Anne Hamilton/Hamilton Dramaturgy


The following essay on the topic of politics, drama and their intersection on Election Day has been contributed by Josh Takano Chambers-Letson.

Download the article here: NO IT IS LIFE Theatre and the Practice of Democracy in DOG AND WOLF MEETS THE COMMUNITY

“No, it is Life:

Theater and the Practice of Democracy in Dog and Wolf Meets the Community

Josh Takano Chambers-Letson, University of Cincinnati

Assistant Professor, Department of English and Comparative Literature

In 1987, the art collective Group Material organized an art exhibition at the Dia Art Foundation with a series of accompanying lectures, town halls, and community discussions on the topic of democracy. Reflecting on this project, the group wrote:

Ideally, democracy is a system in which political power rests with the people: all citizens actively participate in the process of self-representation and self-governing, an ongoing discussion in which a multitude of diverse voices converge. But in 1987, after almost two years of the Reagan presidency and with another election year at hand, it was clear that the state of American democracy was in no way ideal. Access to political power was obstructed in complex ways, participation in politics had degenerated into passive and symbolic involvement, and the current of “official” politics precluded a diversity of viewpoints.

Lets update: In 2010, after two years of the Obama presidency and with another election year at hand, it is clear that the state of American democracy is in no way ideal. Access to political power remains obstructed in complex ways, participation in politics continues to manifest itself as passive and symbolic involvement, and the current of “official” politics precludes a diversity of viewpoints. Today marks the first national election in what we can only hope will be called the “Citizens United Era.” The Lochner Era was the period from 1897-1937 in which the Supreme Court bowed to big business interests and invalidated laws setting a maximum workweek. In turn, we might hope that there will be an end point to the current free-for-all in unlimited corporate campaign donations validated by the Roberts Court in Citizens United v. FEC earlier this year. But corporate campaign donations, which have grown exponentially in the current campaign season as a direct result of Citizens United, aren’t the only problem.

Headline after headline predicts an “enthusiasm gap” as the determinative factor in this year’s election season. In other words, one of the central factors in this national election is the lack of interest that people have in taking part in one of the few semblances of direct democratic participation that we may have left: voting. This weekend, a study in the Los Angeles Times argued, “the real majority in the midterm election will be those who just skip it. Non-voters are younger, poorer, less educated and more liberal than likely voters.” Say what one will about Tea Party activists, they’re willing to take part in the process and at the very least they’re showing up to vote – even if their candidates (Christine O’Donnell) don’t seem to be that familiar with the Constitution they vow so firmly to defend.

Certainly, the historic coalition that propelled President Obama and the Democrats to office in 2008 has frayed in some places, and all but dissolved in others. In the past two weeks, the President has made a surprising turn to his base during campaign stops – many of them at Universities in urban cores like Chicago, Minneapolis, or Philadelphia. I say surprising because the Obama Administration’s White House has been relatively disdainful of their base in the past two years. Shortly after the election, President Obama gave a speech in Hollywood the same week that the California Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8, an invidious piece of legislation that justified the Constitutional definition of gays and lesbians as a legal subclass. (Again, democracy withers.) Addressing a protester’s poster outside the event, Obama snidely said (I’m paraphrasing on this one), “I saw a sign that said keep your campaign promises. I thought, fair enough, but which one?” – as if it weren’t clear what a group of mostly gay protesters were demanding in the aftershock of the Court’s ruling: repeal DOMA and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel simultaneously shunned his base while using disability-phobic language when he called a group of progressive activists “fucking retarded.” Most recently, Vice President Joe Biden referred to progressives voicing their complaints about the administration as “whining.”  What’s interesting to me about these incidents is that the Administration seems to be chiding people for taking an active role in the democratic process: voicing their frustrations with and to the representatives that they played a key role in helping to elect. As if to say, “elect us, but don’t expect to play a role in the process after election-day or we’ll call you unintelligible, whiny, retards.”

