Saturday, March 26, 2011

U.S. WTD Message 2011: The Art of Listening


by Jeffrey Wright

Theater reshapes reality. Emboldened by the playwright's imagination, actor and audience conspire to rethink the world.

The theater I know best is primarily aural - deferring to the playwright's word as spoken by the actor. In spite of all else, the most powerful transformative tool for audience and actor is the capacity to listen.

If we listen well and observe, the theater's gift to us is the sly suggestion that what occurs within its
walls can occur without them, too - that the world is changeable.

That idea is uplifting in the face of contemporary global challenges that leave too many of the planet's inhabitants vulnerable and without pathways to free and healthy lives.

Pray the people of Japan and Haiti and North Africa, the Middle East and everywhere historic suffering can be found today will prove the power of re-imagining reality.

I haven't much directed my thoughts toward the theater during my ten years of travel to Sierra Leone, one of the poorest nations on Earth; my focus has been on economic development, still recently, I experienced there what may be the purest theatrical moment I've ever known.

Last month, a dozen or so of us traveled to the country to celebrate a road rehabilitation project our group,Taia Peace Foundation, had completed. We rebuilt the road at the request of one of the country's remotest rural communities.

During an initiation ceremony, each of us was adopted into a ruling chiefdom family-some of us were even entitled honorary chiefs-out of respect for the improvements we'd brought to the community. At the ceremony's end, the everyday citizens who perform in celebration at significant community events, were called on to play, sing and dance.

Then at some point, upon no cue I perceive, a silent, motionless figure appears - it seems to materialize out of ether - like a mystery. Childlike, a boy - perhaps the age of my 9-year old son - the huge rectangular head almost half the size of his body - shuffling slowly, like a geisha, toward the middle of the space - people clearing the way-enter the gongoli, a character, I'm later told, celebrated for his ugliness, and yet his beauty floors me.

Next month, I will again travel the dusty roads back to where I first encountered him - my backpack full of ideas, plans and malaria pills. I will seek out Lucy Jibilla - the gongoli mask was brought to her house that previous night. I will ask her who keeps it, perhaps that person made it as well and will share his story with me.

If so, I will do that thing most critical for audience and actor and those who aspire to progressive roles in the theaters of social justice, poverty alleviation, or disaster relief - I will listen.