Sunday, September 16, 2012

Pilot Project Launch: Bringing Hope

I have always been an advocate for theatre in education because I comprehend and have witnessed the interdisciplinary possibilities that theatre experiences offer.  Using theatre as a device for conflict resolution is a relatively new field in South Africa.  In a country torn by great racial divides, there is obviously a significant amount of focus upon reconciliation.  Using Solms ideology of attempting to initiate triumphs in the area of social reform by attempting to "start small", I have devised a pilot project that will go to some length to bridge the vast racial divide.

I recently directed a production at UFS and organized over 300 youth from area township schools to attend a performance cost-free.  The majority had never been on a bus, many had never been out of the township, and few had been inside a theatre.  This is one of the groups from the poorest school district:

Three weeks ago, I was invited by a staff member from UFS who works on community based initiatives to visit that same school, which is located just outside Bloemfontein.  I met the Principle and Vice Principle,and was given a tour of the grounds and facilities, which houses 1200 students.  This is some of what I witnessed:

I recall a very specific moment during my visit in when emotions got the better of me.  At the time, I was watching children walk through filth just outside their classroom doors.  The smell was overpowering.  Yet the children were smiling. Laughing, even.  And waving to me in delight and welcome.  I  focused upon asking technical questions about the functionality of the school so as not to emotionally dissolve.  The bathroom is used by all 1200 students.  Revolting is too kind a description.  The school can not afford cleaning products.

I wondered how any South African  who saw these conditions could not think that  something should be done.  Must be done.  And I remembered the numerous conversations I've had with many South Africans who find the problems plaguing the country are far too enormous for any one person to solve.

The individual I was traveling with from UFS then invited me to visit the home where she grew up, which is in the township.  I of course grasped the opportunity, and we drove to a much nicer area---where houses are made of bricks and metal sheeting, and are approximately  15' X 20' in size.  Her mother welcomed me into the house, in which seven people lived.  The woman was very pleasant, but giggled frequently.  Apparently, I was the first white person that had ever been inside her home.  As we stepped outside, many neighbors had gathered. In actuality,  I was the first white person that had ever visited the area, and my presence was quite a spectacle!

I reflected upon my conversations with several white students who grew up in Bloemfontein but had never gone into the townships.  As I suspected, fear was one motivating factor.  However, the majority could not provide a strong explanation beyond stating they had no reason to go there.

I felt fairly confident that if I devised a project to provide opportunities for white students to work with the children and see their living conditions, something  had to be affected within the visitors psychology.  So the Theatre Explorers Pilot Project was proposed to the school and UFS, and enthusiastically supported. I combined the efforts of the Offices of Service Learning, Community Outreach, the Rector's Office and the Department of Drama and Theatre Arts,  all of whom were necessary to implement the project.  Friday marked our first workshop, which was thrilling on many levels.  And emotional.  Very emotional.  I have four students from the Department of Drama and Theatre Arts who are serving as Teaching Assistants.  We collect 16 bagged lunches donated by UFS, three vans, and copious amounts of enthusiasm, then travel to the school each Friday to work with 16 selected youths ages 11-14.  The school requested that we provide bagged lunches since the workshops are held after school.  In the photos above, you'll see a few children holding what looks to be a bowl of mush.  This is the meal provided by the school.  For the majority of children, this is the only meal they receive for the day.  When our Theatre Explorers students opened their bags, amazement spread throughout the room.  Each bag contained a sandwich, an apple, and a juice box, which was nearly incomprehensible to them.  An hour into the workshop, we gave each child a normal size bottle of water. Again, to the students, this gift was extraordinary.  Nearly as rewarding to me was that my Teaching Assistants were absorbing the information.  The children, as a group, were highly appreciative and thankful.  And perhaps the best mannered group of children I've ever have the honor of working with.

Following the workshop, our agreement including transporting the children to drop off points in the township.  This, I knew, was going to have a profound impact on the college students.  The typical dwellings of the children:

This man is collecting water--homes do not have plumbing.

The children, from age 5, travel up to an hour by foot to reach this school.  I had six of the students in my van, and I asked if they liked school.  Without any hesitation they enthusiastically yelled, "Yes!"  When I asked why, one boy stated "Because it makes us clever, which is important."

We will return to the school five more times before the semester ends in October, and work with the same 16 children.  But I'm already seeing a positive outcome.  The comments from my four Teaching Assistants have already sparked the interest of others.  More students and theatre faculty want to join us on our weekly visit.  White and colored  people.  In my mind, all bringing hope.