It’s not “Street Theatre” if you freak out the oppressed

As a scholar of political theatre, I would love nothing more than to see a resurgence of activist drama, agitprop theatre, and street theatre in these times. Because proposals floated by the Trump administration have not been reassuring to artists, scholars, or higher education more generally, I would welcome artistic challenges to such moves. Theatre is a particularly sharp tool that can be used as a form of resistance, even as we increasingly turn to TV and Internet culture for political art. Yet the immediacy of live theatre can be an effective way to motivate and mobilize against a larger obstacle. Theatre turns into marches easily–Orson Welles’ production of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock (1937) turned into an impromptu pro-union march of 20 blocks as the company (and audience) had to change venues due to the WPA shutting down the performance. Theatre can, at any moment, also be “street” theatre. When I was (briefly) an undergraduate theatre major, I remember learning that only 3 things are needed for theatre to happen: actors, audience, and a space. Theatre can happen anywhere, which brings me to the topic of this post.

Street theatre is a legitimate mode of performance. I am currently doing (grant funded!) research into the work of the Third World Women’s Alliance, which may have done street theatre in the 1970s. But other, more famous groups, such as the San Fransisco Mime Troupe and the Bread and Puppet Theater have been doing street theatre off and on since the 1950s. Key to the idea of street theatre is that anyone watching should KNOW that it is a performance. Otherwise, you’re doing some sort of Yes Men/Billy Eichner on the Street/Street Improv kind of thing–which is fine, but it’s not actually street theatre.

Street theatre also has a close relationship with political action, particularly labor and minority movements. This is partly because oppressed groups are less likely to have the means to produce drama in a traditional theatre space, but also because such performances are meant to call to mind the conditions of the oppressed. These are crucial aspects of street theatre specifically and political theatre more broadly, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” if I may use a cliché.

My work on the Free Southern Theatre (FST) demonstrates the critical nature of street performance. While the FST did not generally perform in a literal street, it toured plays throughout the rural South and performed wherever a space was provided, sometimes just in the center of town. But the FST was a theatre of the oppressed: after its first couple of years, the actors were Black actors, the scripts were written by Black writers, and the audience were almost exclusively Black audiences. The FST’s goal was to uplift and inspire–to tell stories to other Black people that would encourage them to see themselves and their fellow community members with pride. It became a place to create solidarity with each other, and to send a message about the vital importance of Black spaces.

All of which brings me to this video. [Content Warning: people dressed in KKK hoods and “Hitler Trump” masks] This was a group of individuals associated with the Social Media handle @RefuseFascism, and they intended to send a “message” through “street theater” to Donald Trump and affiliated persons in the week prior to the Inauguration. They are chanting in a call and response style: the leader shouts a Trump Tweet/slogan and the group yells “Heil Trump!” and does a Nazi salute. I want to unpack everything that is wrong with this particular brand of “street theatre.”

While the goals of Refuse Fascism are admirable, and the close connections between Trump, his administration, and actual Nazis and white supremacists are well documented, this particular performance was ill-advised and ineffective, for two main reasons:

  1. Because of the aforementioned Nazis and white supremacists, and because of the actual KKK endorsing, celebrating, and generally carrying water for Trump, tensions and fear have been very high in many communities. Threats from Nazi groups, white supremacist groups, and the Klan have increased dramatically since Trump’s election, and many minority communities are scared, especially Muslim Americans and Jewish Americans. Because of this, the decision of a poorly known and poorly publicized group to hold a poorly publicized event in which the “performers” don the familiar and prominent KKK white hoods was in very bad taste. Seeing a group of Klan hoods is a frightening scene, and the instinct of most decent people is to get far away from them, rather than draw closer to see what’s happening. Many citizens were scared of what they saw, and had no way to know this group wasn’t the actual KKK, given the climate of the nation right now. Thus, Refuse Fascism not only frightened people needlessly, but ensured that no one would get close enough to them to hear their message.
  2. Because the Trump administration already has such close ties to white supremacy groups, I am not sure anyone in the administration would be terribly moved by this particular theatrical sight. I’m not saying that a performance can only be measured in terms of its “success” in affecting change or attitudes, but rather that the audience for this performance was murky. Reading back Tweets and slogans to shame a man whose Chief White House strategist is this guy is probably never going to work. Thus, it’s not remotely clear who the audience for this performance could possibly be.

I’d encourage the folks behind Refuse Fascism–who may not have intended to upset and intimidate the oppressed, but did, regardless–to read up a bit more on the politics and praxis of street/political theatre. It couldn’t possibly make things worse!

Reading List

Hübner, Zygmunt, and Jadwiga Kosicka. Theater and Politics. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1992.  Print.

Rabkin, Gerald. Drama and Commitment: Politics in the American Theatre of the Thirties. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1964.  Print.

Saal, Ilka. New Deal Theater: The Vernacular Tradition in American Political Theater.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.  Print.

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