Bridging Performance and Politics

September 9, 2013—According to Professor of Theater and Performance Studies Derek Goldman, the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics (the Lab) connects the arts and policy communities, “creating a space for experimentation and risk-taking, for artists and thinkers.”

This month, the Lab will host Freedom Theatre, a cultural and theater center in the Jenin Refugee Camp in Palestine, during the group’s first U.S. tour. Freedom Theatre will perform The Island by South African playwrights Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona September 16–17, 2013, at the Davis Performing Arts Center. Set in a prison, The Island follows two prisoners as they endure painstaking physical labor during the day and rehearse a performance of Sophocles’ Antigone at night.

“Now, for the first time, American and Georgetown audiences will see a performance by this groundbreaking company as it brings to light current issues in Palestine through a moving narrative based on South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle,” Cynthia Schneider, distinguished professor in the practice of diplomacy and former U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands, said.

Ambassador Schneider and Goldman, who is also the artistic director of the Davis Performing Arts Center, founded the Lab in 2013 to bring artists and policymakers together. “We wanted to create a space at Georgetown—both for students and for the larger Washington, DC, community—to look at and learn from the ways that theater and performance are engaging, and in some ways making progress on, pressing international issues,” Schneider explained.

A collaboration between the Department of Performing Arts and the School of Foreign Service, the Lab connects policymakers to work often unknown outside of the arts community. “There’s a lot of amazing work that’s happening in corners of the world that engage politics in complicated ways,” Goldman said. “We’re looking to bring artists whose work we revere and value,” he continued.

After each performance of The Island, the Lab will host panels with policymakers, including Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. Goldman intends these discussions not as “a room full of people who more or less agree and are shifting through nuanced differences,” but as an opportunity to challenge individuals’ perceptions about international issues.

“[When] theater can really open up new ways of thinking and understanding—through empathy, communal connection, and the things that theater can be uniquely powerful at doing—then we’re on to something,” Goldman explained. “Then people from the arts and policy worlds are being forced to think and feel in ways that are new to them—that deepen or complicate their relationship to their own work,” he said.

According to Ambassador Schneider, the discussions after Freedom Theatre’s performances represent an important element of cultural diplomacy. “I think of culture as a way to understand what is going on in a country as intake and not as output, but as a prism to look through to understand what’s going on. This is particularly important in countries where the government does not really represent the people,” she explained.

Schneider need only point to the first world tour of The Island to show the power and importance of culture in global politics. “Those plays are what told the world what apartheid was. The South African government was foolish enough to allow [the play to tour], thinking, as some governments do, ‘It’s theater how much harm can it do,’” Ambassador Schneider explained.

“It was absolutely devastating to the South African government. Those narratives and those stories showed what life was like for black people under the apartheid regime.”

Freedom Theatre’s adaption of The Island will highlight the parallels between South Africa under apartheid and Palestine. “[That idea] is one that is provocative in our community,” Goldman said. “But we know it’s being explored by world-class artists in a rich way.”

—Elizabeth Wilson