So what are we to do when divergent voices are stifled as state legislatures pass laws that openly discriminate against people of color and immigrants; as majorities enact pieces of legislation that disenfranchise gays and lesbians; as mainstream GLBTQ lobbying groups are more interested in gaining the right to fight in unjust wars than in stopping them; as a large segment of the US population seems to have forgotten that there are two wars going on at all; as public higher education systems are reformed to reflect a corporate model that maximizes profit by raising tuition, while simultaneously cutting services and packing students into classrooms; as the wealth gap increases; as politicians and pundits seem to forget about the first amendment’s free establishment clause when it comes to practicing Islam; as social service nets from welfare to unemployment benefits continue to be attacked at a moment when unemployment skyrockets (with a disproportionate effect on unemployed workers of color); as corporate profits are flying through the roof as the economy sinks and corporate political influence has been cut free from most constraints? What are we to do when the great masses of people who continue to be subordinated, underserved, and disenfranchised by the policies of both the Republicans and Democrats not only refuse to take to the streets, but don’t even show up in a voting booth or fill out an absentee ballot? What are we to do at a time in which national politics are increasingly a sham of robust democracy, a shadow-show for a political machine that is structured to serve the interests of ever-expanding global capital and the ideological interests of a tiny percentage of the country (and of the world)? What are we to do, in short, when democracy falters?

Returning to Group Material’s show at the Dia, we might find one option in the convergence between art and politics. But this relationship is one that can’t be taken for granted. As the collective wrote:

The subject that no one in the art world wants to talk about is usually politics. Yet, because every social or cultural relation is a political one, we regard an understanding of the link between politics and culture as essential. “Politics” cannot be restricted to those arenas stipulated as such by professional politicians. Indeed, it is fundamental to our methodology to question every aspect of our cultural situation from a political point of view, to ask, “What politics inform accepted understandings of art and culture? Whose interests are served by such cultural conventions? How is culture made, and for whom is it made?”

In other words, we cannot accept a formulation of power that circumscribes politics to the domain of the tiny area between the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court. The time of politics should not be the second Tuesday of every year (or every other year, or every four years), but every day, every hour, every minute, every second. The political is ongoing and constant and the challenge of democracy is to take up an active role in this process. As Group Material rightly noted: art is capable of being a vital conduit for the practice of democracy. As the current experiment Dog and Wolf Meets the Community suggests, such a practice has a home in the theater.

Catherine Filloux has never shied from the convergence between art and politics, nor have her plays been simple political polemics. In Lemkin’s House, Filloux delivered a stunningly poetic meditation on one man’s struggle to name the crime of genocide in the hopes that a crime named could be a crime interrupted. Floating in the ether of Raphael Lemkin’s afterlife, this play traces the adoption of the term into the annals of international law while staging much of the 20th Century’s failure to curb the crime in places ranging from Cambodia and Rwanda to Bosnia. In Eyes of the Heart, Filloux turned inward to a family of Cambodian refugees in Long Beach, California, struggling to pick up the pieces of a host of lives interrupted by the violence of the Khmer Rouge Regime and the fragmenting experience of immigration in a hostile urban US. Like Lemkin’s House, Dog and Wolf offers a searing critique of theories of democratic practice that would simply rest upon a legal regime to ensure order and justice. And as in Eyes of the Heart, Dog and Wolf gives the audience a portrait of the world in which the effects of politics, history, law, and culture are not only experienced on the grand scale of international politics, but in the daily experiences that occur in and on each of our bodies.

Dog and Wolf traces the intimacy that develops between Jasmina and Joseph. Jasmina is a Bosnian refugee who is seeking asylum in the United States after her human rights activism has led to threats on her life in her home country. Joseph is a wheelchair bound lawyer who is preparing her for the asylum hearing. Their relationship develops as Joseph attempts to make Jasmina into a proper legal subject and Jasmina, who has never in her life been a “proper subject,” thwarts his intentions. Broken in different ways, the two develop a deep connection to each other. Joseph coaches her in how to perform before the Judge but, ultimately, Jasmina responds to the Judge’s questions with silence, resulting in her deportation. We later learn that Jasmina has done so because she received news of her mother’s faltering health and, placing her own safety in jeopardy, she returns to Bosnia to answer the call of her mother. Joseph follows her to Bosnia and the two engage in a dance over questions of responsibility, ability, love, loss, and longing.

