Angels in the Wings

A Brandeis collaboration helps theater artists and cultural workers build platforms for peace

The opera “Where Elephants Weep” (pictured here) combines Western rap with traditional Khmer music to address the devastating legacy of the Khmer Rouge period.
Photo by Raphael Winer
The opera “Where Elephants Weep” (pictured here) combines Western rap with traditional Khmer music to address the devastating legacy of the Khmer Rouge period.
During the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s, military and paramilitary forces engaged in terrible, widespread violence against civilians targeted because of their ethnicity or religion. Concentration and rape camps were constructed. Bloody massacres were commonplace. The result was genocide.

Being Serbs in Belgrade, our government initiated the war; we heard about horrors committed in our names. This is something that is very difficult to carry. I felt I’m not guilty, but I am guilty. It was theater that helped me transform this guilt into feelings of responsibility.

These are the words of Dijana Miloševic, who co-founded Serbia’s independent DAH Theatre in 1991. That year, after war broke out in her country, Miloševic wrestled with big questions: What are the responsibilities of artists in times of repression and violence? What actions are possible?

What Miloševic and her troupe decided was to oppose senseless destruction through the creation of sense — by refusing to comply with the prop­aganda machine of the pro-government forces — and to celebrate the power of life through performance. They took to the streets to perform in Belgrade’s main square.

When we were on the plaza dressed as angels performing Bertolt Brecht’s antiwar poems, we would see very aggressive people in the audience. But their friends would say, “Hush, I want to hear.” The miracle was that nothing violent happened. My actors were very focused, very committed, very clear, very precise.

The audience included many armed men from different factions. The actors had every reason to expect angry, perhaps violent reactions. Still, in a public space they enunciated Brecht’s words: “When the leaders speak of peace / The common folk know / That war is coming.”

This kind of commitment was an invisible shield from the violence. Suddenly, our discipline was stronger than us, stronger than our circumstances. No soldier or paramilitary lifted a gun.

I’ve heard many stunning stories like this one during my seven years as the principal investigator of the Acting Together partnership between Brandeis and Theatre Without Borders, an action/research collaboration that connects artists around the world as they document and reflect on their work.

This partnership has led to a documentary, “Acting Together on the World Stage,” which in June won a Telly Award in the education category, and a two-volume anthology, “Acting Together: Performance and the Creative Transformation of Conflict” (New Village Press, 2011).

Advocates for the emerging field of peacebuilding and the arts are often asked to prove the effectiveness of their approach. There are data, including new neuroscience findings, that suggest that experiences with the arts influence brain chemistry in ways that echo the neurological changes that accompany reconciliation.

In addition, we already know from qualitative research that the arts play vital roles in peacebuilding. They are contributing to nonviolent resistance to abuses of authority, to the rebuilding of shattered relationships, and to the slow and painful processes of rebuilding trust.

Over and over again, as we forge our global network, I’ve listened to artists who work in war zones and other violent areas as they reflect on their efforts’ strengths and complexities. They’ve seen firsthand how the arts can express what has been silenced and persuade people — compellingly but noncoercively — to explore painful issues.

Acting Together demonstrates — to artists and cultural workers, peacebuilders and policymakers, and general audiences alike — the power theatrical works can exert in the face of political repression and violence. In the aftermath of violence, performances can navigate a complex ethical terrain, supporting communities as they grapple with the tensions between memory and imagination, justice and mercy, identity and interdependence.

Often these brave men and women work at great personal risk. In Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Argentina, Uganda and the former Yugoslavia, artists have been exiled, imprisoned, tortured and murdered. Ugandan playwright and director Charles Mulekwa, long affiliated with his country’s National Theater, argues that the most significant theatrical works are those that describe the human condition.

“The actors, the writers, the musicians and the directors — they can put a knife through the matter and cut it open, helping people who have been oppressed, traumatized or broken to face their condition and imagine something better,” Mulekwa writes. “I believe that if the story or the reflection is well rendered, it can motivate people who are suffering to take action in their lives.”

Acting Together researchers and partners are exploring and documenting ways in which theater and ritual can contribute to nonviolent resistance, justice and reconciliation — to real social transformation. In our view, artists and cultural workers should be consulted as peacebuilding strategies are designed. As Devanand Ramiah of the United Nations Development Programme asserts, “Theater artists and leaders of ritual should become central to the analysis, design and implementation of peacebuilding processes.”

The most effective work at the nexus of arts and peacebuilding will involve collaboration between the cultural and nonarts sectors: governments and intergovernmental organizations, human-rights groups and development agencies. Of the examples documented by Acting Together, the programs that made the deepest social impact were in place for years or decades. Financial support for such initiatives should be robust enough for projects to embody the field’s best practices.

At the boundary of human suffering and imagination, artists and peacebuilders enact transformations — which aren’t necessarily confined within a country’s borders. While watching the Acting Together documentary, Liberian singer Fatu Gayflor found herself shedding tears of mourning and release, remembering her country’s civil war. She was particularly moved by the work being done in Cambodia, where 90 percent of all artists perished under the Khmer Rouge.

“Other people have suffered even more than we have,” Gayflor says. “If they are moving forward, we can, too.”

Cynthia Cohen directs the Peacebuilding and the Arts program at Brandeis’ International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life. For more information visit the Acting Together Website.