Social Drama: Poetics and Politics

October 08, 2020

Maria Fee, artist, theologian, and educator. 

John Calvin describes nature as God’s theater displaying divine glory. Yet the earth also stages the spectacle of human drama. Indeed, the anthropologist Victor Turner maintains that within every society and at every level, “social dramas” stem from the conflicting interests of people groups. According to Turner, these primary discrepancies are mediated through law and religious rituals, which he deems second stage dramas. The third stage pertains to the arts. Turner specifically signals theater as the medium that mirrors reality and fashions a way for humans to enter and analyze matters, further enabling transformation.1 Turner argues that the discomfort of social dramas, which drives meaning-making actions, is the root of theater.

Art, then, is one way to acknowledge chaos and not be swept under. Participation in the arts offers valuable insights on how to arbitrate the tangle of disagreements and viewpoints currently at play within the body of Christ. On this account, I hold up for inspection theater director Ashley Sparks’s production Good Old Boys. By doing so, it is possible to ascertain the way art mediates perplexing situations, enables a stance of presence, and grants transcendence. Overall, it can be deduced that Sparks’s art schemes work toward reconciliation of self and of others. Good Old Boys aims to crack open misconceptions and prejudices much like those held in our divisive political situation. Therefore, for Christians, she models creative possibilities of exploration concerning issues of identity and alienation. 

Good Old Boys is a series of short dramas performed in various parking lots within the farming community of Sparks’s childhood home in rural Virginia. She developed the material following long conversations with her father and his friends. Consequently, Good Old Boys becomes the way to present, navigate, and further discuss ideas surrounding masculinity, power, politics, identity, race, and Southern history. Aligning with Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, which shifts audience members to participants, Sparks invites viewers to interact with the play through meaningful discussions. She explains that the drama and dialogue “rehearse making space for people to have complicated conversations.” Thus, Good Old Boys displays the way art provides a platform for people to listen to one another.2 To be sure, Sparks considers herself an “engagement strategist”3 as she carefully portrays elements from a community’s life in order to form connections. It is this type of planning that is needed in our time amid all kinds of social changes that sow dissension.

Art Mediates

Sparks uses art as an approach not only to reconcile her own experiences growing up, but also to deal with divided communities—“I am worried that we are not listening to each other anymore,” Sparks laments.4  She uses the word “rehearse” since art offers ways to engage and adopt new situations. In this way, art functions like a coat of paint primer preparing a surface’s receptivity.

When it comes to the creative process itself, artists understand the way such endeavors establish a space to navigate the unknown by concentrating on craft, managing materials, or playing with form. For instance, multidiscipline artist Theaster Gates contends that, as a potter, he has learned “how to make great things out of nothing.” Consequently, clay knowledge informs his redevelopment endeavors as he turns abandoned buildings in his South Side of Chicago neighborhood into convivial cultural venues for his neighbors. “As a potter you also learn how to shape the world,” says the artist as he fashions receptacles for human activity.5 The former US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith offers another revelatory lesson from art making: “If you succumb to what language asks or requires of you, you are going beyond what is apparent. And, you are marrying the words to a set of feelings that you hadn’t even necessarily understood until the word showed you what it was.”6 Art making mediates discovery, but not just for the artist. The consequence of an artist’s journey urges others to also consider and name their own feelings.

Similarly, by concentrating on the craft of theater—such as presenting complicated characters, well-known symbols, songs, and stories—Sparks prepares participants of Good Old Boys to enter into their own insecurities and fears, thereby identifying and giving voice to them. The audience is able to wrestle because the door that houses their vulnerability has been unlocked. It is by thoughtful use of the known that Sparks readies participants for the unknown: the hard questions that follow her productions. Through the specificity of speech, popular music, and social legacies, Good Old Boys allows for reciprocity between Sparks, the actors, and the participants. Therefore, Christians ought to consider the navigating characteristic of art as it mediates transferable knowledge, incarnates thoughts and ideas, and creates an intimate platform for generating community.

Art Enables Presence

In many ways, Sparks’s parking lot theater becomes the means to really see one’s neighbor. Arranging lawn chairs on a summer evening in a 7-Eleven parking lot—coolers full of cold drinks nearby—signals friendliness and informality. This engagement strategy welcomes participants into a circle to become present to one another. It makes way for the fortitude to face tough topics that are typically ignored. Similarly, the ethicist John Howard Yoder advocates that Christians practice “redemptive dialogue,” noting that “to be human is to be in conflict, to offend and to be offended.”7 However, Good Old Boys shows that more is needed than just talk. Acknowledging the ways stereotypes divide, Sparks’s staging enables observers to perceive themselves, and each other, in a different light. Like a game, art prompts entrance into another world where you have to play along with others. It is “the power of play” within theater, says Turner, that “democratizes.”8 Therefore, it is through play that Sparks liberates viewers from self-containment as the performance exposes the complexities of persons. Here, play also corrals empathy, which is necessary to step inside another’s shoes.

