Theatre of the Oppressor: Working with Privilege Towards Social Justice


(Edited by Toby Emert & Ellie Friedland – Peter Lang Publishing 2011)


Theatre of the Oppressor: Working with Privilege Towards Social Justice

by Marc Weinblatt with contributions from Cheryl Harrison

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN, OCTOBER 2009. A dinner excursion after leading a Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) training session with Afghan applied theatre practitioners. After dark.

Our vehicle had gotten stuck in a deep rut on the edge of the street as our driver, Amin, tried to squeeze through a narrowing in the intersection. (Ninety percent of the roads in Kabul are in various states of rubble, mostly due to the brutal civil war of the 1990’s that leveled much of the capital city.) As the rear right wheel spun freely in the air, Amin, a magician with cars, was attempting to free the car when two armed security guards approached us. In Kabul there are hundreds of young men contracted, then stationed at apartment buildings, restaurants, and other barricaded private sites –peppering every half block around the city’s central districts. They are paid the equivalent of US$60/month, handed a semi-automatic weapon, and instructed to “watch this building.” The two guards were particularly unsympathetic to our plight, gruffly telling us to leave the area immediately, without the car. Through the skillful negotiation of several of our Afghan colleagues in our group, we were finally allowed to continue our attempt to free the vehicle. When Amin managed to get all four tires back on the ground, I got back in the car in preparation for our swift departure. In that moment, I was unclear about what happened next. I only knew that tense words were exchanged and I could see Amin hoisting several large stones, which I had used to help level the car, out of the sewer water in the rut where our tire had been stuck. Our friend and colleague, a former freedom fighter turned actor/Joker whom we called simply “The Doctor” got back in the car, visibly upset.

“I am so angry!” he blurted. “Those men are terrible. I had to stop myself because it would not have been safe for you.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“They made him take the stones from the water because he is Hazara. They used racial slurs in Pashto. They didn’t know I spoke Pashto. I just had to leave!”

I tell this story not because it was a particularly dramatic moment for me in Afghanistan, (which it was) but because of the conversation, which followed, in the car — a conversation that concretely illuminates an element of the TO adaptation I sometimes refer to as “Theatre of the Oppressor.”

Amin, who spoke only Dari, is Hazara, a traditionally marginalized minority ethnic group in Afghanistan. The guards were Pashtun, the majority, traditionally dominant ethnic group. The Doctor is Pashtun. What could or should I have done? Had I known what was going on, what could my action have been, as a White foreigner from the currently occupying United States? What could the Doctor have done, as a fellow Pashtun, in support of his Hazara friend? Or others in the car, both Afghan and foreigners? The answer to these questions is not particularly relevant. Perhaps just getting away from the situation was the best choice in that moment. But our discussion of possible actions in that situation was riveting and was enlightening for us. In essence, we engaged in a theoretical Forum – Boal’s problem-solving structure in which the protagonist of the scene is replaced by audience members to suggest alternative solutions (1992, p. 242). But in this case, the main protagonist – the truly “oppressed” –was Amin. In more classical interpretations of Theatre of the Oppressed, we would analyze his role and possible actions one could take in his situation. Part of what we do with “Theatre of the Oppressor” is to analyze the role of the potential ally from the dominant social group. In the case of the Doctor, his own social group. The Doctor was fascinated by this analysis and was, I believe, forever changed by looking at what people who carry more societal rank can and perhaps ultimately must do to end oppression (Mindell, p. 28).

Historical Context and Theoretical Background

The moment described here took me full circle. My path as a TO practitioner has unfolded in ways I could never have foreseen when I began nearly two decades ago. I started in the early 1990’s by leading more traditional TO workshops and Forum Theatre performances with marginalized populations such as homeless youth, refugees, Native American tribes. More recently, I have worked with villagers in Afghanistan and the Republic of Congo. Yet, even with my early projects, I often broke classical form by inviting audiences to replace any character in a Forum scene – as long as they could identify how that person was struggling with the oppression. Long before developing TO adaptations for working with privileged people, I was convinced that all of us are culpable and responsible for uprooting social injustice – not just the “oppressed.” We must all be protagonists and, therefore, activists. We all must be willing to look at where we are (even if unintentionally) part of the problem and potentially a more effective part of the solution.

