Project: African Australians negotiating belonging and identity: Examining the role of participatory arts practice
Citation: Maxwell, C. (2019). The Performative is Political: Using Counter-Storytelling through Theatre to Create Spaces for Implicated Witnessing (Unpublished masters thesis). Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia.
Author: Christina Maxwell
Summary by: Christina Maxwell
Moral panics have been fuelled by the media in white dominant nations to position those perceived as African as violent, delinquent, and dissimilar to the white majority (Windle, 2008). In Melbourne, Australia AMKA (previously ‘Afrobeat’) was an initiative of the cohealth Arts Generator (cAG) that used theatre to depict the African diaspora in Australia. These accounts sought to challenge the dominant narratives that frame their community in Australia while presenting alternative knowledges situated within historical, political, and intergenerational discourses. The intention of the artists was to create an art piece that spoke to their communities and to counter these prevailing narratives with ones that are complex, strengths-based, and diverse, i.e., to engage in performative counter-storytelling (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002). AMKA provided an opportunity for the current study to investigate the impacts of performative counter-storytelling for those who are in a position of power by examining what insights spectators’ reflections provided into the meaning-making processes of the aesthetic encounter.
What was done?
Guided by a critical whiteness lens, the study explored how white audience members interpreted AMKA, and the implications of this meaning-making process for transformation of the self and the relationship with the ‘other’. Thirty-four self-identifying white spectators completed mixed closed- and open-ended surveys at the completion of one of three public performances. Of particular interest were the free-response questions which aimed to elicit responses regarding spectators’ learnings from and interpretations of the performance.
The qualitative data were subject to thematic analysis and interpreted using key literature on critical whiteness scholarship, performative counter-storytelling, and processes of transformative witnessing.
What we learnt
Two themes were developed with each theme containing several sub-themes which aimed to provide further elucidation on how ‘awakening’ was experienced and what it meant to be an audience member in AMKA, as summarised in the following table:
Summary of themes and sub-themes identified through thematic analysis
|Understanding the Counter-Narrative in Context
||1. Aesthetics and the counter-narrative
2. Outsiders on the inside
3. Reflections on political realities
|Engaging in Reflective Practices
||1. Seeing what one has been taught not to see
2. The discomforting process of confronting privilege
3. Theatre as a reminder and prompt for action
White audience members who responded to the survey appeared to make connections between the content of AMKA and the contemporary political and cultural contexts in which it was performed and began to examine their responsibilities in disrupting these systems of oppression. They became aware of the incompleteness of their current lenses and turned to the alternative narratives offered by AMKA as more truthful portrayals of reality with audience members using this performance as a springboard for considering issues of whiteness, belonging, coloniality, and racism more broadly. Further, some spectators demonstrated awareness of the power implicit in geographical space by noting how AMKA was diversifying and reclaiming white spaces of theatre in Melbourne while challenging the racist structures that uphold them. These spectators therefore demonstrated progress in becoming ‘implicated witnesses’, that is, attentive, action-oriented, and critically engaged listeners who engage in the processes that facilitate ‘transformation’ of the self and that contribute to transforming one’s environment (Sajnani, 2012). Indeed, some witnesses declared intentions for post-performance actions provoked by a new sense of responsibility.
The power in the performative-counter narrative was also found to come not only in the construction of the narrative itself, but also by its delivery. For AMKA, the art forms, the venue, the production quality, the performers, and the special effects all worked together to enhance the receptivity of, and connection to, the narrative. By moving beyond a superficial level of engagement with the production, spectators entered a ‘zone of discomfort’ (Sajnani, 2010) where they could productively grapple with ideas of difference and privilege while enabling opportunities for growth-oriented encounters. This discomfort often arose from a personalisation of the content whereby spectators shifted in their self-knowledge as they connected individual-level behaviours to political events and began to understand how their behaviour upholds and conforms to oppressing narratives. Accompanying these changes were shifts in the relationship with the ‘other’, although not necessarily in the productive way discussed by the community arts literature. The ‘space of encounter’ (Mayblin, Valentine, & Andersson, 2016) created during AMKA instead resulted in awareness about and amplification of the social distance between lived experiences. Yet for others, AMKA provided much-needed reminders for continued vigilance and engaging in critical thinking while also reiterating the capability and responsibility of one to act.
However, not all spectators willingly entered into a space of transformation and potential for deeper engagement with the performance. It was observed that some instead deliberately distanced themselves and their whiteness from being implicated, reflecting a disconnecting strategy toward the content and risking becoming a voyeur in another’s story.
This study has provided evidence for the potential of political theatre in facilitating the responsible listening positions that can catalyse action toward dismantling personal, and potentially structural, racially-based injustices. Indeed, AMKA was found to ‘awaken’ some white audience members by de-centring whiteness and re-centring African lived experiences. This performative counter-narrative can be said to have held a mirror up to other African Australians while providing a window for white Australians to critically engage with difference. Although it cannot be claimed that a single performance has the power to revolutionise deeply embedded structural inequalities (Madyaningrum & Sonn, 2011; Sonn et al., 2015), the transformations that are observed at the level of the individual are by no means inconsequential. The magnitude of these impacts can never be truly captured; they may spread like ripples triggered through post-performance conversations or continue across the lifespan in the form of vigilant struggles with privilege, thereby “set[ting] a process in motion” (Boal, 2002, p. 275). Through the integration of aesthetic excellence with expressions of lived experience, the community arts are a powerful tool for rupturing oppressing knowledges and enabling counter-possibilities of hope, resilience, and justice to both be imagined and realised.
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