This is chapter three of three. For the first chapter in the series, please click here. For the second chapter in the series, please click here.
Abimbola (Abimbola Odugbesan) Nigerian freedom fighter, dedicates most of his time to self-organized refugee groups like Lampedusa in Hamburg, Here to Participate (program for Refugee teachers), and Silent University Hamburg. He is keen to struggle alongside his African sisters to revolt against patriarchy.
Alessandra (Alessandra Pomarico) translates as our cabaret unfolds. She is the initiator, host, and participant of every Free Home University (FHU).
A.B. Asylum seeker from Mali and eager learner as his perfect Italian shows. He would like to become a baker and loves any occasion to learn collectively.
A.E. Nigerian student seeking asylum in Italy who is conscious, steady, and meditative. Among other talents he can turn his hands into a musical instrument.
Barbara (Barbara Toma) Maitresse de conference of the Cabaret, co-leading our inquiry. She is from Lecce, but she moved around as a dancer, choreographer and theater directress. Interested in making everyone explore body politics and relationships through movement.
Claudia (Claudia Signoretti) Co-leading our inquiry through the method of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. She also translates and listens deeply to everyone in the room.
Clare (Clare Dolan) Puppeteer and cantastoria performer from the US, member of Bread and Puppet Theater, co-leading our inquiry through the pageant tradition.
Christina (Christina Thomopoulos) Artist and activist from Athens, engaged in support for refugees’ rights and dignity and in other political struggles.
Elwood (Elwood Jimmy) Member of FHU curatorial collective, from a First Nation community of Canada. He is a cultural activist, and the sweetest strawberry.
J.M. Asylum seeker who got hurt trying to help during a fight at the refugee center. As a consequence he suffers from some physical impairment (though this didn’t restrain him from trying the one high heel shoe march with us).
Kurosh (Kurosh Dadgar / Hossein Shabani) Painter-preacher-methodologist and refugee activist living in asylum in Athens, originally from Iran.
Lauretta (Lauretta Macauley) Originally from Sierra Leone, she has spent 20 years living in Athens. She is a human rights activist and founder of United African Women in Greece, and was key in changing the legislation for migrants’ children born in Greece. She is distributing her encouraging “BRAVO!” and secretly collecting recipes from our FHU magic kitchen.
[email protected] An incredible breakdance performer and cool free spirit from Nigeria, where he was an entertainment artist. Seeking asylum in Lecce.
Marita and Ivor (Marita Mukkonen and Ivor Stodolsky) The curatorial duo Perpetual Mobile based in Helsinki and Berlin. Lately, they have been developing the Artists at Risk safe haven project.
Mavi (Mavi Veloso) A so-called “PhD” of FHU for her enduring participation in the program. A transgender performer from Sao Paulo who lives and works between Brussels and the Netherlands.
N.O. Asylum seeker from Nigeria. He is blind and always keen to perform, dance, and play. He is also a basket weaving master.
Paulete (Paulo Sharlach) From Sao Paulo, he is an artist, queen of the kitchen, and seeker with transforming identities. He will stay in Lecce longer to run informal gatherings around cooking and storytelling.
R.A. Asylum seeker from Iraq. Despite being in a wheelchair, he “is up for anything” as he said (in a bold Swedish accent) in 4 languages, which he proved on many occasions.
Rapha (Raphael Daibert) Another so-called “PhD” of FHU for his obstinate participation in the program. He is a queer artist and organizer from Sao Paulo, part of Lanchonete.org and Cidade Queer. He could not make the cabaret but informed its learning.
Silvio (Silvio Gioia) Co-leading the session with the use of shadow theater, magic, and a sense of humour.
When the group finally gathered for the winter session of Free Home University in Lecce (South Italy) there was a welcoming/goodbye party hosted in our Culture House. The party was organized by our friends from the LGBTQI* community as the end of their LGBTQI* film festival. Our new group had just met to begin the session. Towards the end of the party, news that Aleppo was bombed by Russian air forces started to arrive, and all the hot mess of mass-media and #last_messages from civilians took our attention for the rest of the night. Here we were, caught in the middle of local struggles and global disasters, calling for possible actions or, at least, bits of solidarity. Giving away hopes in exchange for clarity. Clarity of our weakness in the face of catastrophe. Clarity about the need to struggle (furthermore).
For the next two weeks we were living together and studying-by-practicing; in the very end, we agreed to perform our struggles. To be more precise — to perform what we had learnt about it and how. From storytelling and news-sharing while cooking to socratic discussions and collective reading while eating. From the evergreen techniques of Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed to those from ancient cantastoria from around the globe. From the movement of urban dances to the images of shadow theater. From making a giant puppet face, or wings and beaks with the little ones at the refugee center. From working with the art school students to visiting different asylum seekers centers, and gathering with them to learn together about experiences of transformation and displacement.
So, as a way to illuminate our process and to share it with a larger community outside of our group, we engaged in “performing the struggle.” We called our raw-chopped burlesque salad a “Learning Cabaret.” Not necessarily a typical cabaret, but definitely one could call it a learning one.
