After nearly four years of international relations classes, treading texts that illustrated the proper workings of political systems and governmental actors, I suddenly drowned. Tuesday, November 8 mocked our carefully constructed, checked and balanced world in the SFS.
And by the time Wednesday, November 9 came around, I knew that the chaos would extend far beyond the pages of academic syllabi. Amongst the usual confusion of post-graduation plans and final exams, I deeply questioned my identity as an American– an immigrant, a naturalized American, but an American nonetheless.
Within the SFS, I analyzed the asymmetrical world around me– but I was trapped in my head. I wrote and rewrote words of criticism, despair, frustration. I felt paralyzed in my inaction. My reactions were so visceral, and yet I felt isolated in a world of broken models and incomplete theories. I craved something that was simultaneously intellectual and creative.
But as my professor and mentor Derek Goldman once told me, the etymological root of “frustration” is grounded in “breakthrough.” The Culture and Politics curriculum helped me to understand the importance of power relations in storytelling that shape our ideas of truth. To create my own narrative and promote those that are politically underrepresented, I explored writing, directing, and performing collaborative theatre through the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics (in short, the Lab).
Right after the presidential election, I began a theatre project through which I could channel my frustration, anger, and confusion into creative energy– if you will, a combination of art and self-prescribed therapy. My team and I conducted interviews that probed young people for the questions that we were most struggling with: how has the presidential cycle impacted you? When have you felt misunderstood in America? What does it mean to be a patriot?
We collected stories of immigrants and outsiders to fold into our performance, titled I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE. The piece is an anthology of stories that sprouted from those interviews and our experiences as young immigrant Americans who grew up between 9/11 and Trump. It is a product of our political reality, and it is my activism.
It is said that Minerva’s owl flies highest in the night– especially in these dark times, theatre and art helps us to understand the chaos around us. Another etymology: the word for “theatre” comes from the Greek root of “seeing something from a different place.” It compels the audience member (and the performer) to travel in their understanding… to foster empathy by witnessing experience.
Through the Lab, I have encountered pieces and performers from all over the world who challenge the status quo through their art.
Projects like GENERATION (WH)Y, which highlighted the stories of international Muslim youth, introduced me to young people around the world and helped me to understand their stories and struggles from afar.
I was struck by the ethnographic SYRIA: TROJAN WOMEN, in which Syrian performers immortalized their stories of exile in the cadence of ancient Greek mythology. Their performance illustrated that the cyclical tragedies of forced migration endure despite centuries of separation.
And for the play AMRIKA CHALO, I (an Indian Hindu) choreographed scenes for Pakistani Muslim performers. Far away from our broken motherland, we satirized cross-border bureaucracy and nurtured cross-border friendships.
Global theatre fosters empathy between audience and storytellers. Whether I watch or create shows about people from different communities, I begin to understand and contextualize their stories within my own reality.
When my team and I performed I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE at the World Theatre Congress in Segovia, Spain, spectators from all over the world– from India to South Africa to the Philippines– could relate to the sentiments of the play. Despite not having an “American immigrant” experience, they understood the feelings of isolation and underrepresentation within their own contexts. It turns out that people worldwide are searching for the same catharsis that I was.
The other performances in the Student Festival of the Congress represented a similar political hunger. Students presented new international work that pulled from their own collective histories– pieces that courageously spoke out against injustice. My team and I plan to continue to work on I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE, a piece that will evolve beyond us and this political moment; we hope that it will grow to include more voices and tour to more international audiences.
In the past year, I have also fostered global connections and continued the practice of political theatre through the Lab Fellows program, a tribe of innovative artists and generous collaborators. We are comprised of scholars and comedians, activists and students, immigrants and creators– intersecting identities that celebrate our multi-faceted knowledge.
With representation from Cambodia to Cambridge to Colombia, the Fellows are an incredibly diverse group. Such international perspectives allows us to bloom in our local contexts. Over the summer, the ten of us gathered at the world’s largest theatre festival in Edinburgh, Scotland to watch theatre and share our experiences. Each of us brought a unique perspective as we examined the importance of diverse performances from our own socio-political realities.
Together, we focus on creating a new “ecology of resistance”– a creative activism that celebrates our intellectual insights and supports our artistic growth. In the coming year, we plan to learn from and with each other about performance and activism. We aspire to achieve breakthroughs (both creative and political) as a global team, channeling our individual frustrations into a collaborative energy.
I am grateful that, after graduation from the SFS and continuing as a Marshall Scholar at the University of Cambridge, I am able to do my dream work at the intersection of activism and performance. Equipped with the tools from Culture and Politics and the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, I am better prepared to contribute to a global ecology of resistance… one that listens, creates, and empowers the artist and the audience.
Devika Ranjan is a first-generation Indian-American. She explores themes of migration, identity, and belonging through theatre and creative arts as a Fellow at the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics. Devika is a 2017 graduate Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service where she studied Culture and Politics. She is currently a Marshall Scholar, pursuing postgraduate study at the University of Cambridge, UK.