Like Boal, I have adapted my work to the socio-political environment and circumstances in which I have found myself. I am a straight, White, able-bodied man, raised upper middle class living in the United States – a person of some privilege in a country of tremendous privilege. In anti-oppression jargon, I possess much “agency” (Adams, 1997, p. 20). Symbolically, and, in ways, literally, I am the oppressor. It is important to be clear that this work is not about bashing straight, White, able-bodied men of means as the source of all problems. It is important for all people to feel good about who they are. How else can we be authentic and compassionate members of society as well as effective citizen activists? Shame breeds frozenness, an inability to act, which helps no one. Our work does not point a finger, nor does it attempt to oversimplify human beings into the binary of either oppressed or oppressor. People are inevitably complex in ways that are impossible to define with labels.

A valued colleague of mine, Dr. Leticia Nieto, a scholar in Systematic Oppression theory, has suggested that if 90 percent of women in the United States think they are too fat, then that is not just an issue for individual women. It is societal and it is the result of Systematic Oppression, the historic, institutional, and socially pervasive disempowerment of a social group (called “targets”) by another social group (called “agents”) or society at large. (Adams, p. 20). Systematic Oppression drives the “isms” and is defined by societal (as opposed to personal) power, privilege, and access to resources, education, employment opportunities, etc. So, according to this theory: racism = racial prejudice + power; sexism = gender prejudice + power; classism = class prejudice + power, etc. (See Appendix for a handout developed to use in workshops; it describes the roles typically played in Systematic Oppression.)

Systematic Oppression can include overt bigotry and mistreatment, but often it is unintentional and/or unconscious. Its manifestations can be deceptively subtle – almost invisible except to the targets of the oppression. It carries assumptions based on the values of the dominant culture. Examples include the decisions about which textbooks are used in public schools and about which communication styles are effective or even welcome in meetings. By definition, all people are agents and targets of various forms of systematic oppression.

Because we want to see the humanity in all people, there can be significant resistance to this way of viewing the world. Even (sometimes especially) within the progressive community, there is a tendency to focus primarily on our similarities and avoid our differences. “Why can’t we get beyond all that and just get along?!” I have heard comments like this countless times in “diversity” workshops. In a perfect world, perhaps. Systematic Oppression theory, by itself, is a gross over-simplification. However for many people, acknowledgement of social group memberships is a critical piece of the puzzle. Until we have that perfect world with “liberty and justice for all”, it is a mistake to skip over these divisions, which are a painful reality for many people. Heterogeneous groups can, in fact, come together more genuinely and heart-fully if these divisions are acknowledged. In order for us to be true anti-oppression activists or agents of liberation, it is our responsibility to learn to become effective allies to those people/groups who are treated as “other” or “less than” by society. Systematic Oppression dehumanizes and hurts us all.

To help people grapple with this concept, Dr. Nieto identifies a duality: the difference between truth and reality. The truth is, we are all one people. We all bleed, we all love our children, we all want respect, we all die. . At the same time, the reality is that some people are treated differently than others, in part, due to their social identity group membership. Some groups have more societal power than others. The culture of those with power is the dominant culture of society and its social values are considered “normal” – while other groups of people are marginalized, less valued, invisible, “other.” The truth of unity and the reality of division exist simultaneously.

Though I experienced success conducting TO workshops with marginalized populations, I ultimately came to realize that my most valuable work might be with my “own” people — those with significant social privileges. I kept returning to the story of a classic image of oppression that Boal describes — of the man lying on the ground with another man’s foot on his chest. Asked to recreate the image as an ideal image, the man on the ground simply removes the foot from his chest but does not stand up. While the self-empowerment of the oppressed is indeed critical work, how much easier might it be if the oppressor removed his own foot from the man’s chest? Sometimes the one standing is not even aware that his foot is figuratively on the other’s chest. However well-intentioned that person may be, he may still be inadvertently “oppressing”. It must be possible for agents of oppression to re-invent themselves as agents of liberation – to “use their privilege” (Mindell, 1995, p. 73). This is more than just “magic”, Boal’s term for changing the essential truth of a character (1992, p. 267). Those with more power have the ability, access, and perhaps the duty to be a part of the solution. However, even for people with the best of intentions, this can be a remarkably challenging process. Who wants to think of themselves as part of the problem?

