Tag Archives: engagement

In Search of Cultural Balance

I’ve never been particularly attached to the clothes I wear.  I have always happily worn different outfits to fit the social situation required — unlike others, what I wear does not define me or so I thought…

I wore a hijab for the first time as a Peace Corps volunteer in The Islamic Republic of Mauritania, a country three times the size of New Mexico in western Africa. It’s a sunny, hot, and dusty place that is almost entirely covered in sand.  Almost all of the women in the town where I lived wore clothing that covered their entire body – only exposing their face, feet, and hands.  Wearing a hijab is as much for practical reasons as it is for religious and cultural reasons; it offers protection from the sun and sand.  In order to be respectful and culturally appropriate, I wore an ankle-length skirt, a short-sleeved blouse, and a headscarf, which left only my face exposed – shining white out of the center of a colorful frame. I embraced this outfit, even in the heat, because it was exciting and new and I could feel that I was more accepted in my community as a result of my efforts.

About four months into my two year stint as a volunteer, I realized that I was feeling rather strange and couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was troubling me. I thought about my daily interactions, the very friendly exchanges I had with Mauritanians. Then it hit me—I didn’t have any real friends.  As an extrovert, I had never struggled to make friends. As I thought more about why, I realized that I had lost my sense of self, my past, my individuality.

In my efforts to be culturally appropriate – wearing a hijab and politely interacting with people – I had suppressed my own extroverted, American self. I realized it’s hard, and almost impossible, to make connections with people when you aren’t revealing your true personality, expressing your opinions and being you. It was in that moment, that I rediscovered Alison within Mauritania. I opened myself up to women in the community, communicating my opinions, interacting with them from this new perspective, all the while still wearing a hijab and my conservative clothing, and almost immediately, I had friends.  Not surface friendships, but real friends.

In The Convert, we watch as two cultures, two religious perspectives compete for the souls of the characters.  To me, Jekesai’s struggle is very real — even though my own personal struggle had much less at stake. Discovering who you are within a different cultural framework and trying to reconcile your own culture and the new culture is a challenge faced by all Peace Corps volunteers.

As a recruiter for Peace Corps, I try to set realistic expectations for potential volunteers, telling my personal story, and encouraging them to watch movies and plays that depict what it takes to live in a culture that is not your own. The Convert gives Americans a glimpse of what it might be like to find cultural balance while they are serving as Peace Corps volunteers.

If you would like more information about how you can serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, please visit the Peace Corps website at www.peacecorps.gov and contact Alison McReynolds at amcreynolds@peacecorps.gov.


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Filed under Connectivity, The Convert, Uncategorized

Woolly through an Intern’s Eyes

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company has been around for about 30 years now, all under the guidance of beloved artistic director Howard Shalwitz.  His leadership has distinguished the theater as one of the longest lasting contemporary American theaters dedicated to producing some seriously provocative work.  As such, it was my immense pleasure to accept a seven-week internship here at the theater working in the Connectivity Department.  Woolly’s reputation is known far and wide, even reaching to the corners of Vermont, where I have spent the last year and a half in my cozy little liberal arts college.

My experience with Africa has been limited to a bleary-eyed 8am class about its democratization record (spoiler: not stellar).  Imagine my surprise and ultimately, my excitement, when I realized that my internship would essentially revolve around The Convert, a unique play simply by virtue of the fact that it is an African play written by an African woman about African people.  Wait, it gets better – not just a play about African people, but about an African woman. 

Through my work in the Connectivity Department here at Woolly, I have plunged into a deep, refreshing pool of diverse theatre.  The unfortunate reality of being a drama student (and this is anywhere) is that what is often filtered down are the classics—all important, yet all very white.   The unfortunate reality is that not very many stories on the stage have been told about black women – or African women for that matter.  Besides For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Was Enuf, and a few notable others, I’m not sure I can think of many famous shows telling the stories of black women.  And when you broaden the racial scope, you find yourself with even less choices—Hispanic women (West Side Story doesn’t count)?  Asian women?  Arab women?

That’s why I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to work at a theater that has the means and the resources to commit to new shows written by women and men who are striving to diversify contemporary theater.  It makes my job at Woolly even more daunting – while the playwrights are aiming to diversify the plays available, my department is essentially aiming to diversify the audience to match the play.

I hope I’ve done the task justice.

