- Freedom Singer: Modeling Performative Witnessing in Documentary Theatre
This essay will illustrate how Freedom Singer, the latest documentary theatre offering from Toronto-based company Project: Humanity, combines personal narrative with a unique repurposing of headphone verbatim; this combination complicates and interrupts easy identification with the autobiographical subject to highlight the responsibility and culpability of the individual in the perpetuation of national narratives. The play wrestles with Canada’s history of slavery, its national narrative regarding the Underground Railroad, and the question of whose stories have been included or erased from that narrative—all through the lens of the researcher/performer, who is both a musician and descendant of a “freedom runner” (a term for those who fled slavery in the 1800s). Freedom Singer pairs the autobiographical frame that Project: Humanity has employed in director Andrew Kushnir’s previous plays, The Middle Place and Small Axe, with the new (to this company) performance mode of headphone verbatim and with original music created by the researcher/performer. The interruption that the headphones facilitate then helps address autobiography’s problematic potential to foster a sense that, once one has felt sympathy for the performer, one’s job is done. Rather than eliciting sympathy, Freedom Singer, as this essay will demonstrate, asks its audience to engage in performative witnessing and thus provides a useful example of how documentary theatre can model ethical encounters with others.
Sympathy has long been dismissed as a tactic for motivating significant action, as the evocation of sympathy all too often leaves the sympathizer feeling that their emotional response means that they cannot possibly be “accomplices” to the suffering—or as Susan Sontag states, “our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence” (91). Derek Paget similarly admonishes work that allows the spectator to sympathize with, and by turn identify with, the hero of a “true story” who stands up to systemic oppression, cautioning that identification fosters the feeling that the spectator also has “fought back, simply by watching” and thus stultifies actual political action (27). In the case of Freedom Singer, for a white settler Canadian like myself, a performance about the Underground Railroad and Canada’s fraught history of racial violence that succeeded only in soliciting a sympathetic or even empathetic response could allow me to comfortably occupy the role of “white savior” and declare myself separate from, and thus without responsibility to intervene in, my country’s history of white supremacy.
A performance’s potential to foster this sense of sympathy (or even empathy) as accomplishment can be exacerbated by an autobiographical frame, because the label of autobiography runs the risk of serving as an overarching “authenticating symbol” underwriting “an appeal to an unproblematised truth” (Heddon 26). By introducing more voices to the narrative and keeping the spectators at a demonstrable distance from these new voices, headphone verbatim complicates the autobiographical subject’s and by extension the spectator’s presumed access to an objective truth. Moreover, this [End Page 15] performance tactic both engages in and encourages a key step of what Jenn Stephenson calls “performative witnessing” (45), a form of ethical witnessing that requires the witness to cede any control over the narrative, and to recognize and act on their own culpability within that narrative. This narrative about the Underground Railroad, which effectively solicits performative witnessing, goes beyond asking white spectators like myself to recognize the ways in which we benefit from living in a white supremacist society, in order to ask all spectators to examine how we perpetuate or resist white supremacist ideology in the narratives we choose to reproduce.1 By coupling personal narrative with headphone verbatim, Freedom Singer effectively solicits this witnessing to engage in a complex look at Canada’s accepted national narrative regarding the Underground Railroad, interrogating who has been left out of the narrative and modeling ethical encounters with those underrepresented voices, and with the narratives that those voices challenge.
Freedom Singer in Brief
Freedom Singer is a documentary play chronicling performer Khari Wendell McClelland’s travels across Canada and the United States in search of information about his great-great-grandmother Kizzy—information including but not limited to what kinds of songs she would...