Last night I was invited to one of three performances of the Social Justice Committee’s (SJC) political play, “The Dictatorship of Debt” at Sala Rossa here in Montreal. The evening began with a performance by Montreal spoken word artist and musician Kyra Shaungnessy who spoke and sang some beautiful but fairly predictable (politically) lefty poems and songs. With lyrics like “Oh Canada, we are dedicated to not caring,” it made me think, boy is this the wrong crowd to be telling that to! Shaungnessy is clearly a talented writer and performer, and her piece about the terrible experience of unexpectedly finding herself on a bus tour of people surviving in a Nicaraguan dump was poignant and touching. But songs about apathy might be better served to a crowd that wasn’t so clearly overwhelmingly part of activist culture already. Still, it was a heartfelt and lovely prelude to the evening.
After the opening performance the play began with a speech from Christopher Columbus, and judging from the costumes and sparse set I had a moment of regret for not doing more research before dragging myself out for the evening. Those cowardly feelings soon subsided however, when I realized I was in for a lively, smart and very funny hour of satirical theatre. The performers, all of whom are volunteer and have other full-time lives, did a remarkable job with lines bordering on economic textbook obscurity. There was indeed so much financial and political mumble-jumble, hats truly must go off to the actors for keeping the ship sailing straight throughout.
The Dictatorship of Debt, written and directed by McGill theatre student Danielle Boudreau, is the history of how the developing world has ended up where it is now – in 2.7 trillion dollars of debt – much of it “odious” at that (this is a term the SJC uses to describe money that is owing from loans knowingly given in circumspect circumstances, such as corrupt governments and despotic regimes). It’s a tale that was likely well-known by most in attendance: colonization, pillaging, economic policy hegemony forcing weaker countries into vicious cycles of borrowing and structural adjustments that have left most much worse off than when they began. From the SJC Press Release:
The Dictatorship of Debt is a decade-old tradition of the Montreal community. Comedy and critique are combined in this hilarious history of the global debt crisis to ask this essential question: who owes whom? Audience members are each assigned a regional home – their seat can transform them into a resident of anywhere from Canada to sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America. Audience and actor, seat and stage, all become one in this unforgettable performance.
The SJC is a human rights organization that has provided public education and advocacy on global economic and social rights issues since 1975. Current campaigns include the odious debt cancellation in heavily indebted countries and corporate social accountability in the Canadian mining industry.
This evening of theatre is part of the SJC’s campaign for the cancellation of odious debt in the global south. Since its inception in 1996, the theatre troupe has taken an innovative approach to popular education, striving to make the complex issues surrounding debt and trade accessible to all. The completely volunteer driven ensemble, which evolved from its humble beginnings in city parks, is now heading for the big time with a performance at La Sala Rossa on April 5th. The show will also feature performances by up and coming local artists, including Matt Stern and Bovo.
While Boudreau says that they did their best to advertise creatively so to attract the “non-converted” I’d harbour a guess that all of us in attendance were on side with the oppressed peoples, not the IMF and the World Bank. Still, this does not detract from the power of performance art, when mixed with politics (and a good dose of humour), to move people, regardless of what cards they may carry, into knew directions of knowledge-seeking, cultural participation and political action.
The play cleverly involved the audience by way of actors coming out into our spattering of tables where golden beans (representing various country’s available assets, debts, etc) and place-cards indicating countries such as Ghana, Chile, China, the USA, etc, had been previously placed. Actors playing Uncle Sam (who was indeed the star of the show and pulled off some excellent physical humour), the EU, Canada, the IMF, the World Bank and “the activist” poured into the audience at various moments, usually to remove chairs from poor countries, or to take beans from one, give them to another, take them back, etc, etc.
This aspect of the performance was what really kept it lively and implicated us sitting in the audience. Watching Uncle Sam quietly sneak by, taking money from the EU table, putting it on the China table, then taking various plastic knick-knacks from the China table and dumping them on the USA table, was hilarious and a fabulous representation of international relationships between the three.
The night was full of simplified representations of extremely complex political and economic issues, histories and problems, but not at the expense of the intelligence of the audience nor the content of the play. Boudreau told me:
“I wanted to create something tangible, and to capture a sense of discussion, which would carry on after the play among audience members and people they know. I also wanted to make accessible, not a big scary issue, which it certainly can appear to be. It was also very important for the play to not be didactic or dogmatic – I’m not interested in art that tells people how or what to think. And of course, I wanted it to be fun.”
The performance was incredibly fun and accessible, so much that it should be a touring performance at high schools across the country. When I asked about the future of the play and why it only has three performances (info on the second performance at the end of this post) Boudreau reminded me that all the performers are volunteers and that they had been working in their spare time since February. And without a budget (last year the SJC had a budget for a play, this year, not).
For those interested in engaging with the issues around ‘Third World Debt’ by watching a small group of energetic actors jump around a stage switching national and imperial hats, running through the audience stealing belongings, singing the anthem “There is No Alernative” (to global free market capitalism), and educating on complex economic matters through satire and general mayhem, then check out the second performance of “The Dictatorship of Debt” at the Atwater Library, Montreal, on Thursday at April 9th (8PM). At $4 the show won’t, ahem, bankrupt you.
Third World Debt is a serious matter, but when the story is told in a funny, earnest and lively way, you’ll be informed, entertained, and will have experienced the transformation of a dry history lesson into laughter. And as they say, that’s the best medicine of all.