Part 2: Liberatory Theatre & Popular Education

Part 2 (Unedited). This post is a continuation from my last post about choosing to attend and facilitate a workshop (curate an experience for Black Womyn) at the 22nd Annual Pedagogy & Theatre of the Oppressed Conference – Breaking the Silence: From Rebellion to Waging Love in Detroit, MI, June 1 -4.


So, I get back downstairs and the room is filling to the point where the circle I’d made of 7 chairs, wasn’t enough. Sistas kept coming, kept having to add chairs, the circle kept breathing new life and growing.


Look, like I said, PTO is a heavily white space and because my sessions at PTO are so specialized and always center Black Girls/Womyn I don’t expect many, which is funny since I’ve never had any less than 10-12 attendees. This year was no different—by the end of the session there were 17, 18 including myself, in this small room.


I get my 90-minute-session started and at some point it hits me that this space with predominately Black Womyn (15), 1 white man, 1 white womon, and 1 Indian womon, was supposed to happen, and happen at this time. There are absolutely no mistakes on this journey I’ve been on, and most recently named, “space making.” Here’s why…


For the majority of the conference participants in my session, this was their first PTO conference. For many, this was there first time even practicing/engaging/participating in a TO experience. They’d seen TO games/exercises on Youtube or they’d read Paulo Friere and/or Augusto Boal’s work, but this, this was the first time actually “doing it.”


How friggin’ powerful is this! There first time of actively engaging TO/PO is a session curated by a Black Womon. Hot damn! When this hit me, I wanted to cry.


TO = Theatre of the Oppressed. PO = Pedagogy of the Oppressed. PTO = Pedagogy & Theatre of the Oppressed.


PTO is very much so about the balance of using the body (physical and emotional) and verbal expression to actively create dialogue, dismantle –isms, and disrupt oppressive spaces, so one would think that the conference would be full of Black and other people of color presenters and practitioners, but that’s not the case. Nonetheless, something that I’ve always appreciated about PTO is that there is often a strong international presence at the conference. Yearly, I get an update on acts of liberation in Brazil, and other places in the world. Also, I enjoy the conversations about how to make connections on what’s happening here, in the USA, in relation to the rest of the world.


As for my session, I am thankful for having done this work overtime, and for my own evolution as a presenter and curator of spaces. I am very clear that centering Black Womyn’s experiences does not mean that only Black Womyn will show up to the space. When I was much younger and doing this, I’d get irked and give energetic side-eye when non-Black persons would show-up, especially white folks. Which, the Universe is such a comedienne because for the last conference, I facilitated 2 sessions and one of them was predominately attended by white womyn, that session was lit though.


I would often think, “you know damn well this isn’t for you so why are you here?” Now, I make a mental note of their presence, and I proceed with the focus and commitment of centering Black Girls/Womyn.


This year’s session, the white male who was present asked if it was okay for him to stay. He was humble and didn’t center himself, but he was engaged in the process, as were the other non-Black participants. I did have to remind the group that this session was not about allyship or solidarity, the intent was not to silence anyone, but to center the voices of Black Womyn.


The Black Womyn in the space appreciated this. It was evidenced in their vulnerability, willingness to express themselves through words, movement and tears. There was a process, the building up to TO exercises: Stillness. Getting intentional. Going within. Breathing IN/OUT. There was the decorating of Black flowers and the listening to the specially made “Can We Live!” playlist. There were tears, a healthy release of emotions when I introduced the stories of Korryn Gaines, Bresha Meadows, Jessica Hampton, Rekia Boyd and Marrissa Alexandra. We sat with these narratives, then we “NAMED” stereotypes, and then we moved further into our bodies through Image Theatre. We made a series of “images” that both embodied and disrupted stereotypes.


“Image Theatre: exercises with bodies in still images and dynamizations (moving images), often images of oppression and images of possible ways to break it.” From the 2017 PTO Conference program


Through these embodied “images,” we explored our relationship to identified stereotypes (including how we are harmed/benefit from the stereotypes), and how we can individually (and collectively) disrupt and dismantle stereotypes. The “images” were pretty powerful and having them as a series, supported our deeper dive especially into the “yes/and…” “yes/but…”—stereotypes are nuanced.

With one series of 3 images it was interesting how the group explored “being a sexual being…” The stereotype was promiscuity as a negative thing, but in presenting this stereotype as a “image” it looked more like sistas (re)claiming our bodies, and embracing sex positivity and our sexuality. But then in the next image of the series, “the actors” added shame, guilt and judgment, whereas that which was previously empowering, was now “bad.” This “image” moved us more into exploitation and the sex trade. These “images” fostered dialogue on how we create and curate our own narratives as Black Womyn, how others create our narratives and wrongly speak on our behalf, and how we have multiple and intersecting narratives. It also opened us up to explore “gaze.” In TO, everyone are active participants—no onlookers, but Spect-actors (not spectators), though“a gaze” still exists—the spect-actors interpretation of what they see.


Image theatre is the most common of TO practices. As a visual artist I commonly use Image Theatre because it is a bridge between some of my artistic practices of visual art, dance/movement and theatre. I think a good TO practitioner/facilitator can get the most out of Image Theatre by supporting dialogue and “staying in the question(s).” Questions should be used to connect mind/body/spirit, to move dialogue deeper—away from the surface—not merely internalized self-realizations. Questions should be used to create more in-depth “images” and conversations that ultimately promote resistance.


Image Theatre should be more than creating or raising AWARENESS, but to explore nuances and to create ACTION. Action varies though. For Black Womyn, ACTION is also about having both a safe and brave space where we are centered in a positive and affirming way. Also, ACTION is about creating and navigating spaces where we are able to “just be” in our personal and communal truths. No, we are not a monolith, and there are no single narratives so there’s a need for spaces where our multiple narratives can come forth. Can We Live! was that for the Black Womyn who attended.


During the reflection portion of the session sistas responses included:

This session…[you—referring to me as the facilitator/curator]

  • Gave me some tools that I can use with my students;
  • Was good because we also talked about solutions;
  • Was powerful because it was a safe-space to think about my relationship with stereotypes about me and other Black womyn, and it helped me to think about “yes/and…” & “yes/but…”;
  • Was the epitome of how we “show up” for each other as sistas;
  • Made it okay for me to use my body to “talk about” difficult subjects;
  • Confirmed my own purpose as a change agent;
  • Helped me to understand my power in expressing myself even in my silence. My body talks, even in my verbal silence;
  • Allowed me to open-up and use my body to express how I’ve felt “beat up” and made voiceless;
  • Opened me up to self-discovery;
  • Allowed me to see another Black womon show-up authentically to facilitate and hold space for us;
  • Allowed me to experience how to wage love as a form of rebellion and resistance;
  • Set the tone and standard for who and what TO practitioners are. I usually study TO with a white male, he’s good, but it was so refreshing to have you, a Black womon as a facilitator and you did it in a way that was culturally relevant and it felt specific to me;
  • “Gave me life…” Everything the title, the language you used, having Black music, you being you, your knowledge-base. Just everything.


Once I closed out the session, I felt energized and ready to take on the rest of the conference. It also made me want to be more in my body.


These PTO Conference posts have taken on a life of their own. The last and final post, Part 3, will be how I navigated the remainder of the conference, and I’ll share the takeaways from the other sessions I attended. Stay tuned for Part 3.



nicole jhan’rea

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