Cheryl Harrison is a longtime colleague, TO Joker, and anti-oppression activist as well as one of my mentors about Systematic Oppression Theory. We have been developing and co-facilitating TO-based diversity/anti-oppression workshops since the early 1990’s. In a recent e-mail conversation about our work, she offered the following:

  “In my experience, no one wants to be viewed as the “bad guy”, particularly if you identify as a member of a historically marginalized social group. I think it is also important to keep in mind when doing work around issues of Systemic Oppression that we are talking about social groups that humans are either born into or grow into over time — that this is not about “good” people versus “bad” people, an idea which seems to surface often when exploring these issues. For example, in one workshop, we were using a non-TO structure called the Power Shuffle,¹ in which people are invited to cross the room based on social identity group membership followed by an Image Theatre structure to illuminate the idea of “target” (marginalized) / “agent” (dominant) social group membership. One African American male was stunned at the idea that, although he was a member of at least one marginalized group and was conscious of often being targeted in various ways by racist assumptions and attitudes, bigoted behaviors and unwarranted suspicion by police officials, he did not consider that he also carried the privilege of being an adult, straight, university-educated male. Having to admit this reality can be uncomfortable for those who usually identify as marginalized because it places them in the role they are usually frustrated with – the person who can’t see their privilege.”
(personal communication, January 4, 2010)

As co-facilitator of this workshop Cheryl describes, I recall the moment of this man’s awakening. It was a delicate journey for him and the group, but, ultimately, it seemed to significantly impact his worldview – both as an activist and as a person. So, the challenge of working with privilege is (1) bringing awareness to the notion that you may have your “foot on someone’s chest”, (2) unlearning embedded historical patterns of dominance and superiority including an attitude of “we know best,” and (3) learning new ways to share power and become an effective ally to other people. Theatre of the Oppressed can be adapted and used towards these ends.

Stories from the Field

Though we have used “Theatre of the Oppressor” concepts in a wide variety of contexts and around many issues, Cheryl and I have by far applied it most often in working with racism – arguably one of the most volatile issues in the United States. Even in our more general diversity/anti-oppression programs, groups often end up focusing on racism. A typical workshop lasts two to three days and includes TO community-building games, Image Theatre explorations of issues, basic Systematic Oppression Theory (not inherent to a classic TO practice), and, depending on the needs of the group, some caucus work in which participants are split into separate groups by their social identity groups. For example, in the United States, when splitting along lines of race (a socio-political construct which has little basis in truth but still unfortunately seems necessary because of reality), I generally work with the White people and Cheryl generally works with the People of Color. This is sometimes controversial, but particularly the people identifying as members of the targeted social identity group almost always appreciate it. The few times I have seen significant resistance to this idea, it is almost always, for example, the White people who take issue with the division and the people of color who breathe a sigh of relief. I must state with certainty that we are not creating this division. We are just naming it, working with it, and by doing so, seeking to bridge it. And our experience is that some things can happen in separate caucus groups that would rarely, if ever, happen when the group is together. Or it would take an inordinate amount of time to create the trust necessary for full disclosure to happen within a mixed group.

This is not just true in the United States where the “isms” are often at the forefront of the discourse. When I was working with a group of mixed gender victims of ethnic cleansing by the Taliban in the village of Yakowlang, Afghanistan, it was ultimately apparent that the women were much quieter and more reluctant to participate than the men. I finally asked the women if it would be easier for them to participate freely if the men were not in the room and they immediately replied, “Yes, absolutely.” They knew who held systemic power in the group; it was not safe for them to be free in that mixed gender context. They indicated that it was agreeable for me to work with them separately. (As a foreigner, I apparently posed less of a threat.) When working without the men in the room, the women lit up and displayed a stunning level of power and honesty.