-Tenara Calem, Connectivity Intern

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Filed under Connectivity, Intern Take Over!, The Convert

What’s Your Roots? What’s Your Revolution?

At Pay What You Can Night for The Convert, we asked our audiences what their roots are and what their revolution is. Here’s what they had to say:

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318121_10152578209670543_207590569_n 318199_10152578210170543_1467913841_n 487193_10152578209690543_1766802089_n 524589_10152578209885543_500690783_n 525415_10152578209900543_488937766_n 553343_10152578209300543_140456042_n 559812_10152578210060543_1072608145_n 575006_10152578209390543_2032579274_n 577160_10152578209490543_1367299036_n 581839_10152578209895543_1344616355_n 599022_10152578210035543_1357839532_n 599073_10152578208945543_1092558660_n 601519_10152578209430543_1512965167_n 734844_10152578209250543_1197638359_n


How about you? What are your roots? What is your revolution?

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Kurova Guva, a ceremony to welcome home the spirit of the dead, Part II

After death, the spirit is wandering, perhaps waiting and listening for a call to come home.  When our tears have been cleansed by a season of rain and rebirth we prepare to welcome home the spirit of our loved one. 

For the Shona people family duties do not end when we die.  As ancestors, we must provide protection, help resolve issues, and avenge our deaths if they were unjust.  Leaving the physical body allows the spirit to hear and see; moreover, our deceased are in a good position to give us guidance and protection.  In order to fulfill these duties, we must be present with our families. So an important part of our culture is the ceremony to bring home the spirits of our dead.  The ceremony has to take place after a rainy season.  If there is a drought the ceremony is delayed.  There is also a practical reason for waiting for the rain.  The soil over the rain may be displaced or sink in after the first heavy rain so the grave must weather a full rainy season before the tombstone or stone covering can be put permanently on the grave.

 There are no charms, ill wishes or witches fiercer than a mother’s love.  So she is the one seated, all that is needed to ensure the spirit’s safe return.  Before birth, our mothers wait, holding us safe in their wombs. We begin this ceremony, imitating life, with a woman, once again, guarding a gourd.  For seven days our mothers patiently sit and wait for the ceremonial beer to brew.  

If the mother of the deceased is alive, she sits with the gourds or drums of beer for the week or two preceding the ceremony in a small hut built solely for this purpose.  If the mother is not present a post-menopausal maternal aunt or cousin assumes this role.

On the seventh night we, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, children, nieces, and nephews call the spirit home through clapping, drumming, playing of the mbira, and dancing to bring our loved one back home, awakening the night with music played for spirit ears.  

Sometimes a cow is slaughtered the night before in honor of the dead and to provide meat for all who are gathered.

The brothers sing, “Our wives have risen with the sun to clear your grave.  We have compensated them with beer and money and now all is as it should be your way is also clear.  We call on our great aunts and grandfathers to guide you home.   If there was anger between us we will kill a goat in the name of that anger, and share it in peace.  Come and drink with us. All will be as it should be now that you are home.”

After the grave is cleared of all debris by women who have married into the family, gourds of beer are brought to the grave by the man’s closest friend and a nephew.  They may slaughter a goat or some chickens on the grave as well.  The beer is shared by the living and what is left is poured over the grave.  One gourd of beer is saved solely for the deceased.  After pouring the beer on the grave, the gourds and smashed and the shards are left on the grave and the spirit is home.

“We have shared your earthly goods and your wife has leapt over your weapons and proved herself honorable.  To her chosen one she will bring water.  All is as it should be; we now wait to hear who will carry your voice.”   

At the end of the ceremony the possessions of the deceased, including land and clothing, are shared amongst his family members.  His wife is supposed to stay celibate until this ceremony is complete and she jumps over her late husband’s knobkerrie or ax to prove that she has nothing to hide.  The widow also decides at that point if she wants to marry one of her husband’s brothers.  She signifies her choice by placing a bowl of water in front of one of the brothers.  If she does not wish to re-marry into the family she can place the bowl in front of her own son, or her husband’s sister.  The deceased’s oldest son may at this point be given his father’s name as the head of the family and may also become his svikiro (spirit medium).

