Theater of the Oppressed in the Ethnic Studies Classroom

In partnership with the Creative Advantage, Seattle Public Schools teachers worked with guest teaching artists to develop Theater of the Oppressed strategies into Ethnic Studies classrooms. Pictured here: Ian Golash, Heather Griffin, Tracy Castro-Gill, Jéhan Òsanyìn, Lara Davis, Gail Sehlhorst, Jesse Hagopian, Jennifer Dunn Charlton, Rachel Atkins, Luke Azinger, Tina LaPadula, Tikka Sears.

by Jennifer Dunn Charlton

It is becoming clearer to me that Ethnic Studies is a mindset more than anything. It is the lens which we put on any particular subject or object of study. Once you understand the frameworks of the curriculum, any racial equity literate teacher could potentially deliver the content. But Ethnic Studies is not just content-it is a whole shift in the purpose and goal of education: Education for liberation-not assimilation. The challenge then becomes about moving away from traditional methods of content delivery and traditional assessments coded in white norms and what Paulo Freire referred to as “banking style education”. We remove barriers when we let go of high-pressure, independent assessments, but what do we replace it with? When I inform my students that we will be taking no tests, no quizzes and then ask students what they want to do instead, the default response is often a puzzled “give a PowerPoint presentation?” Students have been given so little autonomy over their own learning that they hardly know what to do-EVEN IN THE TENTH GRADE. Theater of the Oppressed (TO) is a gateway that leads to infinite possibilities beyond tests, quizzes, and PowerPoints.

In early spring 2019, I agreed to partner with a guest teacher to launch a series of lessons involving Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed in my humanities classroom. After meeting with the guest artist, we adapted lessons written by the Seattle Public Schools Ethnic Studies curriculum writers to incorporate TO moves. TO is a natural fit in the Ethnic Studies classroom because it transforms the room from passive consumption by spectators from traditional theater (and classroom?) space and everyone is a spect-actor. This can be a difficult shift for students who have learned to hide in the traditional classroom. Since everyone is involved simultaneously, no one can sit passively listening to a lecture, bubble in a long column of “C” on the quiz they didn’t prepare for or watching the clock for the class to end. Everyone is in because there is no “out.”

TO allows access to Ethnic Studies by making space to express through movements some of the things that are SO HARD TO SAY about topics like identity, privilege, indigeneity, white saviors, gentrification, etc. The work involves finding your real place in machines and confront your own role in perpetuating injustices-since we are all in the system-we are all guilty of complacency unless we as Mario Savio put it in his speech in front of his fellow students at Berkeley in 1964, “put our bodies upon the gears of the machine.”  

When I first agreed to pilot this work in partnership with Ethnic Studies, I worried that I would not be able to match the energy that experienced theater artists amaze me with, but by the second collaboration, I found myself almost talking over the teaching artist since I started having my own visions of how to help students create the motions and words in their work.

“We were preparing for real world communication needs without even realizing it.”

Over the weeks, a few days looked and felt similar: Warm up. Active machine or tableau work. Reflection. Warmups involved some fairly low stakes theater games. One game, red ball, uses imaginary balls of different colors being passed around a circle. Red ball requires making eye contact, listening, giving and receiving in a “gamified” format. We were preparing for real world communication needs without even realizing it.

The first full on TO activity we did together was build a machine. The machine represents the system; any system that we find ourselves inside of such as the patriarchy or racism. The machine that we rebuilt together was called the Machine of Gentrification. We first studied the Central District of Seattle by watching the music video “The Hood Ain’t the Same” by Draze and reading supporting articles and listening to a podcast about gentrification in Seattle housing and schools. We chose lyrics from the song that stuck out to us. Mine was “no white sheets but these suits and ties look the same to me.” Then we chose a gesture that would represent the words we were saying. After all coming up in partnerships with our gesture/word combinations, we moved into position on a pretend map of Seattle to identify where in the city this was happening and where we are in relation to the problem. We “ran the machine” in the order that we thought one thing was leading to another. This was very eye opening to students, “I think the machine of transformation really identified the problems we face and what it would look like if those problems were solved. It really got me thinking about how these problems are treated, where they’re located, and how our lives would be way different if these problems weren’t around.” -MH

Then we tried to imagine what the opposite of the problem would look like with our bodies. We created new gestures and words to demonstrate that change. This is where the magic happens. We identified a problem, imagined what we wanted to see instead and then we were able to explore different pathways to achieve the goal. Then we ran the machine sequentially with all of the moving parts cycling through problem, a change that needs to be made, and a solution. This was a little broad the first time we did it, but it absolutely led to students identifying real world problems that they were concerned about and helped them see ways in which they, as individuals, but also by forming alliances with other groups, could create change. I took photos and notes up on the overhead as they were creating all of this work.

We experimented in a few other activities such as tableau. In this activity, we built a tableau of the White Savior Complex. We read articles about different ways people accidentally or purposely do this in the world. Tableau is similar but different from Machines in that this activity involves identifying a problem, a change and a solution in the same way but differs in that it a robot style 3 pose sequence of movements as opposed to the machine which runs continuously with all of the parts moving at once. This was a good activity, since this class has a white majority. Had we just read about it, or even just discussed it, I don’t think it would have been as powerful as watching someone “act” a certain way and being able to see why it is problematic.

“Theatre of the Oppressed makes us ready to respond and ready for action.”

While I could (and probably will) write more extensively about all of the benefits of doing this work I really want to say this: TO makes us ready to respond and ready for action. In the first workshop I did to prepare for this work, it was suggested that this work is “acting like act-ivists until we become them.” I leaned into this energy to dive into topics that I am certain would have been harder for all students to engage in as a discussion and yet through TO, students were able to access the content, collaborate and create some truly meaningful projects using the same methodology that we developed in our theater work:  

The past few weeks have been very action-oriented. Students have organized open forums for the recent Abortion Legislation in several states, and also to some racist vandalism that happened inside the school among some really amazing other projects. These students have designed their own finals without feeling disengaged, left out, assimilated, bored or coerced. They are engaged in Freire’s “problem posing education”.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter @JenniferIsDunn


  1. Thanks for sharing. Teatro traditions, connected with Teatro Campesino & teatro Chicano, are a rich vehicle to excite students. Boal’s work exciting.

  2. As a Brazilian, graduated in Arts and Education which curriculum included Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal, I am very happy witnessing the use of Pedagogia do Opressor (Pedagogy of the Oppressed), and Teatro do Oprimido (Theater of the Oppressed) being widely used worldwide in this last two decades. I am curious to learn more about how those powerful tools has been adapted to the Seattle Public Schools curriculum.

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