage Charleston’s community in dialogue about Syria. “Refugee Life/Refuge of Food: Syrian Food Culture in the Wake of Wartime Diaspora” will be held at the Culinary Institute of Charleston at Trident Technical College Palmer Campus at 5 p.m. April 5. This arts-integrative evening will feature readings by Osama Alomar, a displaced Syrian writer-in-residence at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s City of Asylum; a cooking demonstration by Mayada Anjari, a displaced Syrian chef; a lesson in Syrian dance with Northwestern University professor Shayna Silverstein; and commentary by Shadi Martini, Syrian foodie and director of humanitarian relief and regional relations at the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees.
At 4 p.m. April 8, Cynthia Croot will facilitate a viewing and discussion of two short films, “Mare Nostrum” and “Searching for the Translator,” directed by Anas Khalaf and Rana Kazkaz, both of whom are Syrian women currently located in Jordan. Details regarding these Syria-related events and other Global Foodways events may be found at blogs.cofc.edu/global-foodways/events. All events are free and open to the public.
I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to teach Feminist Theatre twice since I started at the college in 2015. The urgency of our collective global circumstances has forced me to articulate and embody my own ideals more fully than perhaps I would have under conditions less immediately threatening to our human rights. My students have gained confidence and skills in their ability to enact their own emerging positions in relationship to a non-ideal world. I invite you to join the conversation at our upcoming feminist performance interventions and events.
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