- Performing Urban Violence: Protest Theatre and (Semi-)Public Space in London and Cape Town
Introduction: Protest Theatre and Public Space
This essay offers an account of two case studies of theatrical performance in London and Cape Town, both of which raise and interrogate the interrelated concepts of protest theatre and public space. A production of Tunde Euba’s play Brothers by the Greenwich and Lewisham Young People’s Theatre (GLYPT) in London (2013–14) and the contemporaneous theatrical work and awareness-raising campaigns of the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) in Cape Town both use performance to question, diagnose, and protest multiple forms of violence perpetrated against marginalized urban populations, often at the hands of the state. In twenty-first-century neoliberal cities such as London and Cape Town, government and private forces collude to privatize their once public spaces, thus encroaching upon, if not entirely disappearing, venues that might be used for protesting against such forms of violence (Garrett).1 Meanwhile, those public spaces that do remain are, in the ongoing era of the “War on Terror,” increasingly subject to militarized policing strategies that place increased restrictions on large assemblies and free movement within cities, “particularly for members of darker-skinned groups” (Marcuse 264).
In response, I argue that GLYPT and SWEAT cultivate semi-public spaces—that is, spaces that do the political and civic work of urban public spaces but that cannot themselves strictly be considered “public” as such (Jones et al. 645)—through their use of theatrical staging and their spatial and performative facilitation of political participation. These companies use a kind of interactive theatre to foster community solidarity among marginalized urban inhabitants, which in turn has “the potential to turn awareness into action” (Treder-Wolff 338).
In her summative article “Reclaiming Public Space,” Judit Bodnar claims that public spaces are “the clearest expression of the urban predicament” (2091). Such spaces are the site of a sometimes dangerous and even violent urbanity, but they nevertheless remain integral to the facilitation of the civic and political participation of urban citizens. Unconditional access to public spaces thus tends to be viewed as the spatial correlate of a healthy, well-functioning, democratic, and politically engaged society. Moreover, as open spaces within the urban environment, they are deeply intertwined with a “right-to-the-city” discourse. Here, the right to occupy, safely and visibly, physical spaces within the city allows citizens to lay claim to a much larger spectrum of rights promised to them by the liberal state, while such visibility also exposes the violence that states may in turn perpetrate against their civilian populations (Amin and Thrift; Harvey; Mitchell). Public space thus serves as the platform for all kinds of protest, both formal and informal, from everyday shared activities like eating, drinking, socializing, and sleeping to more self-consciously political gatherings, such as those of the Occupy Movement in New York City’s Zuccotti Park and on Wall Street in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis; those in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and across the Arab world since 2011; and more recently, the women’s marches that have taken place in the United States (and worldwide) in 2017 and 2018. [End Page 89]
It is perhaps especially these latter occupations that indicate the importance of public space first as a right, in and of itself, and second as facilitating claims to numerous other rights—in the case of Tahrir, for example, quite simply the right to a meaningful vote (Franck and Huang). It is for this reason that so many urban commentators are concerned by what Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin call the “splintering urbanism” of the neoliberal era: urban infrastructural developments are increasingly funded by private finance capital (with a corresponding lack of public accountability and a tendency toward short-term, profitable investments), while cities’ few remaining public spaces are themselves seen as investment opportunities (33, 97; Bodnar 2091). Meanwhile, states increasingly implement what Graham calls “the new military urbanism,” in which police and other forces of urban governance treat public spaces as “battlespaces” to be fought over, conquered, and pacified rather than as sites that might foster a more active and engaged...