Reviving SISTREN’s legacy
August 11, 2008
Look out for, and support the Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre’s new initiative in street theatre. WROC is a non-governmental organization that does some amazing work. The organization is currently led by Linnette Vassel, a feminist scholar and activist who works quite dilligently to keep the history and contributions of SISTREN alive, and who, it appears, has never forsaken her own left-of-centre politics (not like the rest of dem like di one Beverly Manley she.)
Street theatre is a form of grassroots activism which has been the basis of SISTREN’s popular and pathbreaking work in poor communities in Jamaica since its inception in the late 1970s.
Street theatre is performance-based community engagement, and is practiced around the world in a variety of ways, usually to generate dialogue and interest in issues about social justice. It is a methodology – ie. an approach to dealing with an issue – that is favoured among groups that don’t have the resources or the power to get on radio, tv and run ad campaigns to get their ideas out to the masses. In fact, these are usually the groups who are the targets of retrograde policies or are vilified in some form by the mass media. Often the messages they are spreading might seem basic, but are often quite threatening to those in power. That street theatre is ephemeral makes it an especially useful and subversive medium to deliver powerful and unpopular messages that will take on a whole other life as it is being spread by word of mouth.
SISTREN’s focus – in various shades since the 1970s – has been to provide a platform for articulating the ways in which working class Jamaican women’s daily lives were ridden through by poverty, sexism, colour prejudice, paternalism, and all kinds of violence. Today, the group continues to use theatre to make these experiences visible to women and men also helped women to recognize how they could act collectively to change their situations as individuals and members of a disadvantaged group. Not surprisingly, we don’t have a real sense of what effect SISTREN’s work has had on individual women’s (and men’s) lives beyond those involved in the project; we haven’t really bothered to ask or look into such an issue. Some of the women’s accounts are published in the book Lionheart Gal, which was brought back into circulation about three years ago. I certainly don’t know of any other grassroots activist group that has had the vision or the sheer determination to survive that SISTREN has demonstrated.
WROC is using SISTREN’s model to get women and men talking about and acting in concert with the human rights approach as it relates to women’s everyday struggles. I don’t totally agree with how and why Jamaican femocrats are defining and focusing their work so narrowly – ie. on getting Jamaica to sign on to the UN Convention to Eliminate Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). But, as there can be multiple positive effects of doing this kind of consciousness-raising work (if only folks like Glenda Simms can back off and not work so hard to contain women’s ideas and interests that don’t mesh with hers) I am still glad that something is happening.
In fact, I think that more of us who are interested in social justice issues need to take on street theatre as part of our way of getting ideas out there and people talking and taking on more progressive positions. There’s nothing to lose and a lot to gain. Street theatre is not just for or about “women’s issues”. We need folks doing theatre to address corruption, police violence, illiteracy, food and politics (e.g. chicken back and cassava), urban un-development, how art has been hijacked by elites, etc. etc. etc. You got an issue, there’s a street corner waiting for you to do something to get us talking about it.