Social justice refers to an equitable distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges. Children, adolescents, and adults may experience inequity, a lack of opportunity, and discrimination because of their real or perceived membership in particular social groups based on: age, developmental and acquired disabilities, ethnicity and race, employment status, gender identity and/or expression, geographic location, health status, indigenous heritage, language, legal status, marital status, national origin, religion, size, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. Discrimination, prejudice, and systemic oppression directed against any group are damaging to the physical, social, psychological, economic, and spiritual well-being of the targeted group and of society as a whole.
Social justice is not, as Dr. Martin Luther King (1959) taught, an expression of political or economic power as ends alone, but is tied to the practice of “beloved community,” an indivisible society that is not devoid of conflict but rather strives towards non-violence, generosity, and inclusion.
What is the contribution of drama therapy to social justice?
Drama therapists assert that identity is a complex, ever-changing social construct that assumes different meanings in relation to others and context (see Johnson, 2009; Landers, 2002, 2012; Landy, 2009; Mayor, 2010, 2012; Sajnani, 2012, 2016; Savage, 2016). This ontological position is useful in disrupting essentialist understandings of the self and others and calls attention to difference and contradiction. Projective and embodied exercises facilitate the elicitation, externalization and focused exploration of deeply held feelings, assumptions, implicit, and socially reinforced biases. The use of personal storytelling, sociodrama, and psychodramatic techniques such as role-reversal, doubling and Playback Theatre enactments, make it possible to imagine and empathize with the experience of another, despite legacies of inequity and conflict. Conflict transformation, healing generational trauma and peacebuilding work has been used with multiple polarized groups who have shared legacies of conflict and trauma, including descendants of Holocaust survivors and Nazis, Turks and Armenians, and Palestinians and Israelis (see Volkas, 2009).
Through the process of ensemble building and theatre-making, drama therapists offer individuals and communities who have experienced exclusion an experience of belonging. Performance offers an art form and a platform from which to organize and share lived experiences with chosen audiences. Witnessing the performance of lived experience has been demonstrated to increase awareness, shift perception, disrupt stereotypes, increase empathy, and promote dialogue (Daccache, 2017; Emunah, 2015; Mayor & Dotto, 2014; Sajnani, 2011; Snow and D’Amico, 2015; Wood, 2018; see Pendzik, Emunah, & Johnson, 2017). In the context of social justice, performing lived experience is also a means of directly participating in a process of change, claiming social space, and resisting marginalization (see Sajnani, 2013).
Drama therapy has also been used to address the conditions that re/produce harm. Techniques such as sculpting, and Image theatre make it possible to visualize the relationship between structural and interpersonal violence, social and individual suffering. Improvisation through Developmental Transformations enables one to simultaneously inhabit and question relations of power (Johnson & Sajnani, 2015). Interactive performance genres such as Forum and Legislative Theatre have been used to motivate audiences to actively identify and analyze oppression, mobilize shared knowledge, practice possible solutions, and draft policy proposals (see Boal, 1985; Sajnani, 2009). Trauma-informed drama therapy encourages assessments, screening, and interventions for traumatic stressors including the trauma of living in a society that protects and promotes discrimination (see Mayor & Dotto, 2014; Sajnani, 2012; Sajnani & Johnson, 2014; Volkas, 2014).
Finally, critical scholarship in drama therapy, characterized by an attention to power, difference, inequity, resistance, and hope has prompted attention to the importance of examining the underlying values and assumptions that guide training, supervision, research, and practice (Emunah, 2016; Mayor, 2012; Powell, 2016; Reinstein, 2002; Sajnani et al., 2016; Williams, 2016). It has also brought drama therapy into conversation with critical discourses such as queer, feminist, postcolonial, indigenous, critical race, critical disability, economic, and performance theory. This has resulted in new ways of conceiving of health, illness, and care that emphasize depathologizing language, shared authority, interdependence, collaboration, transparency, liberation, solidarity, material equity, and radical love (Alker, 2015; Hodermarska, 2013; Lee Soon, 2016; Makanya, 2014; Mayor, 2012; Pendzik, 2016; Sajnani, 2016a).
Dr. Nisha Sajnani , RDT-BCT is the Director of the Drama Therapy Program at NYU Steinhardt and on the faculty of the Rehabilitation Sciences Ph.D. and Educational Theatre Ed.D and Ph.D. program. She is the director of the Theatre & Health Lab where her primary research areas of interest include the health benefits of theatre-making as it relates to social determinants of health, stigma, and social inclusion/exclusion, relational aesthetics in therapeutic theatre, scalable storytelling based interventions in schools, and sustainable mental health care in humanitarian contexts. She has also published in the areas of culturally responsive pedagogy in the arts therapies, embodied and performance research, trauma-informed care, and global mental health. She maintains research partnerships with the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma, the Foundation for the Arts and Trauma, the Institute for Arts and Health, the Creative Arts Therapies Research Unit (University of Melbourne), and KenVak (European Arts Therapies Research Consortium). Dr. Sajnani is a founding member of the Critical Pedagogy in the Arts Therapies project.
Christine Mayor, MA, RDT, is a drama therapist living in Ontario, completing her doctoral studies in critical social policy within the social work department at Wilfrid Laurier Univ. She is the associate editor of Drama Therapy Review, adjunct faculty at Lesley University, and has published several articles focused on power and race in drama therapy. Christine is also the former director of public health and social policy at the Post Traumatic Stress Center in New Haven, CT and director of ALIVE, a trauma-centered program in CT public schools.
We wish to acknowledge Samah Ikram, Fred Landers, Elizabeth McAdam, Opher Shamir, Armand Volkas, and Britton Williams for their contributions
Special Issue of Arts in Psychotherapy on Social Justice (2012) edited by Dr. Nisha Sajnani and Dr. Frances Kaplan
Special Issue of Drama Therapy Review on Social Justice (2016) edited by Dr. Nisha Sajnani
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