Tag Archives: history

The Dystopian Consequences of Utopian Societies

Since the dawn of civilization, we as human beings have been assigned the seemingly impossible duty to create the ideal utopia. Our founding fathers wanted to present future generations with a nation founded on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but as our country ages, so do some of its original values. We now understand the extensive list of flaws in the nation’s original Constitution and since then have revamped to mold it into the current understanding of human-worth within modern society.  So what have we found? Mike Daisey shows us the commercialized attempts at a utopia: Disney World, Burning Man, etc., but what about the Everyman’s utopia? As in most scenarios, when we have nothing left, we rely on the teachings of literature and the arts as a form of escapism—specifically the genre of utopian fiction.

First used by Sir Thomas More in 1516, the word utopia derives from the Greek word “eutopos,” translating simply to “good place.” More’s work of fiction, A Truly Golden Little Book, No Less Beneficial Than Entertaining, of the Best State of a Republic, and of the New Island Utopia, otherwise known as A Fruitful and Pleasant Work of the Best State of a Public Weal, and of the New Isle Called Utopia, otherwise known as Utopia, is believed to be the first published piece of utopian fiction. The novel caused quite a stir during the 16th century because although some of the successful Utopian practices were comprehensible, More also demonstrated the ease of sac-religious institutions; divorce, euthanasia, and marriage within the parish. On top of that, More was also a devout member of the Catholic church—this did not go over well. Although Utopia has become less common in the world of academia, it is still viewed as the novel that really started it all, inspiring many of the utopian novels we read today.

blog photoMap found in Thomas More’s Utopia

The 1931 utopian fiction novel, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley has become a staple in high schools’ literature curriculum. Exploring a world compacted with reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation, and operant conditioning, Huxley paints a portrait in which the arts are almost non-existent. Instead, society is governed by science, technology, and manual labor. Before birth, embryos are assigned a caste and their lives follow the path laid out for them by the government. Freedom to choose your own life is gone, but what Huxley makes us question is the value of knowing the truth. Would you rather know what could be or continue your life in unknowing blindness?

Similar to Huxley, Suzanne Collins explores the same consequences of a genetically altered society in her 2008 trilogy, The Hunger Games—yet it is not studied in public schools. In a post-apocalyptic nation striving for order and progress, The Hunger Games displays the social stratification of predetermined castes when each year 24 children from 12 districts are placed in an arena and forced to fight to the death. The game is always televised as a reminder to the rest of the country that the Capitol holds all the power. It is no surprise that this attempt at a utopia quickly turns into chaos, disorder, and dystopia very quickly. But even with all of the violence and mature themes, The Hunger Games is still classified as a young adult novel.  In the last few years, Katniss Everdeen has become a pop culture icon of strength, skill, and bravery of the millennial generation and District 12 has become a common metaphor for poverty and oppression. There is even a Hunger Games inspired theme park in North Carolina where for four days you can learn archery or indulge in luxuries of the Capitol, all at your own risk of becoming Tribute.

So what is it about these works that draw us to them? Time and time again we see utopian fiction result in dystopia, yet it is a genre that thrives in our society. Are we trying to convince ourselves that we are capable of creating our own Utopia? Or perhaps we believe that through the power of text, action can be invoked? Each work shows us the dire consequences of such an attempt. Maybe what makes utopian fiction so enticing is that no one has yet to actually achieve it. Once we reach our utopia, then what?

– Emily Wilson, Communications Assistant


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All Together Now: two hundred years of American public assembly

excerpted from the AMERICAN UTOPIAS playbill

Even before the Declaration of Independence, a public demonstration in Boston Harbor proved the political impact that could be unleashed by Americans taking nonviolent action together. In what became known as the Boston Tea Party of 1773, residents of the Colony of Massachusetts dumped a British shipment of tea into the harbor to protest the British Parliament’s Tea Act, which they believed amounted to taxation without representation. Parliament’s response was to end Massachusetts’ self-government and shut down Boston’s commerce; this helped inspire the First Continental Congress and, as tension between the colonies and the British Empire escalated, the start of the American Revolution in 1775. Since American independence was established, American law has shaped – and been shaped by – the power of public assembly.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the most common public protests in the US were strikes and labor demonstrations. Despite eruptions of violence, the efforts of nineteenth-century labor demonstrations culminated in the establishment of the Department of Labor and Commerce, and a Secretary of Labor in the President’s Cabinet, in 1903.

