Theater as Social Change

August 27, 2012—English Professor Gay Gibson Cima recently won the lifetime achievement award for her scholarly work from the Association of Theatre in Higher Education’s Women in Theatre Program.

In much of her work, Cima investigates the role of theatrical theory and practices in relation to social activism, studying how female dramatists and writers approached social justice issues. Her book Early American Women Critics: Performance, Race and Religion (Cambridge, 2006) won the 2006 Outstanding Research in Theatre History award from the American Society of Theatre Research. Her latest manuscript looks at abolitionist performance by white and black women in the early 19th century.

These women “transformed the mainstream cultural performance of their time,” she said. According to Cima, many early 19th-century performances were based on sympathy, an involuntary reaction to the performers. “I didn’t feel your feelings; I felt my own feelings. I would involuntarily put myself in your circumstances,” she explained. When applied to narratives about slavery, this process “didn’t serve the abolitionists’ ends.” She continued, “The abolitionists wanted the audience to recognize that the slaves themselves not only had feelings but could also form judgments, so they had to create a performance practice that incorporated those goals.”

These abolitionist women presented their critiques of slavery in plays, poems, ballads, diaries, letters, and novels. “They took a mainstream performance of sympathy and transformed it into an activist performance,” she said. These women changed one-dimensional narratives of slaves in abject pain to representations of slaves with full lives.

Cima believes understanding theater history can improve present practices. “I’m interested in using theatrical theory and practice to understand how social justice is achieved in a given cultural moment,” she said. “So I’m looking at these major cultural performances to understand how they can be made to function effectively within social activism.”

Cima links the work of 19th-century female abolitionists to current activists fighting human trafficking, because both issues “dehumanize the object of oppression.” Current theatrical practices focus more on empathy than sympathy. The idea of empathy came later in the 19th century. “[With empathy,] I feel your feelings. I presume to know what you would feel in the circumstances that you are in,” she explained. Cima notes that this presumption of knowing how others feel can create distance between people rather than connection. She considers this one of the blind spots of present-day performances. “All I’m doing is feeling your pain. That’s a problem when you are trying to motivate others to do something about the pain.”

Using sympathetic or empathic performances, the theater community can drive audiences toward a desired end. By deconstructing spectators’ emotional responses, Cima hopes that we can have a better understanding of potential theater practices.

According to Cima, dramatic performance has a distinct ability to embody stories, fostering connections between performers and spectators. “I think there’s something unique that happens when we confront one another’s selves in a given space,” she said. “At its best, what literature can do is to represent circumstances, allow us to think about those circumstances, enable us to reflect on how we feel, and reveal to us what next steps we might take.”

The former director of the university’s Humanities and Human Rights Initiative, Cima has always had an interest in social activism. “I participated in the early years of civil rights and women’s rights movements,” she said. Being at Georgetown has given her an opportunity to combine her passions of theater, history, literature, and social justice.

“I enjoy teaching at Georgetown because there’s a strong commitment to education of the whole person and a life of service to others. And that fits in perfectly with my commitment to literature and what it does in the world.”

—Elizabeth Wilson