Whether working separately in caucus or together as one group, a few specific “Theatre of the Oppressor” adaptations of TO techniques are noteworthy. One, referred to earlier, is the use of Forum Theatre to analyze and propose actions for potential allies. In classic TO, we replace the most “oppressed” – the disabled person in a scene about ableism, the teen in a scene about adultism, etc. Again, this is important work. But the work of the ally, the person from the agent or dominant social group who does not have the historic wound and might even be taken more seriously by those instigating the oppression, is equally important. A recent performance on elder issues by the Poetic Justice Theatre Ensemble our Port Townsend-based multi-generational theatre troupe which employs both TO And Playback Theatre techniques) included a Forum scene depicting an oppressive situation at their senior assisted living facility. The play came out of stories the audience told of their experience living under the thumb of absent owners and a disconnected manager. For many reasons, they felt powerless to change things. The Forum yielded not only possible solutions for the elder residents but also invited one younger adult advocate in the audience to explore what he might do as an ally in support of his friends. He put himself on the spot by telling a story of his sister advocating for their aging father at a different senior facility. As Joker, I seized the opportunity and invited him to play essentially himself, a potential ally, instead of an elder — the “oppressed,” which might have only served to be what Boal (1992) has sometimes called “Theatre of Advice” (p. 269). I asked him what he could do for his friends. He took the challenge and tried several alternatives. Most touching was when he first asked his elder friends what they wanted him to do. He found out that they were scared of repercussions, that they did not necessarily want him to storm into the manager’s office demanding change. And they certainly did not want him to take action immediately in response to the theatre performance. The elders needed a very sensitive handling of their struggle, but they did want his help. The most profound revelation for all was the importance of checking in with the elders first before jumping to action, a subtle but important layer to consider in ally work.

“Theatre of the Oppressor” invites often-silent witnesses to break their silence and take action. How to do it without disempowering the targets of the oppression is tricky. How better to explore options and generate valuable dialogue than through the experiential process of Forum Theatre? But to discover the best supportive actions, it helps to allow people to replace characters other than the “oppressed.” It also may be valuable to replace the character that we think is causing the oppression – particularly if we relate in any way to the motivation of that character. We learn much about ourselves by playing the characters we do not want to be. Perhaps, in part, because we are those characters.

Some of the most profound and transformative moments in our work have come via an adaptation of the Cop-in-the-Head structure. As developed by Boal for TO, the Cop-in-the-Head is used to investigate internalized oppression. In TO, we bring to life the inner voices that replicate societal messages of oppression. For example, a common voice of internalized classism operating in a person raised poor might be personified by an image of someone covering her mouth and saying, “You’re not good enough.” In Theatre of the Oppressor, we have adapted Cop-in-the-Head to investigate internalized privilege. A person raised upper class might create a counterpoint image to the “You’re not good enough” image that looks like a supportive hand lifting her up and saying, “You deserve it.”

In one “diversity” workshop that Cheryl and I co-facilitated with high school students, the youth created a scene in which two friends, one White, raised with money and one Black, raised poor, look on the school bulletin board to find the results of their final exams. Both got a “C.” Without any specific instruction from us, these teens added a Cop-in-the-Head for each character. The White student’s internal Cop said, “You’ve got to complain; you deserve better than that!” The Black student’s Cop said, “Doesn’t matter; you’re just going to go to community college anyway.” Same grade; different experience. The voice of internalized oppression keeps us down; the voice of internalized privilege keeps us up. These are not just personal messages specific to that individual. They are often archetypes that permeate the experiences of people from those social identity groups. Not that the voices of internalized privilege always feel good. In fact, many of those voices cause tremendous pain and suffering. And sometimes the voices look and feel exactly the same as the voices of internalized oppression. The difference is that internalized privilege includes benefits.