Qui per lottare. Learning beyond the surFACE.
It’s Seven. The night before we all part. The audience starts to arrive for the “performance.” They are mostly social workers from the different organizations that host refugees and asylum seekers in the area. Several refugee families with kids arrive, as well as neighbors and friends from Lecce. Some are faces from the local LGBTQI* community, some from the art crowd.
PRE-ACT | SOME SHADOWS, SOME LIGHT AND A HUGE POT OF RED HOT BLACK-EYED PEAS
Silvio seduces everyone into entering the dark theater, where a giant white screen stands in the middle. Words, tags and letters spin on the vaulted ceiling. What was our group practice just a few days ago, now becomes magic for children and adults. The same simple exercises are transformed into a play: dialectics of black and white, shade and light, day and night, power and struggle, close and distant, man/woman/queer, rest/unrest/arrest, internal and external, local and global, personal and political, enemy and anaemia. It takes a good 40 minutes to unfold; the audience takes part as well. Everyone is mesmerized, touched, and in high spirits.
ENTR’ACTE: a banquet of authentic African dishes with the spiciest beans ever, made by Lauretta and paired with local primitivo wine.
ACT 1 | THE FUNERAL PROCESSION | RHYTHMS OF DISCONTENT
Three—two—one: Action! Christina, Augustine, and Paulo start their procession limping alla marcia down the stairs. They hold a pretty big coffin-like thing on their shoulders. Each of them wears only one high-heel shoe, as we did earlier in the week in the queer guerrilla street exercise lead by Mavi. The public joins the procession, following the marchers. The rhythm always shuffles from a samba of the oppressed to the hip-hop beat of the discomforted, reaching its height in the disco of the discontented. Clare starts to play accordion, inviting the crowd back into the theater. The marchers enter first and wait on stage for people to be seated.
Everyone is in. The music stops, marchers stand still on stage.
Alessandra: We dedicate this action to the memory of our friends Sharafat and Amadou and many other brothers and sisters, beloved and unknown, who’ve lost their lives in the struggle. May they Rest in Power.
The full group takes the stage.
[1 min pause]
ACT 2 | RESURRECTION OF THE FACE | WHOSE FACE IS THAT?
Marchers put the pretty big coffin-like thing upright, and everyone realizes that it is a giant face, a papier-mâché mask that we made with Clare during one of her workshops.
The Face is resurrected, and takes its place on the wall above everyone.
Christina [greets the public, invites everyone to answer]: What might this face may represent? Whose face might this be?
Marita: It’s just neutral, it’s not even a face, it’s actually a mask made of cheap paper and it’s not even painted.
Lauretta: This might be the face of an African woman, who escaped war in her country, facing new troubles wherever she arrives, but fighting for her rights with other women.
Abimbola: I agree, it reminds me of all the African refugees that come to Europe as I did, passing from Lampedusa. This could also be the portrait of the Tragedy of Africa, as Professor Patrice Lumumba would put it.
[email protected]: [takes a step forward. A cool smile for a second]: You know, people, as I see this face with almost no eyes on it—it clearly represents one thing to me. Less than a week ago, I had an eye operation, so now I see better what is going on with this world.
People from the public start to guess too: they see a caricature of Donald Trump, the portrait of white male supremacy, a grumpy neighbor from across the street.
Ivor: It reminds me of Thelonious Monk—the great pianist and composer. [Ivor takes a stool near the piano and starts playing a light two-note melody. Lights dim down. Artworks by Kurosh pop up projected on the surface of the mask.]
Kurosh: The face is a major concept in my life and for my art. I can see faces in everything. [He looks at the faces in the room and continues]: In my country when you see a new face, a new person, we say “Welcome” [he hugs the air in front of him].
INTERMEZZO | WELCOME!
Barbara takes the stage. She says that in Italy there is also a gesture to welcome people, and she demonstrates how exactly it is done. Then J.M. steps in and without saying too much but smiling widely slightly extends his right hand (which is paralyzed), and almost invisibly shakes the air in front of him. People start to welcome each other, then everyone in the public with their own gesture and languages. Each and every one is greeted personally.
ACT 3 | THE SOCIETY OF NOW | THE SOCIETY WE WANT
Barbara: We’ve been asking ourselves “WHOSE FACE ISTHIS?”, and we have collected many answers. The proposals described some parts of our society, because all of us are parts of small groups, families and bigger collectives; we are all part of society, which is diverse and it is what it is. With Claudia we’ve been trying to perform two types of society.
Claudia steps in and gives a little introduction about Boal’s forum theater, really really brief and clear, literally a couple of important tips. Then she explains what was going on onstage. Meanwhile: [the group makes a tableaux vivant representing THE SOCIETY OF NOW. Everyone takes their position as rehearsed.]
Claudia asks the audience to explain what they see. People react, saying that this society is greedy, not welcoming, ignorant, fragmented, selfish, absorbed by technologies, and violent.
Then Claudia invites the audience to add whatwas missing in the picture, and “church and government’s impunity” was added, family abuse too, and a few other unavoidable and precise observations. A grandmother and a child completed the picture.
