- Staging Resistance: Essays on Political Theatre, and: Radical Street Performance: An International Anthology
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While a number of scholars working in the fields of performance studies and experimental theatre have theorized the activist dimensions of contemporary performance, focusing on the work of selected artists or groups, until recently fairly little has been written that seeks to present a broad overview of politically engaged work. Two recently published collections, Radical Street Performance and Staging Resistance, begin to redress this lack.
Radical Street Performance, edited by Jan Cohen-Cruz, is an ambitious collection comprised of 34 essays by scholars and practitioners from Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Performance, in the context of this anthology, refers to “expressive behavior intended for public viewing. It includes but is not limited to theatre [...]. Radical street performance draws people who comprise a contested reality into what its creators hope will be a changing script” (1). The theatrical and cultural performances examined in this collection range from pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square to the Nuremberg Party Rallies and the mass public spectacles of May Day observances in Soviet Russia. Such juxtapositions, Cohen-Cruz notes, disrupt the tendency to identify radical performance projects as necessarily allied with left-wing political agendas (2). In addition to examining the work of well-known artists and groups such as Teatro Campesino, the Living Theatre, Adrian Piper, and Ng·g° wa Thiong’o, Radical Street Performance also includes essays and memoirs dealing with anti-war protests, environmental activism, parades, circuses, community-based theatre events, and acts of “witnessing” that take place in the context of highly repressive regimes.
The range and diversity of materials assembled in the collection constitutes both a strength and a weakness. On one hand, Cohen-Cruz has made a valuable contribution by bringing together writings that provide a broad overview of radical performances and public interventions in the 20th century. She is the first to acknowledge, however, that invoking such a “wild array of configurations” of the topic presents a danger that “too much can be looked at” through the lens of street performance (5). A more serious problem arises in relation to the anthology format, in which aims of inclusivity and breadth constrain the editor to select relatively brief contributions. Only about one third of the essays in Radical Street Performance approach 10 printed pages in length. While the breadth of materials included in the collection makes it a valuable resource for survey courses, I often found myself wishing for a deeper consideration of the projects discussed. While a number of writings, such as Augusto Boal’s treatise on invisible theatre, seem relatively self-contained and convey meaning in a concise, economical manner, other selections lose much of their complexity when extracted from a longer original.
It is perhaps not surprising that many of the most provocative selections in Radical Street Performance are the longer chapters, those in which the author is able to develop his or her analysis in some detail. The collection is divided into five sections, each dealing with what Cohen-Cruz defines as a different category of street performance: agitprop, witness, integration, utopia, and tradition (5). These categories are porous and overlapping, allowing interesting [End Page 175] resonances to emerge among the different sections. In addition to a general introduction, Cohen-Cruz provides brief introductory essays for each of the five sections, along with headnotes that serve to contextualize the individual selections. The section on agitprop concludes with an essay by Dubravka Knezevic that examines highly theatricalized protests and public performances in the former Yugoslavia. Knezevic’s account is compelling not only for the public interventions she describes, but also because of the unmistakable urgency that motivates her act of witnessing and her stark acknowledgment of the...