“Draw a mask with an open space for mouth”
“You know houses become easily stubborn, when you turn them naked.”
How are borders formed and how do they shape identities? How can theater successfully capture migratory experiences and make an intervention to the refugee crisis? What are the limits and the limitations of the applied theatre? These were only a few questions addressed in this year’s Mellon Summer School of Theater and Performance Studies Research that took place during June 25-July 5, 2019, and which was centered on “migrations.”
I was lucky to be part of this year’s vibrant community of about 31 participants. Together, thanks to a rich and carefully-planned and multi-modal program, we had the opportunity to delve deep into the notion of “borders” of all kinds (geographical, linguistic, psychological, etc.) and in our effort to better grasp this irrational state of being — to live with “borders”— we interrogated mimesis and we attempted to reimagine applied theatre amidst today’s massive refugee crisis.
Among the various pedagogical approaches to which we were introduced, I was particularly drawn to the “story circles” that Lizzy Cooper Davis employed as an exercise in the discussion of her lecture “‘Culture and Struggle:’The Organizing History of the Songs of the Civil Rights Movement.” It was an illuminating moment for me to be part of a small circle where I assumed the role of the “listener” of several contradictory stories of migration. In this practice for “listening” I experienced first-hand how stories “migrate” and how listening is perhaps more important than talking. As I was listening for understanding, I was trying to capture whose stories I was going to articulate in my report back to the bigger story-circle and whether I was going to do justice to all of the stories I bore witness. Ethical questions were inevitably raised, as it was the case throughout the seminar that dealt with the heavy topic of migrations. How one is supposed to respond to the three terrible solutions employed thus far as a response to the refugee crises across the globe?
When the loss of home and uprootedness remains a fact in all of the above suggested solutions, trauma will always mark the stories of every single refugee or migrant. Their sense of homelessness and exile will be part of their own stories that forms their own identities. Their lost houses will always haunt them seeking justice by having their stories being told. But who is authorized to tell their own stories but themselves? Yet these stories need to be shared somehow even if registered on the cheapest material such as the gourds of George Seferis, the Greek Nobel-laureate poet, a refugee after the 1922 Asia Minor Catastrophe. This is how I imagined myself telling his story and the story of his lost home:
“The Gourds of Seferis”
Fumbling, pleading, pressing the brain
to retrieve his form sunk in oblivion,
a dark-covered shade.
“Because this is how it had to be done,” you said. “Because this is what you learned to say,” I said, in tears.
Carve your lyrics now on the pumpkin
Draw a mask with an open space for mouth
and two black lines for eyelids
and, if necessary, do not be afraid to show disobedience. Do not get tired to dig even deeper
to carve a hollow therein.
Just empty the last seed
after you dig
and dig into your thoughts
till you empty them out.
the King of Asine
may at long last approach!
—-From “Transitorium” (2015)
Perhaps therein lies the responsibility of the applied theatre in the times of crisis: to make an effort to “carve” in utter nakedness the true stories of people and animate them on the stage.