March 18, 2011
by Dana Balicki
No one who knows me would call me speechless, just ask my mom. I had the nickname “Ms. Bossy” before I could even form full sentences.
When I read Alice Walker’s essay ‘Overcoming Speechlessness’ (published in 2010 by Seven Stories Press) I felt the weight of all the times in my life where I had not spoken up. I felt the weight of my country, the many who have not and do not speak up against the brutality waged in the name of Americans (and/or democracy, and/or security) everywhere. As heavy as I felt, there was a lightness that came through Alice’s story—a sense of hopefulness not easily achieved when discussing mass rape in the DRC, white phosphorous laden communities in the bombed out Gaza Strip, or the genocide of Native American Indians.
I immediately began to imagine Alice’s vivid journey playing out on stage. Ultimately, I would love to see this play be used by communities of women to talk about the profound global issues, as well as their own personal struggles with speechlessness.
I have, in fact, made it my life’s work to counteract speechlessness. For the past six and a half years I had been working with the grassroots women’s peace organization CODEPINK, doing anti-war organizing. Mobilizing people around the occupation of Iraq was never harder then after Barack Obama was elected. Many feel the war is over—or over enough. Others have turned their focus on their families in the midst of a severe economic crisis.
This essay, in which Alice Walker travels to Gaza with CODEPINK, reminded me yet again why I loved my job and why the work for peace and justice is so necessary. Also, the way Alice weaves together the different threads of our recent collective human history with the issue of the Palestinian struggle for independence feels like a game-changer in the way we generally experience this particular Middle East narrative.
She sheds light on her own life growing up in the Civil Rights south, her thoughts on South Africa post-apartheid, and her reflections on the indomitability of the human spirit to say ‘yes, we can come out on the other side.’ The more game-changers at this point, the better. As you can imagine, we are immensely proud to be bringing these elements to the stage. This first reading is really just to give folks a taste of what could be.
It was back in December that I met Allan Buchman of the Culture Project and we realized we had the same brain children to develop this essay into a work of theater. The effervescent Tamilla Woodard came on in January, our choreographer Shani Collins-Achille came on in February, so we’ve only had about two months for development and rehearsals. Given all that, every challenge of this project consistently proves to be a blessing and occasion to stretch.
The opportunity to weigh Alice’s prose and the conflict in Palestine/Israel against a measure of “what is theatrical” is some heavy lifting. We are deep in examination of the delicate balance between the intensely personal and acutely political. Since I come from a very politically charged background, we, as a team, have had to work together to find the symmetry between that which is charged, while still being engaging and theatrical.
So much of the work I did with CODEPINK focused on the power of the story, of the feminine-centered leadership which blossoms when we examine and express our own narratives. After being immersed in the anti-war movement for so many years (George W. Bush stole my twenties, and I’m one of the lucky ones) I felt like I had become more political agenda than personal story. I needed to find my balance again (I am a Libra). For me this balance has come in the form of writing down my own stories and believing that this simple act is a step toward social change.
With articles like this Women and Hollywood post and this on VIDA, we need to be taking and making every opportunity to share our stories and our talents. Overcoming Speechlessness is an invitation to engage, listen and ultimately see where and how we are all connected. Those are lofty goals for any piece of art or activism, and making sure our end of the work keeps up with those goals keeps us all on our toes and in our best creative thinking. It is in these ways that activism is not much different than making art/theater; it’s a practice of listening, reflecting and reacting to what is right in front of you while creating chemistry that compels people to want to take the ride with you. Oh, and like anything necessary to cut through the chatter and dive straight into the heart of the matter, it takes a good story and a good story teller. Check and check.
Dana Balicki is an activist, writer and artist living in Brooklyn, NY. danabalicki.com Overcoming Speechlessness is showing at the Culture Project’s Women Center Stage Festival on March 23rd at the Living Theater, 21 Clinton St, NYC. Tickets to Overcoming Speechlessness range from $18 - $50 (benefit ticket with post-show artist reception). To purchase tickets, click here. To learn more about Women Center Stage, visit www.womencenterstage.org.