-Mavhu F. W. Hargrove

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Kurova Guva, a ceremony to welcome home the spirit of the dead, Part I

I have yet to attend a kurova guva ceremony.  Researching and writing this reminded me of my first visit to my grandmother’s village after my grandfather’s death.  I was home for my wedding.  My soon to be husband and I were driven to the village by my aunt.  Soon after arriving, my aunt went into the house and my grandmother, temporarily out of view of her very Christian daughter, pulled me from admiring her lemon tree to the graves which were at the other end of the garden.

I had never paid much attention to the graves, I knew I was related to the people buried there, but most of them had died before I was born.  My grandmother gave me some pebbles and made me kneel at the head of one of the newer graves; I knew it was my grandfather’s.  She instructed me to throw one pebble on his grave.  I did.

Now, tell him who you are she said, annoyed as if I should know what I was doing.

I was quiet not wanting to say the wrong thing and also feeling a bit silly talking to a grave. She hissed at me and pointed at the grave,

“Say, Sekuru, it’s your granddaughter here, Mavhu.  I came to see where you were buried and I have also brought my new husband.”

She nodded for me to throw the second pebble and try again.  As soon as I said his name, Sekuru, everything that he was came back to me.  His grey knitted vests under his jacket, the small black feather with white spots tucked into the band of his hat, the way his laughter went breathy and noiseless when he was really amused.  Right then the word ancestor was not distant or even separate from me.  The five minute ritual prescribed by my grandmother gave him back to me.  He was my grandfather, my mother’s father.  For the first time I think I really understood the importance of Shona people’s relationships to their ancestors.  Because he was, I am.  Our family was central to all that we did and were not divided by death.

The struggle between our own cosmology and a foreign religion began long before I was born.  Like other Africans on the continent and in those taken into the Diaspora, we found ways to hide some of our most important rituals in Christianity.  A goat is always slaughtered at a wedding but we say it is to feed those gathered; there is supposedly no spiritual significance.  The Mbende dance performed by young men and women at the full moon celebrating fertility and family was renamed Jerusarema (Jerusalem) so it could continue to be performed in the open.  The kurova guva ritual performed a year after death became the unveiling of the tombstone or memorial ceremony.   Some Zimbabwean families celebrate the Christian version of our ceremonies; some still practice the traditional.  We don’t seem to disagree that we should somehow honor or acknowledge our own customs but I suspect most families, like mine, are constantly divided over what should be done and how.

-Mavhu F. W. Hargrove

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What is the Role Technology Plays in Your Life?

Here at Woolly we love to hear what our audiences are saying! At the Pay-What-You-Can performances of The Agony and the Ecstasy of  Steve Jobs this past Monday and Tuesday, we surveyed our audience members and asked them the question: What is the role technology plays in your life? Here are some of the responses that we got:

“I’m online so much that my students and colleagues worry when they haven’t seen me online for awhile.” ~Erik Larson, 41

“My life is dependent on Google services (gmail, calendar, contacts, gchat, Googledocs, greader, blogger, etc.) So I decided NOT to go back to China (for awhile) after the Chinese government blocked the Google service there.” ~ Fang Fang, 26

“Just that I’m so bad at it and I want to do better.” ~Mary Scarpa, 56

“I find the Internet rather terrifying: its immensity, its vacuousness, its inherent ever-expanding formlessness.” ~ John Boonstra, 26

“I went to Canada this past summer for vacation. I only brought my phone for navigation, communication, and planning. When I lost reception as I crossed the border, I was hobbled: no map, address, phone numbers, or any idea where I was going. Thrown straight back to 1992! But it was one of the most exciting times and I had more and better interactions with that friend than I have in a long time.” ~ Aubri O’Connor, 27

“I come across very informed to people who don’t understand it. I taught someone to cut and paste in 2004. He looked over- no joke- and exclaimed ‘This cut and paste thing is amazing!’” ~ Lorin Kleinman, 41

“Technology hates me.” ~Anonymous

“Often, especially with older colleagues at work. One time a colleague came to me with a data CD in a jewel case and asked me to open it. I immediately thought she needed help accessing files on the CD, so I opened it…and then she stopped me and said, ‘Wait, do that again.’ Yeah…” ~ Carly Borgmeier, 30

“One time at technology camp…” ~ Jan Remissong, 46

“I conducted a relationship by Skype. We were about to wed online, but my finace’s parents couldn’t comprehend the whole idea! Oops! I also keep connected with my family and friends in Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda.” ~ Bigz Aloysious Bigirwa, 30

http://blog.ich-wars-nicht.ch/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/foreplay.png” ~ Juliette Larmier, 24

“Drunken texting is the downfall of my life.” ~ Ruth Rasby, 24

“I know that a lot of folks are scared of technology, and I’ve certainly had some moments of technological frustration or panic. But in general, I think of it as a good thing- something that lets us do more things quicker and be connected to more people in our lives.” ~ Layne Amerikaner, 25

What is the role that technology plays in YOUR life? Let us know!

