Most people likely see theatre as a form of entertainment, but for anyone working with global refugees and internally displaced persons, theatre can also offer a sense of hope and community.
Consider the global impact of the work of UVic applied theatre PhD student Taiwo O. Afolabi. A graduate fellow with UVic’s Centre for Global Studies and a Queen Elizabeth Scholar with UVic’s Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives, Afolabi arrived in Canada two years ago. His research focuses on artistic practices among internally displaced persons (IDPs) in IDP communities or camps to create awareness for the plight of displaced persons.
“Theatre can raise consciousness,” says Afolabi. “Coming to one workshop might change someone’s perspective, whereas I can write five articles that might never be read.”
The Nigerian-born scholar had already travelled to the likes of Burkina Faso, China, Denmark, Iran and the USA and before choosing to pursue doctoral studies in UVic’s Theatre department; indeed, he came to UVic specifically to study with renowned Department of Theatre professor Warwick Dobson.
“For me, applied theatre is all about relationships and interactions,” he explains. “Relationships are powerful because they involve us, and those interactions make us responsible and actionable. Once we start understanding peoples’ reality, it brings us closer to their experience — not just theory, but their actual experience. We can start living it.”
The applied theatre program in the Department of Theatre is no stranger to international projects: consider the recent field school to India led by PhD candidate Matthew Gusul, or the efforts of Theatre professor Kirsten Sadeghi-Yekta, who has led projects in Brazil, Cambodia, Nicaragua and The Netherlands.
Locally, Afolabi has been working with both the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society and the Intercultural Association of Greater Victoria, and will be participating in a World Refugee Day performance at Victoria City Hall on June 20.
Following completion of his PhD, Afolabi hopes to travel to throughout Africa — specifically to Eastern, Southern and Western Africa — to map and document what local people are doing to preserve their culture. “Moving from different countries gives you a broader perspective on the world and practices,” he says.
In this article from UVic’s Ring, Afolabi discusses his artistic practices around internally displaced persons or communities. He talks about how a “lived experience” – through the audience’s firsthand experience of culturally specific activities and performances, ranging from dance and music to drumming and magician acts – “has the capacity to make it personal, beyond theory.” This kind of empathy, he says, generates “a profound response.”
“So much memory and knowledge resides in the body and in theatre we can bring it out,” he explains. “And sometimes people give solutions that don’t work for a complex issue because we are distanced from it. With the ‘lived experience’ [of theatre], even if it’s only for a second, you can come to that point. It can give you something that you won’t forget.”
Afolabi is participating in a panel about migration and refugee performances as part of Forgotten Corridors: Global Displacement and the Politics of Engagement — the 10th annual conference of the Canadian Association for Refugee and Forced Migration Studies. Running May 15 to 18 and hosted by UVic’s Centre for Asia Pacific Initiatives (CAPI), this is the first time the conference has been held on the west coast of Canada.
“We’re building community and building relationships between refugees from different cultural backgrounds,” Afolabi said in this Times Colonist article about the Forgotten Corridors conference.
Afolabi explains that he uses dance, music and drama to give displaced people a sense of empowerment and allow them to engage in “self-celebration, self-expression and self-documentation,” rather than simply being treated like victims.
Forgotten Corridors seeks to expand the examination of global displacement by looking beyond the world media focus on the Mediterranean: are other displaced groups being left out of the discussion? How do financially strapped countries such as India and Kenya accommodate thousands of guests for protracted periods of time? What can theatre teach us about the experiences of internally displaced persons? What do Australia’s offshore detention camps reveal about personal impacts of sending those in search of a safe home to languish in limbo?
By bringing together more than 200 activists, scholars, policy makers and other experts from all corners of the world to share knowledge, experiences and strategies as they relate to global displacement, Forgotten Corridors also dovetails with UVic’s new International Plan, launched in the fall of 2016. It is also one of four signature series events by UVic to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary.
For his part, Afolabi hopes to start conversations at Forgotten Corridors that will act as “sparks” for people to then take home with them.
“When we start understanding the reality, it brings us closer to the experience,” he says. “Applied theatre has the capacity and potential to bring these issues closer to us. We can start living it.”