Acting In and On the World

Theatre of the Oppressed connects students' and teachers' everyday lives to the Civil Rights Movement

By Katie Kissinger

Illustrator: Pete Mueller

Illustration: Pete Mueller

Felicia and her older sister, Ashley, have attended Freedom Camp for several years. The camp is an annual event of the Oregon Diversity Network where we spend the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday teaching kids and adults about the Civil Rights Movement and helping them to make links between that struggle and the need for social justice activism today.

Felicia, now a senior at a Portland high school, is an athlete and a strong advocate for more gender equity in the sports programs at her school. She refers to herself as a “loud mouth.” At camp, she used her humor often to relieve tension or lighten the mood. However, a few years ago she wasn’t in the mood to relieve tension when she shared with us a school incident that left her furious. She told us that when the girls’ basketball team practiced at the same time as the boys, they were relegated to the inferior court. At one point, the girls practiced without benefit of the lights. She was told the school couldn’t afford to pay for the electricity for both teams. Felicia cited several other inequities in the treatment of the girls’ teams.

The cross-racial teaching team that worked with the teenage group that year decided to put Felicia’s story into a Theatre of the Oppressed skit. Augusto Boal, a Brazilian and friend of Paulo Freire, developed the theater method in the 1960s as a mechanism for learning how to take action.

We helped set the skit up with Felicia providing the narrative. Because it was her story, and she was the real target of oppression, it was important that she not have to relive the oppression if she did not want. So, we asked her to assign the roles:

the oppressor (in Felicia’s case this was the principal)

the target of the oppression (Felicia and her teammates)

the potential ally or allies (other team members, students, teachers or parents)

Once the skit was set up and roles assigned, the Theatre of the Oppressed “players” presented it for the audience. Two actors played the roles of Felicia and a teammate. They entered the gym and discovered there’s no electricity.

“Oh no, not this again,” they said. “How are we supposed to practice with no lights?”

Outraged, they went to the principal’s office. The actor playing the principal listened to their complaint.

“I’m sorry, ladies, but we just don’t have the budget to keep the electricity on for two team practices per night.”

Dejected, the ball players go back to the gym. End of scene. Boal believed that keeping the skits short was essential, because repeating it a number of times was “part of the process of reflection and de-briefing.”

The actors immediately repeated the skit. The difference now was anyone from the audience could stop the action by saying “freeze” when they had an idea about how the “target” or a “potential ally” might speak up. When the actors left for the principal’s office in the second go-around, Lola yelled, “Freeze!”

Lola, a longtime camper, jumped up and tapped the actor playing Felicia and took her place. (One can tap-in only for the target or for a potential ally because we don’t need practice in the role of the oppressor.) Lola, playing Felicia, turned to her teammate (the potential ally) and said, “Come on, let’s go get the whole team and march to the principal’s office and tell him this is unfair.” The audience cheered for Lola’s strategy.

“What was your strategy?” I asked Lola. She told us there is power in numbers. Then I asked the rest of the kids, “What did you see her do or say that you think was effective?”

“Well, she did a good job of getting everyone all pumped up to go to the principal,” one student said. Another mentioned that Lola was a good leader.

We continued to repeat the skit as other kids took turns practicing approaches for being Felicia or her allies, as they took their concerns to the principal and then the school board. We helped Felicia recognize all the potential allies she had in teammates, teachers, and parents-and maybe even some of the players from the boys team who also saw the injustice and care about fairness.

The playful, yet profoundly thoughtful Felicia had found new courage and determination to create more waves, work with allies, and institutionalize some changes at her school. She reported to us later that she had coordinated her team in writing an “equal rights for girl teams” letter that they sent to the superintendent.

Freedom Camp

The Oregon Diversity Network is an informal group of educators who have worked together since 2000 to provide the annual event called “Freedom Camp” with several key objectives:

To increase children’s understanding of the Civil Rights Movement as a mass effort, not just the work and success of one individual.

To promote children’s awareness and confidence that they, too, can work with others to change something that is unfair or unjust.

To help children learn about the importance of music in this and other struggles for social change.

Our hope with doing Theatre of the Oppressed is to provide practice for being activists. As educators for social justice, we cherish those stories from returning Freedom Campers where they tell us how they spoke up, for example, in the cafeteria when kids made fun of the “chubby girl.” The empowerment gained from the theater doesn’t just affect students. One of the volunteer 4th-grade teachers at Freedom Camp shared that she went back to her school and identified four potential allies-a Latino janitor who had been the target of racial slurs, a lesbian parent, and two teachers she’d never spoken with before-in her struggle to create a children’s court to address racial slurs.

