In his keynote essay, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth details how fear drove global developments of 2015. Fears of terror attacks and potential impact of refugee influx led to a scaling back of rights in Europe and other regions. In China, Ethiopia, India, and Russia, fears that social media will energize social and political movements helped to drive a disturbing global trend: the adoption of repressive new laws and policies targeting civil society. Roth traces the ways in which human rights law can and should guide responses to these major global developments.
But like any human rights or social justice work, refugee theater projects must be culturally sensitive and ethically-responsible. Much of the current work owes a debt to the scholarship of Dwight Conquergood, a professor of Performance Studies and theater professional. His influential essay “Health Theatre in a Hmong Refugee Camp” detailed theatrical strategies and cross-cultural best practices that have been used to teach generations of theater and human rights professionals.
Toward the end of his essay Conquergood identifies some of the limits of his work in the Camp Ban Vinai. While he had great success with his performances for the refugees, he began to realize that the health professionals and human rights workers needed a similar kind of “consciousness-raising.” The camp workers wanted the Hmong to conform to their Western standards of cleanliness and order but were not interested in understanding the Hmong way of life. As a result, the Hmong were hesitant to seek out help or support from any of the camp aid workers. While has certainly evolved since Conquergood did his work in the 1980’s, it’s important to remember that it is not only refugees that can benefit from camp theater programs. These performances can build a bridge of understanding not only amongst the refugees themselves but also across cultures. More than entertainment or escape, theater can build community, foster understanding, and bring about real change.