Interested in contributing your thoughts to the blog? E-mail brooke@woollymammoth.net

~ Brooke Miller, Press and Digital Content Manager

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Filed under Communications and Connectivity, Marketing, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

Oedipus Connectivity Wrap Up

While not as widely broadcast as it once was, remember the saying “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach?” The implication of course is that teachers can’t cut it in the real world or workforce. I recently read an article that flipped this: “Those who can, teach. Those who can’t, do.” This implication was that applying knowledge, skills, and experience in practice is easy—what’s truly challenging is educating and empowering others to be able to do so.

Why bring this up? The tension residing in the dated piece of conventional wisdom resonated with me, and its remix captures the way Oedipus el Rey and the sweep of programming my fellow Mammoths and I shaped around it.

Connectivity programming around Oedipus el Rey intended to interrogate the personal and local resonance of the social issues embedded in the play by highlighting the work of organizations and individuals in our city. Essentially we expanded the Woolly community to include on-the-ground experts in fields of, among others: recidivism, re-entry, prison reform, juvenile justice, literacy, job readiness, mentoring, and homelessness in order to generate meaningful conversation inspired by the production. In the end the theatre made new friends, the dialogue created was rich and evocative, and audience members developed their understanding of the play within the context of themselves and their city.

Ok, but what about me and this “do vs. teach” tension?

For 11 years I worked through various theatres and arts organizations in the metro area in education and community programming: designing, administering, and facilitating or teaching. I also spent a year as a classroom teacher in the PG County school system. I worked to varying degrees of closeness with a significant number of DC and Maryland youth ensnared in a tangle of negative societal and social cycles. These young people seemed, like Oedipus, to be cursed; their fates driven by outside forces constantly thwarting their desire for self-determination and change. Among a handful of reasons I no longer work in education was the recognition that while I was good at direct delivery (teaching, mentoring) I was better at being an “enabler.” To enable – to provide resources, authority or opportunity to do something; to make something possible or feasible. My realization started within the arts-education context and my first step was to leave classroom teaching and become Director of Education & Outreach at Round House Theatre. There I was predominantly a theatre-arts-educator enabler. But eventually I realized I wanted to become a theatre-audience enabler, working directly with and between the people in the seats and the people on the stage. Working with Woolly last season on the early stages of what has become the Connectivity pillar of the organization and my position, I realized I wanted to be a theatre-community enabler in which the relationship was two-way: giving and receiving from one another. In other words, the relationship would be a constant dialogue or possess a high rate of connectivity.

However: as I met with Woolly’s various community collaborators for Oedipus el Rey, I questioned the value of my newfound enabler position. You can witness, assess, and measure the impact of direct service to youth and community. You know you are doing “the good work” and serving humanity on a very real, very immediate, and tangible level. You can metaphorically hack your way against the negative cycles that drive people’s fates.

After our final Mammoth Forum, which was particularly focused on youth development and programs in the juvenile justice system, I shared this tension with one of Woolly’s Claque members. She too holds an enabler position in her workplace (immigration and human rights law) and wrestles with the value this role. She told me she had been recently reminded that working for and in service to those on the ground and in the field was just as valuable. To support and enable made the direct-service possible and so was integral to its success. (And, yes, she gave me the word “enable.”) She looped the message back to me: in order for Woolly’s shows to land with its audiences, in order for Woolly to grow its community and stay connected to its city, the theatre needs you. Oh yeah, right.

I looked back through the connectivity work of the theatre (dialogues, blogs, playbills, podcasts, videos). I began processing data collected through our participation in the Intrinsic Impact Study, and I realized Oedipus el Rey was a turning point for me and Woolly Mammoth.

What drives my fate? The desire to change the world through art, through theatre.

Because: Those who can, do. Those who can also connect, encourage, and hopefully inspire change.

~ Rachel Grossman, Connectivity Director

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