Liberatory Theatre & Popular Education (PTO)

Part 1 (Unedited)

As the school year winds down, and it being the most hellish year I’ve had as a school-based mental health counselor…and, after almost 9 years of attending the PTO Conference, I was torn on whether to attend the 22nd Annual Pedagogy & Theatre of the Oppressed Conference – Breaking the Silence: From Rebellion to Waging Love in Detroit, MI.

What is PTO: Pedagogy & Theatre of the Oppressed, Inc.(PTO) supports people whose work challenges oppressive systems by promoting critical thinking and social justice through liberatory theatre and popular education. Our vision is to create global access to popular education pedagogy and liberatory theatre of the oppressed methods to support a world based on radical love and social justice instead of oppression and violence. Our approaches stem from the theories and practices of Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal. We foster collaborative connections to share, develop, promote, and document liberatory theatre, popular education, and other revolutionary actions. PTO serves as a resource for oppressed peoples and their allies in diverse communities, contexts, and traditions around the world. PTO promises activists and social change agents, our members, and actors and non-actors alike that you can count on us to provide global and expanding connections to PTO practitioners, access to updated PTO tools, resources, and research, and support for your liberatory education and theatre efforts. Per the 2017 PTO Conference Program.

Though my session proposal had been accepted, I truly questioned if I had it in me to be in such a white space, and if the conference had anything else to offer. Unlike other professional conferences I attend, there is not a consistent group of Black faces, and other persons of color, who come to the PTO conference. People of color are transient at PTO, folk come one year to check it out and do not return. Also, was I even interested in being in a bland dorm room in an uncomfortable bed? I’d missed the deadline to reserve a room in the conference block.

Thing is, I really do get something from the conference every year. I’ve mastered the art of sifting through liberalism, racism, color-blindness, white fragility etc. to get the tools and the best practices of PO/TO for personal, professional and community use. And, there are a small group of familiar faces who are consistent enough who I enjoy seeing and being in community with at the conference. Point is, I didn’t know if that was enough.

I did, however, want to go to Detroit. Tha D and Tha Chi are bosom buddies. I was a tad leery energetically though cos I know Tha D is going through so much and I am hyper-aware that if we do not make changes in Chicago we could easily be on this same path as it relates to housing, water, public education, dissolving unions etc. Likewise, I am hyper-aware of the great work going on in Detroit that is innovative and disrupts erasure, inequity, hopelessness etc.

So, I explored the potential joys of going…

  1. I love train rides.
  2. I could put my session together while on the train.
  3. It’ll be a mini-getaway
  4. I love visiting Detroit
  5. My session will be the first thing on the first day, so I would have the rest of the conference to myself.
  6. I could just be…
  7. Maybe new Black faces will be at the conference
  8. I’m always “fed” when I attend the conference, learn something new
  9. It’s always a space that helps me process the school year.

Though it likely looks different for us, I agree with the PTO president: “We come together to express ourselves, exchange ideas, explore possibilities and engage in dialogue. We come to sharpen our analysis, to expand our toolbox, to deepen our understanding of the work, practices and expressions or Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal.”

~ ~ ~

Once I decided to go to the conference I decided not to take my computer, not post on social media, and to be fully present on the trip. This post is a result of being fully present and writing in my flowered journal.

Thursday. June 1. Early morning train, CHGO to DET, 7:20am. The train ride was chill; my snack bag of healthy goodies was amazing; my guilty pleasure of thin pretzel chips, gave me life; and, most importantly I put my Can We Live! session together.

Brief description of my session: Can we live! A statement, not question. Black girls…Black womyn. What is it to center Black womyn’s experiences? What is it to be hypervisible in the midst of invisibility? Using an interdisciplinary arts approach to conversing, come, let’s “dialogue…”

I sooooo enjoyed prepping for my session, it was therapeutic, my own self-care. With typing paper/printer paper and rainbow colored makers, I made visual aids. (I date myself with the typing paper reference, but I yeah, that’s what I call it. Lol lol lol) I organized my thoughts and wrote notes in my cool flowered journal, which was a gift from the ABWHE conference where I curated a writing session. The journal coincidently matches my “bloom where you are planted” 2017 journal—bloom where you are planted is one of my 2017 mantras. I also created a playlist that I listened to for the remainder of the train ride.

