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Collective Obatala

Stages of Resistance
from left to right: Eric Mayer-García, Solimar Otero (in the background), Mercedes Wilson, Camilla Morrison, and Fola Afolayan perform with Collective Obatala at the Ebb and Flow Festival in Baton Rouge.
From left to right: Eric Mayer-García, Solimar Otero (in the background), Mercedes Wilson, Camilla Morrison, and Fola Afolayan perform with Collective Obatala at the Ebb and Flow Festival in Baton Rouge.

This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections in this series!

“Resistance” is a word I avoid in my scholarship on Latinx theater because it pulls our way of thinking into a binary of the mainstream vs. the marginalized, the dominant vs. the oppressed, those in power vs. those without or with little power. And from there on, the narrative tends to write itself. The marginalized are finally awaking from their false consciousness, and hopefully, if we do all the right things according to liberal humanism’s to-do list, we will finally overcome our oppressors. This idea of resistance is paternalistic. Such an undertheorized notion of resistance reifies the power of dominant ideology and tends to gloss over our agency to change the world through the creation of new possibilities.

That’s why I appreciate this blog series so much. Scrolling through the posts we get a multiplicity and diversity of what resistance can mean. I am inspired by Elaine Avila’s deep study of the contradictory and layered meanings of resistance in Fado, meanings like empathy and remembrance. Velina Hasu Houston reflects on the very political decisions she has made to write about people of color and to protect her artistic integrity by resisting the mandate to write for “wider” and “whiter” audiences. Most provocatively, she transforms resistance into a call for us create, create, create! Rachel Mars and Roberta Mock flip the script on resistance by illuminating the many ways dominant power structures continue to resist women artists making women-centered theater. Their reflections echo Trevor Boffone’s call to move the center on our stages and in our curriculums. The work of Queer Latino performance artist Josh Inocencio was able to have an enormous impact on the students in UH’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program after Boffone resisted by reaching out to find new allies and resources. Like these theater practitioners and scholars, I embrace the fact that our art has the power to transform our world, our nations, and our communities. We can rely on our practice to confront audiences with the immediacy of direct human-to-human contact and the complex, contradictory truths that define us.

Latinx theater from the civil rights era or the culture wars of the 1980s has a newfound resonance with our present moment. Valdez’s Los vendidos is a favorite among my students in every class since Trump began his campaign with an attack on “bad hombres.” During the same stretch of time, I have witnessed the open and naive use of hate speech among undergraduate students at LSU. Our conservative students have no sense of the deep wounds they pierce when they chant “build the wall,” nor are they aware they are engaging in the latest version of a centuries old tradition in U.S. politics of scapegoating Mexicans and Latinx immigrants generally. Artistically, I have turned to Latin/x American artists of these eras for inspiration, trying to emulate their methods of performance-making in order to disrupt a public sphere that sanctions aggressive acts to silence our voices as Latinx artists. 

One such artist is the late Miriam Colón who founded the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre by answering the call to take theater to the people. Along with her fellow company members, Colón created a model for breaking with the dominant means of theatrical production that, as Ngugi wa Thiong’o has theorized, confines performance to an enclosed space with controlled entrances and exits that greatly limit who can create performance, who can see performance, and what performance can do socially and politically. The mission of PRTT was not only to produce playwrights of Puerto Rico and Latin America in New York, but also, as their 1967 inaugural production of La Carreta by René Marqués demonstrated, to perform theater in public spaces of Nuyorican communities like Spanish Harlem and Loisaida. Under the direction of Colón, PRTT was dedicated to social change. Colón made PRTT an organization that fostered new works by young playwrights, created positive and nuanced representation of Puerto Rican and Latinx communities, and served the educational and social goals of their audiences. Her socially engaged theater paralleled the work of many other theater artists across the Americas that sought to use theater to create a real change in the world around them. Colón was a major player in this hemispheric movement. In 1981, she attended the very first Encuentro of Latin American and Caribbean Theatre Artists in Havana. In this meeting, Latinx and Chicanx artists visiting from the U.S. positioned their theater as a necessary response to institutionalized systems of oppression that marginalized their identities and histories. Their strategy against white cultural hegemony was to create an internationalist and multicultural movement that would link the efforts of many minority groups within the U.S. together. The inclusive strategy of creating collations across difference proposed by Colón and fellow artists is an inspirational model for creating theater during the current social and political crisis in the U.S. This is particularly the case because divide and conquer scapegoating is a distraction from the real source of the problem, which an inclusive approach will undoubtedly target and demystify—the growing discontent with a social system structured through capitalist white supremacist heterosexism.

