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Performing nonviolent resistance: towards an understanding of the Memphis sanitation workers' strike of 1968

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posted on 2023-08-30, 18:57 authored by Sharon J. Reives
This is a practice-as-research project using theatrical practice as its major research strategy. Through archival research and testimony, I created a play entitled A Balm in Gilead, which I also produced and directed. A filmed record of that performance is submitted as an integral part of my project. This piece was performed in Zion Baptist Church in Cambridge on 15 January 2018, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a play with music and dance, but it is not a musical. I hypothesize that the principles of nonviolent resistance, which King’s stance in the civil rights movement epitomized, can be taught through theatrical performance. Teaching of the principles of nonviolent resistance is still very much relevant today. Furthermore, A Balm in Gilead is Community Theatre. I intentionally used members of the various communities as part of the cast and crew in both countries. My thesis provides the historical and contextual basis of the performance. Dr. King was in Memphis to support the strike of the city’s sanitation workers in 1968. I investigate the Memphis strike and the wider social conditions in which it took place, enabling a more informed understanding of this episode and its significance. The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike also reveals lessons of nonviolent resistance and self-determination. Through this strike, I investigate the tumultuous battle for union and civil rights in Memphis. The strike forced the nation to see and hear its working poor. My study shows that the Memphis strike also became a turning point for the civil rights movement. My research findings further indicate that the Memphis strike is a story primarily about economic and racial injustice. I will present first-hand research evidence gathered from audience interviews and testimonies, that theatrical performance can indeed be effectively used to teach the principles of nonviolent resistance. From this research, I conclude that future studies of theatre for social change is needed as a cadre of performing artists and theatre companies are putting social, political and civic causes at the forefront of their work.



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