Revolution #193, February 21, 2010

Jumpstarting Discussion on "From the Burkha to the Thong": A Lesson in Experimental Street Theater

We received the following correspondence:

Sunsara Taylor's national campus speaking tour, "From the Burkha to the Thong: Everything Must, And Can, Change. We Need Total Revolution" was announced this week. Monday afternoon we were out on campus shaking things up. The idea was to use dramatic street theater to present the burkha and thong as emblems of two bad options for women, break open the conversation around women's oppression, and spread the word about Sunsara Taylor coming to speak. To get this started, I enlisted a friend of mine, a Black poet who welcomes controversy and breaking of taboos, and also has a lot of hatred for what happens to women in this society. I had workshopped a script with some friends and we rehearsed for about an hour or so—then went to try it out.

If you were one of about 100 students sitting in the cafeteria at lunch, this is what you saw:

From one side of the room, suddenly, a woman in a full Afghani-style burkha walked out into the center of the room, and, suddenly, another woman, dressed as if she was headed for a nightclub, came towards her holding a red thong in her hand. They walked towards one another and stopped in the center of the room dramatically stomping and freezing as if they were in a standoff.

The bustling noisy cafeteria hushed. The two women looked at one another, almost curiously. Then after maybe 15 seconds, they spoke. The woman with the thong said, "Where you come from women are shrouded and bought and sold into marriage." The woman in the burkha replied "Yes, but in your society you are harassed and disrespected. I have respect."

"Well I may be disrespected by some, but I have the power to entice men with my sexuality—in your society women are stoned to death for falling in love," the woman with the thong replied.

"Yes, that is true, but in your society people think love is violence and domination—women are the playthings of men and think they can be empowered within that. Even little girls wear thongs."

"Yes that's true, but in your society little girls are married to 40-year-old men and they aren't allowed to read and write."

"Yes but in your society fathers give their daughters purity rings and are taught their wedding will be the most important day of their lives. What's the difference?"

Both women then turned to people in the cafeteria posing, "Why are we living this way!?!?" The burkha and the thong were thrown off onto the ground and it was announced "From the burkha to the thong, everything must, and can, change! We need total revolution! Come hear Sunsara Taylor's talk on campus February 23. There's a whole other way the world could be!"

To our surprise, several people in the room, both men and women, erupted in cheering and applause. We went over and talked with them afterwards. One guy said it was shocking to see these two images juxtaposed. He had never thought about it in this way, but it got at something. We told the students more about Sunsara Taylor's speaking tour. We spoke of how all over the world women are oppressed, including in this country where people claim we have gotten beyond this. That Sunsara Taylor is a revolutionary communist that is going to be speaking about this and how things can begin to be transformed right now with a movement for women's liberation and how it will take a revolution to do away with this as part of emancipating all humanity. Women especially were really nodding their heads, and said "Good Luck" and "Thank you for doing this." But it wasn't only the women, and we made the point to guys that they should be part of this too. Many gave their emails to get the details about the event and how they could be involved.

After each skit we went around asking people what went through their minds when they saw this. My friend the poet was at first very surprised at how quiet and repressive the atmosphere was on campus, but she was also surprised at how "nice" the students were and how much they wanted to talk about things. She would go off and get into her own conversations and then bring me over at the end to talk about Sunsara Taylor's speaking tour and to connect with people.

She and I also talked along the way. You see, she herself hates the oppression of women yet at the same time would actually agree with her character in the skit that you can be empowered by your sexuality. So we talked, about what it means to be a woman in this world, about why you can't "play the game" and not "get played" and what it means to play others anyway. She wondered why people were so cruel to one another and so lonely. Can you really be whatever you want to be if you put your mind to it? Why do women want to have big breasts and big butts, and find themselves unendingly preoccupied with this? And if becoming the dominator or dominated in a sexual relationship is not desirable or arousing than what is?

One thing which we predicted before doing this theater is that presenting these very dramatic strong images that are challenging people around this particular question, you will get a lot of different things coming out and coming at you. This proved to be very true. As we finished one performance amidst the applause someone blurted out at us, "Now, make out!"

At first we started talking with the people who appreciated the skit and wanted to know what it was about. A student came up to us and suggested that we also talk with people who had a negative response to the skit, gesturing to the guy that made the misogynist comment. She volunteered to go talk to him and say what she thought, so we all went together. She said his comment was not a good thing because people have this idea of two women kissing as something to please men, not the women, and to say they should do that when they are trying to make a point is downgrading what they're trying to do and it's not right. He disagreed and said some women do like it, so we got into this—about why women like it and whether or not they "like it," how this is part of all women not being treated as whole human beings but as the playthings of men, and that there are so many ways that women are told this every single day, and it should not be this way, that we should live in a society where a woman can walk down the street naked and not be afraid of being harassed, but in this society every single night going home you have to look over your shoulder. There were two other women sitting with this guy and this struck a nerve in one who replied, "I know! I am SO SICK OF THIS!!" And an outpouring of stories about being demeaned, hit on and gawked at as an object came pouring out. This is exactly the kind of thing that needs to start happening on campuses across the country as people hear about Sunsara Taylor's speaking tour. No more of those who are fed up and angry sitting silent and afraid, while those who would uphold and argue for the degradation of women are emboldened. We are changing things now!

We met all kinds of people who were thinking about these kinds of questions and want to be a part of making this tour happen. We met students involved in four different women's organizations on campus and one invited us to their meeting later that evening where she talked about the experience of witnessing the street theater and let us make an announcement. We got people's email addresses again and they shared some ideas they had about doing street theater around domestic violence. We also met students who told us about professors they thought would love what we are doing and maybe invite us to their classes.

Creative promotions of this speaking tour can be experimented with and developed in different ways—you don't have to be a poet or an actor. We did this on the sidewalk during class change but instead of a theatrical scene it was more of an art installation. A person was dressed in all black wearing a thong outside her clothes and the other in the Afghani-burkha. Each character held a sign that said "OBJECT" and faced each other, looking at one another as if they were looking in the mirror. We had fliers quoting from the Declaration for Women's Liberation and The Emancipation of All Humanity and the details for Sunsara Taylor's speaking tour in our hands. People could see us coming down the block, thousands of students saw this during a busy class change. People took fliers from our hands; some commented, in different ways supportive that this was being called out. They said about the burkha and the thong: "same thing", "you got me, I'll check it out", and "Amen."

This street theater is something that anyone can do to help make Sunsara Taylor's speaking tour and what is so powerfully concentrated in its title, a widely known and talked about happening—a very big deal on campus!

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