Collective Obatala

Collective Obatala began as a joint effort between performance educators and practitioners in the LSU community. Our company is made up of MFA students Folaranmi Afolayan and Michael Pepp, local theater artist and educator Mercedes Wilson, Associate Professor of English Solimar Otero, Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre, Camilla Morrison, MFA student and visual artist Justin Bryant, and myself. What I write here on Collective Obatala’s work so far are initial reflections on my own experience, not a collectively drafted manifesto or statement. My involvement began when Fola Afolayan invited me to collaborate with her on a theater of the oppressed workshop for the Ebb and Flow festival in Baton Rouge. The festival approached Fola because they were interested in Boal theater games specifically and she is a well-known practitioner in our area. Her performance Diaspora Crossroads was highly praised and she is currently preparing the performance for the upcoming PTO conference in Detroit this June.  The request from the festival for Theatre of the Oppressed prompted us to collaborate on several devised pieces, including an agit-prop newspaper theater sketch on increased deportations, a forum theater scenario on healthcare, and a repertoire of image theater games. We named our collective after Obatala, the Yoruba oricha of creation. Like Colón, our path of resistance is one of creation. We create to address social injustice. We create across difference and build coalitions against dehumanizing isolation. We create to heal ourselves and break the silence of life in a public sphere charged with xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, and white supremacy.

While our collective is new and we are growing as collaborators, the process so far has given great insight into the value of facilitated/deliberative theater practice for our psychological and social well-being as theatermakers, as well as the direction of where our work needs to go. One of our pieces was a forum theater sketch authored by Afolayan about a mother trying to access healthcare for her child. Michael Pepp transformed the role of the doctor’s office receptionist into a depersonalized robotic allegory representing the dehumanizing effects of the current medical system. French novelist and filmmaker Fabiènne Kanor, who was one of our first invited spect-actors to intervene in the scenario during a rehearsal, appealed to the robotic oppressor played by Pepp through a barrage of radical kindness trying to draw the mechanical receptionist back into his body and humanity. Pepp’s characterization and Kanor’s intervention exemplify what I think theater and performance need to be doing right now. We have to interrupt the neoliberal culture of isolation and objectification, perhaps a twenty-first century version of what Augusto Boal called “modern alienation” (post-modern alienation, post-post-modern alienation?). We need theater to take direct action that wakes our audiences out of their zombie-like co-present trance and forces them to assume unfamiliar kinds of behaviors and interactions with others. Of course, such an act follows Boal’s line of thinking exactly.

Oddly enough, the festival did not include our performance on the schedule, so when we showed up to perform in the agreed upon place, there were no interested audience members to join us in the image theater games and exercises we had planned following the festival’s request. I couldn't help but notice other performers giving freely of their time and talent, many of them young people of color, trying to drum up an audience while standing next to adjoining paths on the grounds of Louisiana’s Old State Capitol. Likewise, we also invited passerby attendees to join us, but this was hopeless and we knew it. No one was willing to engage us any longer than it took them to cross the nearby path. Even the two strangers that sat on a ledge nearby our performance, hardly acknowledged us. As they got to know one another better, our performance practice did not in the least hinder their conversation about NASCAR. However, we did not let this hinder our practice either. We continued our program of image theater and had a dialogue on the trappings of arts festivals. We took the time to get to know each other better and continue to challenge each other through a dialogue of images. Although no one who encountered us here shared in our practice, we valued our art enough to perform with and for ourselves. In this way, we enacted a performative challenge to the festival institution that aggressively devalued our art by asking us to beg for an audience and attempted to reduce our artwork to a fun backdrop for the food trucks and shopping. Michael Pepp suggested we “flock” to hopefully attract more people to our circle. Flocking is a wonderful group mirroring exercise where performers in formation follow different leaders based on the direction the flocking is facing. Whereas the local NASCAR fans never joined our flock, I can only hope something about sharing a space and time in proximity to our performing bodies put a crack in their tunnel vision.

Much of the crowd’s activity in the festival was focused around the artist stands. Because of its material nature, visual and plastic arts fit into the expectations for Baton Rouge festival audiences who are more comfortable as buyers evaluating objects set before them on display, deciding if they are worth buying. Thankfully, Dr. Shannon Walsh suggested we perform in an empty space on the street between two stands. In this space, our agit-prop performance on deportations attracted a snowballing audience of spectators. The script for the performance written by Afolayan juxtaposed a series of Trump tweets with a news report covering the deportation of Guadalupe García de Rayos, one of the first people affected by changes in ICE policy following Trump’s executive orders on immigration. We created parallel actions that satirized Trump’s greed and corruption, while commenting on the injustice enacted by ICE upon García de Rayos, her family, and her loved ones. It was both relieving and terrifying for me to break the silence in Baton Rouge surrounding Trump’s dehumanizing immigration policies. In speaking out against this grave injustice committed against Latinx immigrants, we not only restored our own humanity, as many of us in the group are the children of immigrants, but we also brought our audience face-to-face with theirs. Our work questioned the racism and xenophobia in Trump’s immigration orders in a public sphere where such hatred goes unquestioned. Rather than being dismissed by the festival goers, we found an interested, empathetic audience almost instantly. By speaking out, we reassured individual onlookers who for various reasons expressed fear, anxiety, and discontent with our shared political reality. Reciprocally, their presence and engagement reminded us that our art can act upon another kind of resistance. In the theater, and especially in the street, performance can transform, soften, and pull apart the resistance to human interaction in an aggressively toxic public sphere.