2009 – 2010
The Passion Coalition Event (May 25, 2010)
The Center for International Human Rights together with the Gerald Lynch Theater, the Epic Theater Ensemble, the Rising Circle Theater Collective, The Culture Project, and the Lark Play Development Center, is organizing a reading of GRACE, a play written by Sanjit De Silva and Deepa Purohit. This is part of our Center’s efforts to reach out to the artistic community and explore ways in which different art forms can provide us with important insights into ways for promoting human dignity and empowerment, as well as with powerful tools for effective human rights advocacy. The reading will be followed by a panel discussion that will include human rights scholars, artists, and representatives from the United Nations and humanitarian NGOs.
In a singular collaboration between the Center for International Human Rights at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and practitioners in the arts world, the one day Arts and Human Rights workshop held on Tuesday, May 25, 2010 provided an experience that many of the participants will not forget.
Centered on the play “Grace” written by Sanjit DeSilva and Deepa Purohit, the workshop consisted of three sessions which took place in the cavernous Irondale Center in historic Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The first two sessions involved interactive sessions with participants in the human rights world, practitioners in the field of humanitarian aid work and artists working in a variety of media. The workshop culminated with a moving reading of “Grace” directed by Nandita Shenoy.
The first session involved representatives from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Medecins Sans Frontiers, the Sierra Leonean Mission to the United Nations, NGOs, and academics. Several issues were highlighted in a provocative three-hour discussion that focused on some of the more contentious issues raised in “Grace”. Representatives from UNHCR focused on the many psychological traumas that are the result of being in the field of humanitarian aid work, and particularly on the difficult issue of empathy with respect to those in need. While one voice noted that it is nearly impossible to have true empathy with individuals in such dire need, others noted that the most mundane situations can bring out moments of true empathetic clarity, where power relations and uneven relationships dissipate and an equal bond based can be felt. However, while it was agreed that those moments were few and far between three stories were chosen to be passed along to the art creation second session.
The first story focused on a “heroic” event. A life saved, at great risk and danger of one’s own, and the tensions between individuality and the collective were some of the deeper philosophical issues that were explored by a group of artists and practitioners who created a moving set piece based around the experience of one of our workshop participants who, many years ago in Mostar, protected at great personal risk a Bosnian Muslim under attack by Bosnian Serbs. As the other participants took part in the set piece, it became apparent that even those with the purest intentions can unwittingly and unconsciously become part of some of the most destructive forces that man is capable of creating. At the end of the piece many of the participants had to jolt themselves back to their normal selves as they cast off the evil intentions that the astute organizers of that piece created in them.
The second story focused around the notion of mental boundaries, and how as a practitioner it may be necessary to deal with some of the most horrific abusers of human rights out of a need to provide aid to the victims of those very abusers. This group created a piece focusing on the idea of three dimensional space as an embodiment of the hierarchical nature of bureaucracy and the UN. The piece displayed how one of our UN participants navigated a simulated maze of bureaucratic obstacles to provide aid for a refugee; as she progresses her life becomes part and parcel of the maze and eventually she becomes part of it, motivated by the need to do what one can to provide aid to those in need. In essence this presentation produced a melancholic picture of the progression of one’s morals as we learn to navigate the channels of bureaucracy to do our work most effectively.
The final group created an unorthodox theatrical piece focusing on the story of one of our participants’ experience with a young Sierra Leonean refugee girl. This group created a piece where each member represented the interviewer at a refugee camp and their very presence elicited a variety of ad hoc improvised responses from the women in the group. From those who were moved to share some of their most innermost secrets to those who felt anger at having to tell their story, this group’s presentation displayed the wide variety of feelings any one individual would have at the imposition of an interview where one has to, in the words of the heroine of “Grace,” ‘tell one’s life.’ When at the end of the day the reading of “Grace” took place those in the audience were presented with a moving representation of some of the difficult issues raised in the previous sessions and those who took part in the previous two sessions came away with a deeply cathartic and moving experience.