For example, one Cop-in-the-Head process with White people included a Forum that engaged a classic voice of internalized privilege. This voice confronted a well- intentioned White protagonist in a moment in which she recognized but did not speak up against an act of overt racism. It was a shushing finger to mouth image and spoke something to the effect of “Don’t say anything; you’re going to sound stupid.” This is a painful voice, creating much distress in those who know and have lived with it. The outcome of a successfully silencing voice, however painful, keeps the protagonist away from risk. So the assignment in the Forum was to attempt to disarm, silence, neutralize this cop-in-the-head of internalized privilege. With the participants of Color invited to witness, the White people in the group proceeded to do battle with the voice. Person after person attempted to disarm this voice with little if any effect. After some dozen attempts by different participants, the young White actress playing the cop-in-the-head broke down in tears sobbing, “Why can’t anybody stop me?!” I will never forget this moment. The woman knew this voice very well. She took her role very seriously and she desperately wanted to find a meaningful way to stop it. After a long pause, finally someone came up and did what was perhaps the obvious choice. She simply ignored the voice and spoke out loud against the act of racism. The woman playing the cop-in-the-head immediately dropped to the floor, dead. The voice no longer had a use. It was too late. The action was taken; the deed was done. What was most remarkable in all this was how difficult it was for the White people to find a solution, how confounding this voice of internalized privilege was. The simple lesson experienced was clear to everyone in the room. Take action. Risk your privilege and gain deeper humanity for all.

Another moment from a similar internalized privilege process with a group of White people who explored a common desire — reaching out to a person of color and saying “I want to be your friend.” After a long and delicate process collectively exploring possible cops-in-the-head of internalized privilege, two significant ones emerged: “Stay away; you’re going to get hurt!” and “Shh. Don’t let them see you; they’re going to find out that you’re a racist.” There is no doubt that these voices would not have come to the surface if there were people of color in the room. I know this because when I asked the White people if they would be willing to show these voices to the other caucus, the people or color, they spoke with embarrassment, “I don’t think we should show this to them.” I gently responded, “I think they already know.” Ultimately the group agreed to share the results of their exploration with their colleagues of color who responded compassionately, “Yes, we already knew. Thanks for admitting it.” Targets tend to be the experts of their own oppression. Agents often have to work very hard just to see the deeper truth below the surface. From this moment, the groups grew closer. By naming the division, a bridge could be built on a foundation of greater honesty. It is breathtaking how much work it can take in diverse groups to get to real truths around a highly polarizing issue. Working with privilege can help people inch forward towards greater authenticity, humanness, and the possibility for true solidarity.

This approach does not come without challenges. There are significant risks and potential pitfalls, particularly when working with a mixed (race, gender, class, etc.) group on the “isms”. I have, on occasion, seen very progressive groups completely polarize around race, gender, or sexual orientation. Even with advance caution, people sometimes cannot help but slip into the “Who’s the better White person” game of political correctness. Though painful to everyone, these polarizations tend to have particular cost for the Target groups due to cumulative, historical, and ancestral re-wounding. Some colleagues question whether most people are even ready to work on these issues in mixed groups in a healthy way. Even when splitting into separate caucuses, there can be resistance. I once heard a White participant say as I led her (White) caucus into a break-out room, “I don’t want to be here with the White people. I want to be in the other room; I’m an honorary Black person.”

We were greeted before one “diversity” workshop even started with a comment by a participant, “I don’t even want to be here; I feel like I’m being forced to go to somebody else’s church!” Some of these we handled well; some not as well. I have said the wrong thing, spoken when I should not have, not spoken when I should have, and lived through many “nightmare” Joker moments. Does this mean that one should not do the work? Of course not. But I would encourage anyone heading into the fire of diversity / anti-oppression material, particularly attempting to facilitate work on privilege, to simultaneously be working on themselves, to “burn one’s own wood” (Mindell, 1995, P. 208). Among other things, it is important to be aware of one’s own social/identity groups and how these affect one’s experience, awareness (and lack thereof), and also how one is perceived by others. However distasteful and dehumanizing, societal rank and privilege and history do matter in how people interact. Our work is, in part, to transform that.


