An Effective Multicultural Dialogue led by Marc Weinblatt and Cheryl Harrison

By Robert Leonard for CAN (Community Arts Network), fall 1999.

Ever go to a multicultural dialogue and come away inspired, moved, and energized to act? It’s rare for me. In my experience multicultural dialogue, all too often, muddles about in guilt, accusation, and immobilized wishful thinking. Not so with artists/activists Marc Weinblatt and Cheryl Harrison. On June 6 and 7, as a “post conference workshop” following the Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Conference, these two skilled and careful practitioners of interactive theatre techniques took 30 strangers through a two-day progressive dialogue about multicultural activism that wound up clarifying personal agendas, shedding light on the terrain, and providing new tools to take to the difficult but crucial struggle.

Marc and Cheryl are experienced partners in facilitating the hard dialogue around multiculturalism. Marc, a Jewish man, and Cheryl, an African-American woman, offer themselves as a model of the dialogue itself as they carefully, thoughtfully develop the actual processes of each day with each other and with the participants. They use their own amalgamation of techniques originated by Augusto Boal and many others. An environment of respect and courage is established at the very outset and reconfirmed at every step along the way. Their experience was revealed in their ability to mix physical exercises that release body tensions and mental strain with imaginative and critical exercises that bring a high level of articulation to hidden perceptions and understanding. Their own deep commitment to and ever vigilant curiousity about undoing the systemic roots of racism (and the other oppressions of our society) made them partners with the participants, not simply instructors or facilitators. Their own critique rests on the premise that racism is a function of prejudice combined with power, that it is systemic and hidden within our institutions, and that it is a centuries old habit that requires patient, persistent and rigorous work to reverse and overcome. Their clear sense of the difficulty is matched with an optimism that is grounded in realistic and carefully critiqued activism.

Marc and Cheryl have worked together until recently as directors and members of the Theatre of Liberation at Seattle’s Public Theatre. They are each going freelance, with expectations to work together and to work separately. This workshop was the inaugural flight of Marc’s new venture, the Mandala Center for Awareness, Transformation and Action. This workshop was most auspiciousfor their new freelancing. With strength and dignity, the participants took the risk of opening their hearts and minds in the bodacious area of public avoidance — racism. Not only was the process accessible for all participants, no matter their background, the dialogue was a careful critique of how our societal systems reinforce the oppressions of racism.

We were able to look at real situations, under a microscope, with participants able to visualize and contribute their own perspective as well as their own experience. These different perspectives provided the information for better understanding of the societal forces and the personal experiences within them. The process gave courage to voice and evaluate immediate critique of realistic options in the face of realistically complex social predicaments. What is the function and value of bearing witness? How to follow through with an initial impulse for doing the right thing? What kind of personal price does action exact and where do I find my strengths?

Given that any workshop of this sort is a unique blend of human experience, there is no need to spin out the particulars of this workshop’s journey. It is vitally important to share, however, that this workshop was as practical and realistic as it was imaginative and stimulating. There was unanimous expression at the end of the workshop, comprised 1/3 people of color and 2/3 European Americans, of deep gratitude for the opportunity to witness, to more clearly understand the struggle, and to have practiced effective actions in the context of real circumstances. Attention was paid to the importance of next steps, so that personal agendas could grow. This was a process that accomplished substantial gains for everyone who participated.

(Bob Leonard is an Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre Arts at Virginia Tech. He is a founder of the Community Arts Network.) © Community Arts Network