Art Grants Transcendence

Good Old Boys asks participants to play along, to imagine an alternative way of being. In this way, the arts help individuals to move beyond the self to accept what is other. This is an act of transcendence. Through aesthetic reflection, art can shift attention as it exercises the realm of the affective, the arena of emotions, and somatic sensibilities. It is by way of the emotions that persons feel connected with people, places, or things. Aesthetic apprehension—a hypercognition of a moment, gesture, or object—sets off the quickening of mental, physical, emotional, and socioethical responses. By experiencing the awe of art or life’s tangibility, the whole person is engaged. By employing mind, heart, and body, aesthetic perception remembers what it means to be human, perhaps even gaining a wider scope of God’s interlacing and complex world. Thus, the aesthetic-affective contributes to human transcendence. In Poetic Theology, theologian William Dyrness writes that it is passion that drives people “to act, build, create,” correlating such endeavors with “a movement of the soul.”9  Whether encountering a sonnet or a sunset, one becomes present in such a manner that a longing emerges: the desire to reproduce or share the moment with another. For Christians, this aesthetic dimension must be taken seriously as it rehearses self-transcendence, which mirrors Jesus’ self-giving ethos. Indeed, through the Spirit, Christ’s passion enables us to act, build, and create for the other.

Liturgy

A liturgy is an example of this impetus to act, build, and create on behalf of others, specifically a worshipping community. When art and aesthetics thoughtfully comprise Christian liturgies, a specific space is fashioned for the congregation to experience the presence of God and one another. Previously, Turner surmised that religious rituals mediate social dramas. On this second stage, all of creation finds their commonality in God, the father of all things. This is especially true concerning the liturgical table where “all partake of the one loaf,” despite “we, who are many” (1 Cor 10:17). Indeed, the Lord’s Supper is a visual witness of plurality in unity. Correspondingly, liturgical theologian Gail Ramshaw conveys that the rituals, texts, and gestures of Christian liturgies present a way of being we, “the body of Christ throughout time and round the globe, filled with folk I don’t know and wouldn’t like; and the body of Christ calls into the arms all those not yet in the body.” She continues, “The body seeks to embrace all the unbaptized, perhaps even all the animals and all the trees.”10 Thus, the ways Christians approach liturgy should include the materiality of art-aesthetic experiences as a means to gather all things into the arms of God. 

Like Sparks’s engagement strategies, Christian liturgies should employ the cohesive element of the arts to benefit group interactions—especially contentious ones. Recently, I learned of an account where art brought about social bonding within a normally fractious ministerial leadership setting. Because the members represented a wide range of doctrinal and social stances, meetings tended to be tense affairs. Suspicion and wariness finally fell away one evening when worship leaders suspended business as usual to lead the group through an artful liturgy. Artists were invited to guide the members through choreographed body movements followed by a collaborative art-making task. These activities offered deep metaphors of the Christian life and resulted in joint ownership of the evening’s agenda. Hence, liturgy can fashion an alternative body politic where individuals become committed to God and to one another. Through well-thought-out, experiential, and tangible methods, artful liturgies can help Christians address and navigate social dramas in order to become a celebrating whole.

Of course, inviting artists to help plan and enact liturgies, constructing liturgies that incite unpleasant emotions, and discussing painful feelings are all messy endeavors. A majority of people would run the other way claiming that these acts are unsafe. The poetic, however, enables persons to enter the chaos and yet not be swept away. Art and Christian rituals are rich resources to rehearse the human ability to transcend the self and eventually find God through others—however painful it may be. Simone Weil presents the conjoined wisdom of this joy-pain. “We know then that joy is the sweetness of contact with the love of God,” she asserts. And “that affliction is the wound of this same contact when it is painful, and that only the contact matters, not the manner of it.”11 Like Sparks, Christians must fashion environments and implement methods that consider wounds and salves. Engagement strategies are needed to reconcile stranger and friend, beautiful and mundane, sin and grace, human and divine. It is time to follow the lead of artists and consider some creative ways to enter into human dramas. It is the contact that matters.

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