In the summer of this year, Dog and Wolf Meets the Community began with a reading at Brooklyn’s Still Waters in a Storm. The project will continue this month with readings directed by Jean Randich and occurring at refugee, health care, community, and cultural centers throughout the New York City region. In an era where theater artists often bemoan the fact that people don’t go to the theater, Dog and Wolf Meets the Community refigures the question to ask how it is that theater can go to the community. With an interest in bringing the play to “areas where theatergoing isn’t necessarily part of the every day culture, and to focus on the neighborhood’s feelings and concerns surrounding issues raised in the play,” each reading is followed by an open discussion. Taking the stage to the community, this project asks us to consider how we might reinvigorate the theater as a forum for political and democratic engagement?

During the early Greek experiment in democracy (albeit, a radically limited one), theater was conceived of as a political, communal event. The term “drama” literally translates to “doing” – which is to say that drama was not simply an object to be consumed, but an active force in the world.  As theater practitioners and cultural critics from Aristotle to Brecht have argued: theater provides a communal experience that can be translated into a form of political action. Frankfurt School, Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, in his essay “The Stage Regarded as a Paradigmatic Institution and the Decision within It,” argued that theater is a “rehearsal for the example,” a laboratory for experiments in political practices that can become manifest as real political action. For Bloch, the theater demands “that the spectator make decisions, at the very least a decision as to whether he likes the performance as such.” Thus, the invitation to decision leads to a practice of critical engagement and this engagement can be developed into political action. This call to action can be shaped by the political content of the play, which instigates debate and action over the types of political changes imagined on stage and then carried over into real life. Theater is “a laboratory of the right theory-praxis on a small scale, in the form of play, as though it were a case on stage that might provide the experimental experience for the serious case.”

This is not to say that the theater is simply didactic, or that it gives us the answers. Rather, the stage is a place in which we imagine the questions. In Dog and Wolf, it is the questions that stick with us. Much like the problems of democracy, these are questions that are mired in a deep ambivalence, an impossibility to provide clear and correct responses. As Jasmina asks, “Like a dog and a wolf, at dusk it’s hard to tell the difference?… Entre chien et loup? Where does the dog end off and the beast begin?” The challenge of building a better future, which is the task of any real politics, is structured by a call to grapple and experiment with unanswerable questions. It is the struggle over these questions, and the will to produce new ones, that keeps democracy alive.

One of the worst things about democracy in the US is that we have somehow confused voting with political engagement. That is, when we vote we hand over our political power to a representative that we somehow imbue with the power to enact the law in our name. We then spend the next two, four, or six years complaining that the representative didn’t adequately represent us, but rarely take to the streets of our communities to do the things that representatives will not. Voting, which we should all do today, should be the baseline, not the final goal. Large scale republican representation may be necessary for the organization of massive societies, but it cannot be the zenith of democracy; it should only be one component. True democratic engagement comes in the daily practice of asking questions, of speaking truth to power, of engaging with experiments in change and transformation. In short, in doing, in being dramatic. And this practice must be a communal one that happens in and on each of our bodies.

Dog and Wolf Meets the Community is an exciting attempt to inspire democratic doing by using the theater as a model of political engagement and communal praxis. Taking the simultaneously personal and political questions at the heart of Filloux’s play into different audiences, the project solicits a range of responses to the experience of hearing the play in a collective setting. Providing a space for the discussion of these experiences utilizes theater’s legacy as a forum for, returning to Group Material’s characterization of democracy, “an ongoing discussion in which a multitude of diverse voices converge.” The events that will occur over the next month, then, are as important to the practice of democratic governance as the actions that are taking place in voting booths around the country today – perhaps even more so if they are able to inspire sustained political action.

In the end of Dog and Wolf, Jasmina is determined to stay in Bosnia – her very presence an action that disrupts the political order that denies the violence, rape, and murder that characterized the Balkan genocides. Joseph complains: “You’ll be killed.”

JASMINA: So, I have written my obituary.

JOSEPH: That’s morbid.

JASMINA: No, it is life.

The tragedy of living, for Jasmina, becomes a political practice of living in the hope for a different future. For Jasmina, life is doing, it is drama; life is action and engagement, despite the risks. Life is theater. Theater is politics. And the political is the horizon of the future. As the theater has always asked every one of us, what role will we play in this process?

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