Playlist included:

Human – Tanks and Bangas

Love Yourself – Mary J. Blige

Black Girl Magic – Empire Cast

Love Star – Common featuring Ambrosius & PJ

How Sweet Life Is – Angela Johnson

Foldin Cloths – J. Cole

Devotion – Ledisi (cover of EWF song)

A cute lil boy, a couple of rows up, announced at each station stop, “We’re here mommy…” It was way cute and he was so enthusiastic each and every stop, and he wasn’t mad when he wasn’t getting off. He was more thrilled that more people were getting on.

6 hours later we pull into Detroit. I’m grateful for Chicago’s Union Station cos I’ve been to many big cities where the station is less than desirable. I go stand next to the restroom and knock on the door, no answer. I wait a coupla minutes and knock again. I ask a brotha standing there waiting for his ride if he’d poke his head in the men’s room to see if it’s a single stall, cos I was going to use the men’s room. Unbeknowst to me he was waiting for the security guard to come in to give him the key to the bathroom. Wait, what? There’s a key. I zip around the corner to the window and ask for the one for the ladies room. So, yeah, that’s telling that they feel the need to lock the multi-stall bathroom up. Um kay.

Request an Uber to get to the dorm, which really wasn’t too far.

No Uber pool in Detroit, but the elder uber driver who took me to the dorm was the most soulful and inviting “Welcome to tha D” rep ever. He arrived at Amtrak station looking like he was ready to sing with Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, bruh had on his linen, cap and all, and he had Motown tunes bumping in his customized car. He was definitely someone you’d call Pop’s and I’m sure his home was the community spot. He’d worked for the city for umpteen years, was recently retired and doing uber because he was bored. His granddaughter setup his account and he loves meeting new people.

Checked into the dorm, got to my suite and the darn bed was high, a loft. Um. Nah. Go back downstairs lil sis at the front-desk cracked up at my facial expression. She already knew. Dude came up directly and lowered the bed.

My one suitemate was lis sis she came from Canada, this was her first conference. Recent graduate, social work, and was excited about being at the conference. We chop it up and she realizes I’m facilitating the session she marked on her schedule and she was excited. Other suitemate, I only saw her once. I did hear her guided yoga session the following morning.

In search for a meal and didn’t want to go far. Everything closed on campus. Shutdown for the entire summer, huh? Not used to that. So I end up eating dorm food for the first time in about 20 years. Tried the spaghetti, not seasoned at all. Made a big salad and called it a day.

Friday morning. June 2. Up early. Nice weather…crisp and sun shining. Dressed and ready for the shuttle to come scoop us for the conference.

Conference site. Looking like a large brownstone. A community church that’s heavily into social justice work. My session is one of the first of the day, 9am, jumping off the conference directly following the morning plenary.

Upon arriving at the site, I find familiar faces, check-in and I’m told my session location has changed. Looking at the large common area, I think okay maybe this is a good thing. How in the world is this all going to work out with these larger rooms being sectioned off to accommodate multiple sessions. I walked through the entire church, which is huge, and there were nooks and crannies and smaller rooms tucked away.

Upon further inquiry, I find out that my session has been moved to the basement in the Blair Theatre, I didn’t know there was a basement. I made it down, down, down the winding stairs, repeating in my mind’s eye, shit, shit, shit, shit…my allergies and sinuses. Thank goodness I’d taken a Zyrtec before I left the dorm.

Soon as I hit the basement my nose and eyes go berserk. The smell of basement and my active imagination of mutated spores, gametes and mold holding me hostage, made me pause for a minute. I was internally freaking out and it was clear that the basement space had not been prepared for us. Not just the “basementy” smell, but it had not been prepared as it relates to being tidied up or chairs being in the various spaces, and that bothered me. As a “space maker,” I am big on preparing spaces for guests. And how in the heck was 3 sessions gon’ happen in this space, the Blair Theatre.

One of the conference volunteers who was in great spirits and too bubbly to accept this being a hot mess of a situation quickly went into action and helped me problem solve. Bless her. We established that the side/back room would probably be best for me cos the other two sessions had a lot going on.

So, in the side/rearlike section of the space there was a doorless back room with a cloth curtain divider…debri/broken glass were on the floor and I wanted to run. Hellz nah I will not do this here. And there were cloth chairs so I was thinking about what might be growing in them…but, as I moved throughout the space, I was soothed by artwork with messages of revolution, resistance and resilience, and it was clear that “movement work” had been going on in this space and that there was radical and revolutionary love happening here.

