I’m a coward. Tonight’s class was full of cultural appropriation, racism and silencing. I said something, but not enough, and I drove home thinking of all the things I could have said if I’d been clever, clear-witted and focused instead of angry, hurt and sad.
Theatre of the Oppressed gives the audience a chance to re-write a real-life example of oppression and do it over. The rules are that you don’t get to change the person being an oppressor (because that would be easy) and you don’t get to change the person being oppressed. All you can change are the bystanders, the allies. That would be me, the silent white girl who says too little too late, there at the edge of the room by the door.
So here is the real-life scene as it occurred just hours ago, along with the interventions I thought of in the car on my ride home. (STOP! indicates an intervention I could have said.)
Setting: Classroom at Marylhurst University. 11 White students, 1 Native American student, 1 White teacher.
Terry, white lady from Sisters Oregon: So for my presentation I am going to play a fun game that will show us how stories in oral tradition get changed over time. First we have to send two of our tribe members outside the room. Then I’m going to be the elder and tell you our creation story. This story comes from the Quinault Indians.
STOP! Wait, so we’re pretending to be Quinault Indians, is that right? Wow, that’s offensive. I’m not going to “play Indian.” I’ll wait outside. Let me know when you’re done.
Terry: (reads her ‘creation story’ from a sheet of paper) Okay, so now that I’ve told you our creation story, let’s call the tribe members back. Now one person tell the tribe member our story from memory. You get the idea — it’s a lot like Telephone.
STOP! Wait, Telephone…you mean the child’s game where you whisper a nonsensical sentence down a line of people to see how messed-up and incomprehensible it becomes by the end? I don’t want to disrespect another culture’s sacred story by treating it as a game. Does anyone else think this is disrespectful?
Terry: Wow, that’s funny. Isn’t it funny? [many people were in fact laughing] Grey Eagle. Ha! It was Great Eagle. And the daughter didn’t have a name, you added that. See how the story changed? This is just like how Christianity was spread in Rome by the early Christians. A merchant told his wife who told her neighbors who told…
Me: Oral tradition isn’t telephone. It is a sacred practice in which stories are held by the storykeepers and passed on to those who must learn them precisely and carry them. I don’t think you can compare a sacred story from a Native American culture with word-of-mouth gossip.
Terry: Well I had to use a Native story. I couldn’t use a story from the Bible because you would all know it.
STOP! I don’t think everyone knows bible stories. Not everyone in this class is Jewish or Christian. An indigenous creation story is just as sacred as the biblical texts and should be treated with respect. Could you have made up a story?
Writing this, I realize that I’m changing the story to make myself feel better. Re-writing it now doesn’t remove the pain of this experience for my friend who sat there while the culture of her people was mocked and trivialized. But I want to re-write the story. I want to do theatre and absolve myself. Play the game. How am I any different?
The idea with Theatre of the Oppressed is that you get to role play the scene over and over until you come up with strong interventions that short-circuit oppression and open understanding.
But a sacred story isn’t a commodity, a trinket, a souvenir.
And surviving oppression isn’t a game, a play-acting script, make-believe.
Only my whiteness lets me see it that way. That’s what I learned from class tonight.