If you are at all inspired by the current spirit of social activism present in our country and in our local community, I implore you to see Slavery/Women/Writing, onstage this weekend at the Broad Center on Pitzer’s campus and next weekend at Pomona’s Seaver Theater. It lasts less than an hour, it’s free of charge, and it’s deeply relevant to the issues of injustice and inequality we are now examining.
Though its subject matter may come from history, Slavery/Women/Writing is directed squarely at us as members of society in the here and now. Based on the work of renowned activist writer Eduardo Galeano, it presents 21 short “refracted portraits” of individuals throughout history who, because of their race, gender, or some other arbitrary social marker, were overlooked or oppressed, and the brilliant contributions these people made to thought and culture.
Through these vignettes, S/W/W asks some difficult things. It challenges us to identify what ideas and rules we accept today without question. It suggests that until we question such untouchable assumptions, we will continue to be blind to the forms of oppression hidden in our own conventional wisdom—the conventional wisdom that we adopt in order to become what is regarded as good, conscientious people.
One of the show’s vignettes tells the story of Tituba, the black slave in colonial-era Salem, Massachusetts who was denounced as a witch. Her trial sparked a string of similar accusations, culminating in a wave of murderous fear that decimated the community: “the gallows were never empty.” As S/W/W presents it, the unsettling thing about the story is not that the whole situation was, from today’s standpoint, racist, and irrational. In fact, that’s exactly the wrong conclusion to take from it, at once sanctimonious, uncritical, and anachronistic. It’s that throughout the trial and the ensuing panic, the majority of townspeople in Salem never imagined they were doing anything wrong. We have to ask ourselves how we are committing such oversights today, because we are.
More generally, the show asks if systemic oppression is ever justified. Can we truly label any belief as ethical or virtuous when it silences someone and denies them a sense of self? But rather than go on a moral crusade to fix this, getting all high-and-mighty and denouncing others’ value systems left and right, Slavery/Women/Writing offers an alternative for rooting out our own hidden, arbitrary forms of oppression, and it’s disarmingly simple.
Embrace others for who they are. Because the assumption is that humans, when permitted to just be themselves, are not naturally oppressive. They are thoughtful, inventive, compassionate. Allow them to speak, and for the love of God, listen to what they have to say. Because you never know what astoundingly beautiful things might tumble out of them—things that are beautiful not by any aesthetic standard, but beautiful because they are such a powerful expression of individual imagination and self. To cite just one more of the show’s refracted portraits, it can’t be a good thing that a certain someone named Emily had to conceal 1,800 unpublished poems in her bedroom because she was a woman in a Puritan society and hence was condemned to silence.
Slavery/Women/Writing is not another facile, liberal, modern-day sermon on political correctness and how we should all just make art and get along. It’s not just a nice idea of how people should interact. It’s a plan that we, as audience members, need to enact in order to better our social relations. Otherwise, it won’t happen. A big credit to Theater Professor Thom Leabhart and his ensemble of students for taking the first step and presenting this plan around campus.
Slavery/Women/Writing is running tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. at the Broad Center on Pitzer’s campus. If you can’t make that, it’s also going up at 8 p.m. next Friday and Saturday, Dec. 8 and 9, at Pomona’s Seaver Theater.