I trust and speak my truth about this experience, not as an attack on the conference site because I wholeheartedly appreciate and understand the significance and importance of the space, but my truth is also valid and worthy. About the conference site, the conference program stated, “We are located in an historic building complex on the edge of the Detroit Cultural Center and Wayne State University, in the heart of Detroit. We are also on the edge of the Cass Corridor, an area of deep poverty. As with many boundary zones, our location is rich with diversity. In 2011, the church donated the complex of buildings, including the sanctuary and attached church house with social hall and second story church, to the East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC). We are now part of the EMEAC managed Cass Corridor Commons, a multi-use non-profit and green space in which educational activities, community efforts and business endeavors are created and carried out.”

I digress, usually PTO is on a college campus so we have the luxury of classrooms, meeting rooms, technology etc ready available. Though we were staying in the dorms of Wayne State, the conference was not on campus. This year we were in community. I have no problem with being in community; I just hadn’t prepared myself mentally to be in this particular space in the basement.

I prayed for the smell to go bye-bye, for me to get past this, the discernment to practice cognitive flexibility and just do the damn session. Kept convincing myself that this was only 90-minutes of my life and to suck it up. But what about all the 90-minutes that I’ve “sucked ish up?” I’m so over, “taking one for the team.”

I snapped out of it and suddenly my session became more about bringing forth “the good” in the space. As I looked at the painting of the brotha who the theatre was named after, and a painted memorial for this person, I softened.

I texted my mama with the thoughts of, “nobody puts baby in the corner…” lol lol lol as per usual, she laughed at me cos she says how I write/express my life shenanigans is hilarious, especially when I’m mad. She thinks I’m always on an adventure, and really I’m not, it’s just how my life is setup and the things I face. After she pokes fun, she goes into the positive realm by telling me that she’s sending the Holy Spirit to support me.

I calmed down.

I went into the mindset of: 1 person or 20 sistas come to my session I gotta do this for them. I also needed to push through for me cos I knew if I prepared the space for them, then their presence would “feed” me.

It also felt freeing not to have a powerpoint/prezi and to be low-tech. No computer. No ipad. Only my phone, and my free.99 speakers that I got from the Horseshoe Casino when I was there for a concert. Those speakers have come in handy many-o-times and they look like cool the Beat Pill speakers, they may not sound as good as Beats, but they are just as handy and serves their purpose. Quickly I hooked up the speakers and phone. I started the playlist to get me right, reset my attitude, and to center the space with Black girlness/womonness. When I’m not able to use sage, crystals, aromatherapy and other clearing tools, I use music and reikii to prepare spaces.

With care, intentionality, and blue artist tape I secured my visual aids and outline to the wall. I pulled out my other supplies, including the black flowers I’d made on the train. All workshops, speaking gigs, trainings, guest lecturing, conference sessions…etc. that I’ve curated since September 2016, I’ve incorporated these Black flowers. I have made gazillion of these flowers at this point. These flowers celebrate the color and the being of b/Black and beauty and growth, and it represents: “blooming where you are already planted,” & “Black is the source and from darkness comes light…”

With the intent of checking out the opening session, I’d left my hoodie in the sanctuary as a seat saver. I popped upstairs and as I walked toward the sanctuary, people were coming out and several sistas stopped me, looking intently at my nametag and said they were looking for me cos they’re coming to my session. I blush and swoon cos yay, someone was coming.

Look, no matta how many sessions, trainings, workshops etc I do, I am always amazed and relieved when people show up. I was also glad that I’d left my phone with the ancestors and the music playing so the ladies would enter the space hearing soulfulness and feel welcomed. (I hate navigating spaces thinking about if it’s okay to leave things unattended and will I return to them still there untouched and intact. I hate carrying my belongings around in communal spaces just to go to the restroom or wherever in a shared space.)

Upstairs, I grabbed my hoodie and visited the restroom—I refused to do this session with a full bladder. I often end up doing public speaking etc with a full bladder, it’s like a safety net but I decided earlier this year to stop doing that, it’s unhealthy.

To be continued…

Come back soon to read about how my session turned out, the gems I got from other sessions and the rest of my experience in Detroit and at the 22nd Annual Pedagogy & Theatre of the Oppressed Conference – Breaking the Silence: From Rebellion to Waging Love in Detroit, MI.



nicole jhan’rea

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