Egyptian artist Nora Amin is “one of those rare and omnipresent cultural figures that change the thought landscapes of societies, according to one of many internet profiles recounting her impressive résumé that’s profuse with artistic achievements.
As well as being a successful director, choreographer and the first Egyptian to receive a fellowship at the John F. Kennedy performing arts center, she is also a progressive author who deals with the relatively unexplored but extremely fertile relationship between theater and human rights in Egypt in her book “The Art of Claiming our Right.
Although it is her commitment to social evolution that defines her work, it is her iron dedication to the arts that is the key to her successful career. After her stay in Rio de Janeiro at the Center of the Theater of the Oppressed, she admitted that she had been reunited with the “old notion of art as a tool for political and social change.
Her current Theater of the Oppressed project, which debuted the end of last week at the El-Nahda Jesuit Scientific and Cultural Association in Faggala, incorporated another goal of hers: To work with communities marginalized by society’s conventional artistic activities, in this case teenagers, and bring to the forefront their unappreciated anxieties.
The subject matter of the production is centered on situations, devised and developed by the actors themselves, generated by an unresolved conflict involving one or more ‘oppressed’ character. Within the context of Egyptian society, the teenage cast produced three sequences: a son harassed by his mother to avenge his father’s murder, another son dealing with the repercussions of having an alcoholic father and a rape scene at a job interview.
Based on Augusto Boal’s concept of Forum Theater founded in the 60s – whose guiding principles revolve around involving the audience in the performance and creating a space for them to analyze, explore and interpret reality – Amin’s production style expects audience members to become ‘spect-actors’ and participate in helping the cast find resolutions to the various conflicts by mounting the stage and adopting the role of one of the characters. The theory behind this being to produce a dialectic rather than didactic piece of theater that promotes constructive dialogue and acts, unsurprisingly, as a forum for discussion.
However, Amin’s practical execution of this commendable theory was quite underwhelming. Maybe it was the inevitable embarrassment of audience participation and the accompanying childish sniggering, maybe it was the tacky Casio keyboard’s drum machine, or maybe it was just Amin’s disciplinary interjections amplified over the sound system that made it feel as though I was back in drama class.
Rarely would a spect-actor be able to last more than 60 seconds without interruption and often it seemed that Amin was determined to reach one particular conclusion rather than allow freedom for the spec-actors to find their own path to resolution. In pantomimic routine, the audience would be invited up on stage to enthusiastic applause, some destined to leave disgruntled while others, brimming with pride, would slap their friends’ hands on the way down.
There was a general lack of focus, a Syrian friend of mine was called upon to read the newspaper, in addition to a latent sense of incredulity at the often farcical progression of the scenes – one particular spect-actor failing to have realized that his father was drunk, despite his staggering through piles of empty Stella bottles.
Yet, no matter what the distraction, Amin ploughed ahead totally calm and concentrated.
It seems as though this format does not necessarily lead to maximizing the potential stimulus for dialogue. It may do among the cast themselves and I’m sure that the workshops running up to the show were deep, thought-provoking and cathartic, but it’s very difficult for the audience to identify with the characters because of the broken, staggered and often tiresome form of Forum Theater.
Nora Amin’s tenacity is, without a doubt, admirable, and I utterly support the importance of promoting the voices of those on the edge of society. Yet, the aesthetic product of this particular project is not one that traditional spectators will find engaging.