In our efforts at Freedom Camp, we have always tried to consider this question: “How can we help young people make meaningful connections between the struggles and action of the Civil Rights Movement and the personal, social, school, and community problems and issues they face today?”

A few years ago, we decided to raise the funds to take a group of Freedom Camp children and adults to the Deep South to further our understanding and practice of Civil Rights education and working for social change. In the summer of 2006, we took a racially diverse group of 26 children and adults from Freedom Camp to Alabama. Our practice with Theatre of the Oppressed took an interesting form on our Alabama trip.

On the fifth day of our weeklong trip through Alabama, we were in Montgomery. A group of the adults decided to go to the state capitol building to commemorate the place where the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March had culminated. After browsing a bit in the capitol gift shop, I wandered into the children’s section and saw something that horrified me. It was a dress-up costume of a Confederate soldier, clearly designed and sized for young children. In large print across the packaging were the words “Kids Klassic Kostumes.”

Augusto Boal once stated, “Theatre of the Oppressed is not the revolution, but it is practice for the revolution.” Now was the time to put practice into action. I gathered the rest of the group that had come to the capitol. Most of the group, including all of the young people, had opted for other activities that morning, such as swimming and going back to the Rosa Parks Library to do research. At first, we were excited. Then reality set in.

“Oh my god, we are going to do a real Theatre of the Oppressed,” whispered Ann, a Head Start teacher.

The tension rose as the seven of us headed back up the white marble steps of the building that was the first capitol of the Confederacy. We huddled in the children’s section having a rather heated debate about whether or not we should buy the costume. Hadiyah, an African-American college instructor, decided she would buy it to use in her teaching. Once that was figured out, in one quavering group we moved to the cashier in the gift shop.

“Hi there,” Hadiyah said. “We are educators from Oregon and we found something in your children’s section that we were very upset to see.”

The woman looked distressed and quickly assessed our numbers. We were standing in a close huddle. There was only one other customer in the gift shop, an older white man who hovered behind a bookshelf watching the scene.

“We are going to buy this even though we believe it is an advertisement for the Ku Klux Klan,” Hadiyah went on, “but we want you to know that we are buying it to use to teach people about bias in children’s materials.”

The cashier was defensive.

“But I think those words were used as an alliteration,” she said. “I can’t believe they meant the KKK.”

We went on to have an intense but caring conversation with her and then we asked to speak with the manager or an administrator who were both apparently out to lunch. We exited the shop. We then left a note for the governor expressing our concern.

In the years that I’ve taught, I have come to believe activism comes naturally to children. It is adults, the teachers, who need more practice to overcome our fears, and our years of socialization in a bias-ridden society. It was a bit ironic and yet very appropriate that it was the adult teachers who were facing a moment in the “real world” where action was needed.

We met the rest of our group at the Southern Poverty Law Center where we had an afternoon appointment in the Education Center. We asked to use some of our time to do some drama work. The “state capitol” teacher contingent turned our experience into a Theatre of the Oppressed skit, not including our intervention. We did the skit for the rest of the group and Lola was once again the first to yell, “Freeze!” This time her idea included a class-prejudiced putdown, as she sneered something to the gift shop employee about “only being a cashier.” We gave Lola the feedback that using one-upping language only replicates the oppression. Our group tried a number of strategies, which did take positive action and at the end of our discussion we finally told the group about the intervention we had actually done. One of the teenagers groaned, “Man, I can’t believe I missed all that.”

Maurice is an African American who was born, raised, and has lived his whole life in the Deep South. He was our charter bus driver. He became a dear friend and treasured participant in our experience throughout that memorable week in Alabama. After the incident at the state capitol he told us: “You know, there have probably been thousands of people through that gift shop, black and white, who saw that costume and never thought a thing about it. It took this group from Oregon to speak up. It does my heart good to see what you all are doing.”

At that moment, I thought about a quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that I saw at the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

We all knew that our small action in Alabama would not lead to systemic change, nor were we presumptuous enough to believe that we were there to save Alabama from racism. On the contrary, we were there to learn what Alabama has to teach us all about the history of the struggle for justice. Our action and our experience there helped us to remember that we can act in the world outside our classrooms.

Theatre of the Oppressed helps us find the words to break the silence, and it helps build the bridge of solidarity that stretches from our students to the valued lessons in the long history of resistance to oppression.

Katie Kissinger is an early childhood educator and college instructor who lives in Boring, Ore. For more information about Freedom Camp, see “Freedom Camp: A Teach-In on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday,” in Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching, Teaching for Change, 2004.