The Space Between: Using Peer Theater to Transcend Race, Class, and Gender

By Bowers, Venessa A.; Buzzanell, Patrice M. | Women and Language, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

The Space Between: Using Peer Theater to Transcend Race, Class, and Gender


Bowers, Venessa A., Buzzanell, Patrice M., Women and Language


Abstract: This study explores the experience of directing a Peer Theatre group of inner city black teenagers from the standpoint of a white, working-class woman. Peer Theatre's unique communicative ability to make sense of situations and issues through portraying characters both similar and different from one's self can enable participants to transcend issues of race, class, and gender. Through talk, we were able to honor our differences, construct ways to co-orient ourselves to each other, and build relationships based on our common humanity. We found three feminist transformational processes associated with Peer Theater: experiencing the dialogic moment, sustaining tensions and contradictions (by using feminist anger, forming guiding values, and participating in rituals), and empowering women and other marginalized members of society.

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It was an average Thursday evening during the winter. As I opened my mouth to explain the purpose of Peer Theater to a group of white, middle-class college students aged 18-23 who were seated before me waiting to audition for a Peer Theater group on their college campus, words escaped me. For a moment, I saw the faces of the Peer Theater participants from first group I directed . . . inner city black teenagers. I felt the overwhelming sense that I had been in this place before--a place of complete disorientation and silence, a place where everything I knew seemed to vanish. (Personal journal entry)

This relatively disturbing event, coupled with my current coursework on gender, society, and health communication prompted me to search for the journal I kept during my first Peer Theater experience five years earlier and revisit that experience. After leafing through its pages, 1 revisited the tensions and joys in that life-changing moment. Five years ago, Peer Theater changed my life's direction as a woman, as a professional, and as a scholar. My experiences with this group helped me make sense of my life and how I fit into a larger order.

As with any attempt to create meaning and understand the social-historical-economic underpinnings of ordinary experiences, I could not construct interpretations alone. Sensemaking is an intersubjective activity. Over time and space, many individuals have helped me weave together meaningful accounts of these experiences. Most recently, I have returned to these Peer Theater episodes with the assistance of the second author. While Patrice did not participate in the events that I recount in this article, she worked with me to frame, edit, analyze, and make sense of my experiences. Her thoughts about the analyses mingle with mine throughout this article in such a way that I present the findings as a singular voice.

For me (Venessa), the original Peer Theater exchanges and subsequent reflection about those experiences began a long-term passion for working toward equality in voice, opportunity, and choices. For Patrice, these discussions are part of an ongoing program to locate different ways of changing society through feminist theorizing and practice. It is this feminist transformation--this passion and challenge for advocacy--that this article explores.

Feminist transformation typically is defined as "the fusion of political perspective and practice" (Lewis, 1990, p. 469). Many different change processes associate with the varied causes and consequences of women's subordination (Buzzanell, 1994, 2000; Calas & Smircich, 1996; Tong, 1989; Wood, 2001). What many of these processes share is a faith that awareness of unjust situations can motivate women and men to unite against these inequitable and damaging conditions in our institutions, our socialization practices, our economies, our relationships with nature, and so on throughout the world (Hegde; 1998; Lorber, 1994). The process of translating awareness into advocacy often requires assistance of others not only to determine which of the many change strategies might be useful in a given situation but also to continue the process of interpreting and evaluating lived experiences in light of feminist commitments. …

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