Copyright © 2017 by Leslye Joy Allen
The first time I met theatre expert Paul Carter Harrison, he distinguished “theatre” from “drama” as theatre being the story that always contained some form of ritual and symbolism whereas drama simply told a story. It was a bit more complicated than that, but I still remember that discussion. It made me think of essays I read about how theatre began among us humans as rituals and performances designed to appease the gods or God. Theatre was birthed in belief, in belief in something higher and more potent than ourselves, and that we all had a responsibility to this entity or entities higher than ourselves. This thought has popped in my head off and on for the last two weeks…and today I think I discovered why this notion of ritual as theatre and theatre as ritual all designed to bring favor from the gods or God is so potent and timely…
Today I met a fiftyish White woman from Minnesota who told me that several cities in Minnesota solved their transportation problems by “building freeways through Black neighborhoods and business districts.” Then she said, “they destroyed those neighborhoods. There is a documentary about this but I can’t remember the name of it.” I then mentioned a former classmate who was writing his thesis about such a topic. She was genuinely angry about it and talked about how unethical it all was. “I’ll take Atlanta’s traffic to that kind of destruction any day of the week,” she said.
After she and I exchanged a few mutual comments about the late Minneapolis-born Prince, she asked me what was my discipline and I told her “History” and that my dissertation topic was about theatre. Then she mentioned the Penumbra Theatre in Saint Paul, Minnesota and our conversation was off to the races. I also had a conversation with a young man from South Africa that had moved here and lived on my side of town. “I love it, here!” he said. He and I had a conversation that ranged from the problems of the old South African government to recent politics to the status of women. He also mentioned that he had a hard time with sexism since everyone came from the body of a woman. I reiterated that I always meet talented, respectful young Black people every single day. So what does this have to do with theatre and rituals?
Here is something I would like you to think about, and it ties in with theatre as ritual, and the rituals found in theatre and everyday life. When one attends the theatre, one typically leaves with a different perspective. No one leaves a theatre the same way that they came in. Sitting in the dark of that theatre and watching performers suspend reality and portray characters other than themselves is in and of itself a ritual for performer and audience member alike. One is literally transformed by witnessing what is done on stage. One can get into the habit of going to the theatre, but a ritual is not a habit. A habit is something you do almost by reflex, almost involuntarily, and it may or may not have any particular benefit to you. You just do it because, well, you’re in the habit of doing it; and that might not be a bad thing, but a habit does not originate from the same source as a ritual.
A ritual is deliberately done; it follows a deliberate pattern in order to produce specific results. Rituals create order, or at least make us feel that there is some order to the universe and the world we inhabit even in the midst of chaos, which is why human beings created rituals in the first place; and also why human beings can become so alarmed when certain rituals are not followed to the letter.
Today I discovered my own ritual. Someone asked me how I end up having these stimulating conversations with people who are often complete strangers like the woman from Minnesota and the young man from South Africa. Well, maybe it is because I don’t really meet strangers. Yet, it is also due to my determination to not become a news junkie that feeds on bad news and controversy. And to avoid bad news and controversy these days, one must deliberately turn off the television and internet and smart phone, and look for the truth, or at least find some balance between the real truth and the truth that is often manufactured for us. So consider this…
The word “theatre” comes from a Greek word meaning “the seeing place.” The seeing place was where you went to witness performers deliver the truth and wisdom. Well, the truth is that, in spite of what you see in the media, there are so many nice, thoughtful people out there. Most of these people will never be on the news. You have to look for them where you are; and you often find what you deliberately look for. Make that a ritual. Àṣé.
Copyright © 2017 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.
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