The “Theatre of the Oppressor” adaptations continue to be the most challenging work Cheryl and I do and it calls for riding a very fine line between compassion and accountability. Theatre of the Oppressed demands revolution – justifiably calling for the marginalized to rise up and reclaim their power in the face of oppression. I worry that, alone, this revolution will flip, a role reversal, still leaving us with a world in which one group is on top and the others below. Theatre of the Oppressor, in conjunction with traditional Theatre of the Oppressed, invites everyone to be the protagonist with full responsibility for their part in an oppressive system. I believe that working for change from both/all roles is the most sustainable and perhaps least bloody path to the equilibrium that Augusto Boal regularly spoke of. A world where no one is oppressed, creating a true liberation for all.

When people say, regarding our anti-oppression work, “You are preaching to the converted.” I respond by saying that there is no such thing as the converted. No one has graduated this course. We all have more work to do in playing our roles as agent of liberation. I will continue to explore this work, in part, so that I can learn to be a better ally, a better advocate for a more just world, a better person. I give particular thanks to brilliant colleagues like Ms. Harrison, Dr. Nieto, and also Qwo-li Driskill, two-spirit/queer writer, scholar, activist, and TO practitioner, among many others, for taking the time to educate and push me into deeper self-reflection.

As someone living in the body suit that possesses significant agency, I am aware that I could use my privilege and quit being an activist at any time. If I were doing more traditional activism as a community organizer, I worry that indeed I might quit. I am deeply grateful to Augusto Boal is for providing Theatre of the Oppressed, which embodies, enlivens, and nourishes as much as it challenges. Boal’s passing throws the gauntlet to all of us, his potential multipliers, to take the work further and boldly into new directions.


Appendix: Roles in Systematic Oppression *

Targets are members of social identity groups that are historically and systematically disenfranchised, exploited, and victimized in a variety of ways by institutions and society as a whole.

Agents are members of dominant social identity groups who carry unearned (and often unconscious) power, privilege, and access within institutions and society as a whole.

The following is a format for identifying agent and target groups. Please note: This is a model specific to the United States. Socio-political structure should be analyzed and categories may need to be adapted for other countries. In addition, human beings are obviously more complex than this simplistic “hierarchical binary” would seem to indicate. Please think of this as just a piece of the puzzle with agents representing a society based on the dominant culture and targets as “other”.

Age Adults (21-59) Children, youth, elders
Disability Able persons Persons with disabilities
Religion Christians Non-Christians (all others)
Ethnicity European-Americans People of Color (including African, Asian, Arab, Latino/a, and Native Peoples)
Social Class Middle and Owning Class (enough or more than enough resources) Poor and Working Class (less than enough resources)
Sexual Orientation Heterosexuals Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Queer
Indigenous Background Non-Native Native, First Nations
National Origin U.S. Born Immigrants
Gender Male Female, Transgender, Gender Queer, etc.

(* Adapted from ”ADRESSING” model by Pamela Hays with thanks to Dr. Leticia Nieto.)



1. See Creighton and Kivel’s Helping Teens Stop Violence for various versions of this exercise.


Adams, Maurianne, et al (editors). Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: A Sourcebook. New York/London: Routledge; 1997.

Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Urizen Books, 1979.
(Republished by Routledge Press in New York/London in 1982.)

Boal, Augusto. Games for Actors and Non-Actors. New York/London: Routledge Press; 1992, 2002.

Creighton, Allan & Kivel, Paul. Helping Teens Stop Violence. Alameda, CA: Hunter House; 1990.

Hosseini, Khaled. The Kite Runner. Riverhead Books; 2003.

Mindell, Arnold. Sitting in the Fire: Large Group Transformation Using Conflict and Diversity. Portland, OR: Lau Tse Press; 1995.

Nieto, L., Boyer, M. F, Goodwin, L., Johnson, G. R., & Smith, L. C. Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment: A Developmental Strategy to Liberate Everyone. Olympia, WA: Cuetzpalin.