Claudia claps, and—voila!—the group transforms into a totally different configuration, namely the SOCIETY WE WANT. Here the audience starts to notice “balance, grace, care, sensitivity, solidarity, equality, justice, generosity, decisiveness, fervor and commitment.” When Claudia asks if something was missing, someone in the audience added a queer family, and the grandma with the grandchild grabbed a book to read together.
Barbara [steps back in]: As a SOCIETY OF NOW we all follow what happens in the world. These times are heavy, as countries everywhere face conservative governments, banks throw people out of their houses, and both governments and banks lead people to wars, which also pushes people to leave their homes. So much bad news around us! The media bombards us with bad news. But there is an ancient tradition that emerged from Indian nomadic storytellers that seems to be more reliable than any TV channel, and connects people better than social media. [Barbara calls for Clare.]
ACT 4| BAD NEWS | BACK TO REALITY
This chapter was not performed on our Cabaret (that night Clare was sick with the flu). She had offered a pageant show for us earlier, the day after the Aleppo attack, as a reaction to it. She had conceived a dedicated chapter during her Cantastoria Performative Seminar Night. We took the liberty to add this piece as a chapter of the Learning Cabaret as it was an integral part of our performative learning process (see footnote 1).
[In the form of a classic cantastoria, Clare, assisted by some participants, starts telling a story in a very poetic way, with simple yet striking metaphoric paintings of red flowers on a green field, under bright blue skies. Different elements are used to evoke the bomb shelling, the burnt houses in the Syrian city under attack, beating on wooden sticks and stumbling newspapers to imitate gunshots and the sound of flames. Through a picture of flying birds and written sentences being extracted from the canvas, Clare visualizes the tweets that were shared under tragic hashtag #last_message that civilians were sending to the world. The letter from the doctors of Aleppo is read in its entirety.]
ACT 5 | SCARS | HOW WE LEARN
[The stage is left empty, the group comes back.]
Kurosh [in the middle]: I am familiar with this kind of reality. This reality left scars on my body [points to his shoulders]; i was imprisoned and tortured in my country but I don’t want to talk about it.
R.A. [rolls his wheelchair into the spotlight]: Me too, I know it very well. There are many scars on my body. Here and here, and there. Well, look at my legs, they are nothing but scars. [R’s legs are actually absent]. I was 12 when my town in Iraq was bombed. And one bomb hit my house.
Elwood [pointing to the scar on his leg]: This is a cut that a drunken man left on me with a bottleneck. Folks from indigenous communities in Canada never go to the hospital or report to the police because we know that, eventually, we are the ones who will get arrested, because of racism and prejudice. That’s how some indigenous people are forced to learn not to trust the authorities and to rely on themselves only.
Abimbola [comes closer to R.A., Elwood, and Kurosh, showing a scar on his back]: This is the mark of violence that can happen in the family. My mom used to teach me by leaving marks on me, so I would not forget the lesson. Well, I don’t remember the lesson, and still love my mother, but what I learnt was resistance.
A.: When I was 9 people came to my house and attacked my mother. My father was a policeman and they wanted to intimidate him. Trying to protect my mom, I was hit and lost my eye. I’ve learnt that it is necessary to protect those who are weak.
Alessandra [shows a smiley-like scar on her belly]: This is from a C-section. My beloved daughter was born this way ten years ago. I’ve learnt not to be afraid to love.
Ivor: When I was 7 I tried to climb a wall to reach a beautiful fresh bright-green lawn, a better place to play with my friends. I’ve got a scar all over my neck up to my chin. I did not unlearn to believe in utopia.
Marita: I was doing my PhD research on neo-nazi gangs in Finland. One night the gang leader waited for me on my stoop. He stabbed me with a sharpened screwdriver here [points to a scar]. I will never unlearn to fight fascism.
While participants reassemble, Barbara reports from others who had to leave the session earlier, but wanted to include their scars in this collective sharing: There was a woman among us, she mentioned she was beaten by her just-a-jealous-guy. And we’ve learned that violence cannot be confused with love.
There was also a man who pointed to scars that he gave to his daughter, his lovers, and his friends and the regret that he holds. And we’ve learned to wear those scars that we give to others.
And there was Mavi who shared her invisible scar with us. That scar is in her blood, as she’s HIV positive. And we have learned from her how to be strong and celebrate our lives. And how to celebrate our struggle. And how to perform our struggle in our art.
And how to en-live our art.
And how to transform our scars into arms for our fight.
How to fight and to dance ferociously no matter what.
ACT 6 | FINAL (AND ONGOING) DANCE
Here comes [email protected].
Music starts on his cell phone, then blasts in the full room.
He performs his incredible acrobatic break dance piece.
Lauretta [enters the circle]: I will teach you the dance that women do in my part of Africa. Follow me! Everybody please, start by shaking your buttocks, everyone… like this!
[Everyone joins. The cabaret naturally fades into the joy of togetherness and movement; the dance goes on and never ends.]