Just Play

Focusing on the work of the Compañía Nacional de Teatro de México, Just Play uses a series of literary episodes — travel narratives, interviews, personal journals, play-writing — to uncover the affective power of theatre as a dynamic form of social justice. Just Play is a playful work (including a short original play) about what theatre can do in post-modern, third-to-first/first-to-third world environments. It is also an effort to encounter issues of entitlement, ex- and in-clusivity, audience, migration, translation, and responsibility. Just Play suggests what exists, and what may still be possible, when theatre attempts to enact cosmopolitan ethics such as inclusivity, hospitality and responsible interdependence.

There is, in theatre, the activity of dialogue and play, of different modes and manners of speaking and acting, of rehearsing and responding, that come together to communicate with the participating audience. We have often thought that the theatre stages ideas, but Just Play proposes that whatever is staged is only a fraction of what is at play in the theatre. There is staging of social justice, and there is theatre as social justice.

Just Play presents a series of literary episodes—interviews, travel narratives, personal journals, and play-writing, along with recorded video, audio, and photography—as a means to uncover the affective achievement of theatre in its own vigorously multiple modes and settings. The Compañía Nacional de Teatro, the theatre company at the center of this study, has already reached the same conclusion in terms of its own efforts: multiple modes proving more effective at growing a truly diverse national and global theatrical community. The play “works” when it creates relationship with the audience, and that relationship, as is true with all relationships, is formed through many modes of communication and response, including strong and weak efforts, mistakes, and revisions.

The Compañía Nacional de Teatro, the national theatre of Mexico, works contextually for the people of the country. As the company travels and performs in rural Mexico, in drug-war-torn cities, in the public Zócalo in Mexico City, engaging the homeless and the well-housed as one, they use the work of Shakespeare, Brecht, Moliere and many more (including Bergamín, Villoro, and Viripáiev) not to bring the past to the present, nor “classic” theatre to the masses, but to translate meaningful dramatic theatre into the present meaningful audience and their realities in strained cultures, economies, and communities.

I have written previously about the theatrical brilliance of the Compañía’s performance, a brilliance that does not arise so much from their connection to the great literature of the past as from their ability to do three things well: to create more fully inclusive and multiple performance communities of audience/performers; to translate the plays both in language and performance out of the often first-world past and fully into the third-world present of their audiences; and to use multiple performance practices, ranging from what might be generically called “high theatre” to the techniques of cabaret, street theatre, and others. There is in all of this an openness that we might call truly global theatre; we might also call it the play of social justice, a just play, designed for audiences whom we would find around the globe, who have most often been marginalized or fully excluded.

With these ideas in mind, a just play in the global context begins with some basic principles. There is a commitment to create relationship, and dramatic literature that builds relationship, with people, in their available spaces and languages, who will come to form a new, more inclusive and included audience. This effort, as is the case in any dynamic relationship, will include multiple dimensions of communication, performance, and careful understanding. A just play will also engage and integrate the urgent realities of this audience, allowing a degree of dynamic malleability within the plays and performance. And, a just play considers and makes positive use of the hybrid virtue of translation across languages, places, economic disparities, cultural difference, and the borders between the in- and ex- clusive.

Just Play strives to understand—through multiple formats—the connectedness of this theatrical effort to both third-world Mexico and the first-world theatre; why the company has still not performed in the United States, despite their dynamic and growing reputation (as well as the dynamic and growing Mexican community in the US); how members of the audience—including the rural poor, the devastated urban, the technologically excluded—engage with these performances, and, by their active presence, help shape them to new ends; how the ideas contained in collaboration between translated texts, new audiences, and professional players come to enact a form of social justice that has meaning not only in the Compañía’s native land, but also in the global community more generally.

In the end, Just Play is a play-ful work (including a short original play) about what theatre can do in post-modern, third-to-first/first-to-third world environments; it will be an effort to encounter issues of entitlement, ex- and in-clusivity, audience, migration/translation, and responsibility in the theatre world. Just Play will in this way be an effort to discover variously and suggest, both specifically and broadly, what exists and what may still be possible when theatre attempts to enact cosmopolitan ethics, such as inclusivity, hospitality, and responsible interdependence.