Boal’s Approach towards Literacy and Prison

I found Boal’s comparison of photography to language to be especially interesting as a means to empower those who often have no other way of ‘officially’ expressing themselves in national contexts. The oppression underscoring the enactment of a single-language literacy program in a multi-lingual culture, such as the Peruvian one cited in Boal’s article, can only be countered through an appeal- framed in the majority/literate language- to the individual’s agency. For many new language learners, the language they are being encouraged to speak associatively represents the oppression of those that are requiring them to speak it. This tendency was clearly highlighted by the man who took a picture of the bloody, teary-eyed boy when he was asked to take a picture that would capture his sense of home. For him, home was not merely a spatial living space, but an arena of struggle and subjugation: protective dogs could be summarily captured by the state, leaving their owners vulnerable to mutilation by rats in their sleep. I find this type of language education to be especially valuable within a contemporary American context where migrants are actively encouraged to learn a language in a formalized, disengaging manner that often reinforces their apprehension in engaging not only forms of expression, but social, political, and economic processes as well. Language should be presented as a means of self-determination and self-expression, not formal or bureaucratic requirement. Such a presentation would allow new language learners to critically confront the oppressive structures they feel themselves burdened by in their forced adoption of a new language.

I also found Boal’s performative practices in prisons to be applicable to constructive dialogues. The idea of allowing people to reverse roles, and thereby critique or sympathize with their oppressors/subjects, sets the foundation for a mutually-beneficial reformation of prison systems. The American prison system is broken. The antagonism between prisoners and prison guards has become so stark that it seems no reconciliation is possible, with both parties experiencing equally imperiling consequences. Prison guards all but allow prisoners to govern themselves within a certain unspoken codex of acceptable behavior and brutality, thereby leaving prisoners, and prison guards, subject to the malicious and coercive forces nurtured and reinforced by our prison systems. Prisoners refuse to cooperate with prison guards for fear of retaliation by their fellow, ‘ruling’ prisoners. Prison guards refuse to sympathize with prisoners for fear of being attacked. etc. If these diametrically opposed groups could be allowed to experience each other from their respective perspectives, a mutual progress might be made possible. If prisoners and prison guards could be made to see that they are both sovereign individuals, and not just impersonal members of a massified opposition, their individual concerns could be addressed and reconciled. Boal’s emphasis on the function of performance as a possible way of opening this discursive space reminded me of a video of Philippine prisoners who are taught, and perform, dances in prison. These prisoners are allowed to be human in their performance, capable of creative productivity in a place where they are often abandoned to a regimented life of collective sterility. Thus, a catharsis is experienced by both the prisoners, who are able to present themselves in their own light, and the guards, who come to see them in a different, less antagonistic, light.

Youtube video of Prisoners doing ‘Thriller’:


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