Thursday, December 19, 2013

Social Theater in Sudan

In November ensemble member Anna Zastrow spent two weeks working with American Voices on a social theater project. Here is her story.

I am back in New York after an amazing two weeks teaching theater in Sudan. It was an intense, beautiful and profound experience.  I worked with a group of young men and women burning to express themselves creatively within a challenging political and cultural environment.

Quick country background: Sudan is a country in north-east Africa that recently split into Sudan and South Sudan.  Sudan (the North) has been ruled by one regime since 1989, which instituted Sharia law, and has been branded by the U.S. as a sponsor of terrorist organizations.  The country has suffered financial sanctions for over 15 years.  This September the government cut subsidies, prices rose sharply, and the people took to the streets in protest, which regime forces quickly quelled, reportedly resulting in 200 deaths.  It is a somewhat precarious time for Sudan…

Enter our cultural diplomacy program.  For this project I joined American Voices and its YES Academy (Youth Excellence on Stage), a cultural exchange program focused on countries emerging from conflict and isolation.  (Bond Street Theatre and American Voices know each other well, and indeed BST has often referred artists to AV.)  The YES Academy Sudan program was sponsored by the US Embassy and the Sudanese Ministry of Culture.  The program offers training in American cultural forms such as jazz, rap, hip hop and musical theater.  This time they included a social theater component: I was brought on to teach physical theater to university students and children and create a performance piece on a social issue relevant to them.  We had 10 days to hone their skills and to create and publicly perform a theater piece.

This was the first high-profile artistic exchange between the U.S. and Sudan in many years, or perhaps ever – and we were watched closely by the Sudanese government.  They sent a government “minder” to keep an eye on us. His name was Obay. I am not kidding. And he was from the Office of Central Thought.  (You can’t make this stuff up.) In the end, Obay turned out to be an ally who greatly advocated for our program (not everyone in the government was keen on this project).

A representative from the Ministry of Culture also came by to see how things were going.  He seemed genuinely concerned about how the rest of the world views Sudan, and committed that this artistic exchange will have a real influence on improving Sudan’s image and relationship with the U.S.  I’m glad that he values the arts and its potential power! He asked me to tell everyone that everything you heard about Sudan isn’t true.  (They are not terrorists.)   So if you see Obama, be sure to let him know.

For myself, what I value is not the political impact, but the human connection.

I worked with a group of wonderful people and we had a truly beautiful exchange.  Indeed, everyone I met in Khartoum was friendly, hospitable and good-humored. One of the things that touched me about Sudan was how keen the people are to connect with Americans and for us to have a positive view of their country.  I was met with a huge smile and the immediate question: “How do you like Sudan?” and “Why don’t you stay longer?”

The students in my theater group were primarily drama students from the University of Sudan. I was really impressed with them – so talented, expressive and 100% gung-ho. It is so satisfying to teach students who are hungry to learn and who appreciate everything you give them – and who give you all the more in return. Over the course of 10 intensive days, we created a really strong bond.  All the more so because of the sensitive subject matter of our work and the controversy this created.  

We were faced with a challenge:  how create a show in which they can speak out on what matters most to them – social justice, economic opportunity, spiritual fulfillment, freedom to express – without criticizing the government?  I was tasked with doing social theater but under no circumstances to criticize the regime!  But bringing up any social issue can be viewed as criticism.  We cloaked our message in comedy and mime.  But it was still obvious and possibly too obvious.  Concerns were raised by some of our producers about what was safe to say. Despite warnings, the students were adamant to proceed with what they had created.

This was challenging to navigate. I was not sure how serious the situation was going to get. For them or for me. I half-expected an Argo-like escape to the airport at the last minute. On dress rehearsal night rumors floated of possible protests and government-placed fire trucks at the ready to hose us down at any moment. Would we even be able to do the show?

Then, on the day of our actual performance, the whole event was shut down. The imam of the main mosque denounced the event and that’s no small matter in Sudan. After much negotiation between our producers and government representatives, the show was back on again. But all the hold-ups delayed everything and we started late. Our students waited and waited for their turn to present.  Finally they got to go on -- everything was going great -- the audience loved it, they whistled, clapped and laughed in recognition of what was presented -- and then we had to cut their performance short! The authorities mandated the show end at a certain time. I had to physically get up there on stage and stop them. 

The students were devastated. After working so hard for 10 days, after all the build-up and anticipation, they were finally getting to perform and have their say – and then to have the rug pulled from under them!  They were so upset they at first refused to leave the stage and were near ready to riot.  And I was immediately whisked away to the airport for my flight.  I had no chance to talk about what happened or say good bye.  The whole thing was heart-wrenching. I took solace in the few shared hugs that spontaneously erupted as I left – intense and heartfelt -- which affirmed for me that even in the face of this terrible breakdown our bond was not broken. It is hard to explain the mix of emotions of the deeply meaningful exchange that had taken place between us, now cut short.

I have since been in communication with them. They are in good spirits and ready to perform the piece again elsewhere.  They sent me the following message: “We are artists and we are strong; we have a message to tell the world and you have shown us how to give it out. . . We will never be able to thank you for the knowledge and time you gave us.” 

This was truly one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had teaching and traveling abroad, and trying to make a difference in the world.  It’s been a privilege to experience Sudan and its people, and to get to work with these beautiful and talented individuals.  I hope to be able to come back soon again.  And next time I will stay longer.

To see photos, click here:  YES Sudan - Highlights