The beginning of the twentieth century also saw public assembly put to use by the women’s suffrage movement. Several organizations such as the Women’s Political Union imported the tactics of parades, street speakers, and pickets from the English women’s suffrage movement. It was not until after several large, some violent, protests did President Wilson declare his support for women’s suffrage, and the Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920.

The mid-twentieth century ushered in the Civil Rights Movement, which further demonstrated the power of peaceful protest to change American life and law. The efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King, JR. and his colleagues to advocate for integration and racial equality paved the way for so many civil rights advances that his method of nonviolent protest inspired countless other movements around the world.

The power of public assembly and the delicate dance between demonstrators and the laws that regulate demonstrations continues into the twenty-first century. Legal battles recently flared again after the Occupy Wall Street movement began in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in 2011, and quickly inspired parallel Occupy movements across the country.

For the full story, read the note in the American Utopias playbill.

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Pictorial Rhodesia

In her devastatingly beautiful The Convert, playwright Danai Gurira delves into a very particular place and time and set of characters to begin grappling with being a 21st Century Christian, woman, and Zimbabwean. “Who we are today,” Danai explains, “is how we are affected by what happened back then.” In the play, she transports us to Southern Africa in 1895, to the part of the continent then known as Rhodesia, today called Zimbabwe. As the production dramaturg, one of my roles in the rehearsal process was to help the director, actors, designers, and production team access the particulars of this world, especially since a reasonable amount of verisimilitude was of interest to us. With the support of my colleague Carrie Hughes at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ, I pulled together some amazing photographs of the people, landscape, and infrastructure from the period and covered part of Woolly’s rehearsal hall with them to immerse everyone in the world of the play. Below is a small sampling of some of these photographs, which trace the British colonization of the region and the Shona and Ndebele people.

-John M. Baker, Woolly Mammoth Literary Manager

1 Ndebele Village 1890s

Ndebele Village 1890’s

2 Shona Village 1890s

Shona Village 1890’s

3 Girls in Zimbabwe

Girls in Zimbabwe

4 Women in Matebeleland

Women in Matebeleland

5 Girls in Zimbabwe

Girls in Zimbabwe

6 Colonists


7 Colonists


8 Ndebele chiefs

Ndebele chiefs

9 Lobengula's war doctor

Lobengula’s war doctor

10 Miners


11 Prisoners


12 Chisawasha Mission 1891

Chisawasha Mission 1891

13 Infrastructure


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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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The New Ancient: On THEATER OF WAR and Audiences

Not to state the obvious, but… when Sophocles’ AJAX was performed in the fifth century B.C.E., it was a new play—just like the plays we do here at Woolly Mammoth. And just like at Woolly, the audience for that play was key. 

Sophocles was an Athenian General, and nearly everyone in his audience was a veteran of the Persian Wars. By writing about Ajax fighting the Trojan War—roughly six hundred years previously—Sophocles gave his audience a metaphor for their own combat experience. In Bryan Doerries’ radically contemporary translation, Ajax’s psychological struggle with trauma, shame, and rage echo the experiences of warriors in every era. We may believe our civilization has advanced beyond ancient times. But in the stress of armed conflict, our hearts and minds behave no differently from those of our ancestors.

The ancient Greeks gave us the building-blocks for our own democracy and the way that we defend it.  They also gave us the building-blocks for our own plays. Catharsis—the cleansing wave of pity and fear that washes over us and recedes at the end of a play—was invented by Sophocles and his comrades. It served a very practical purpose: to allow a nation of combat veterans examine their own experiences and heal together.

Bryan has taken his translation of Ajax to over 50 military sites around the world. I met him for a drink last season and asked what the next step in his mission would be. He said he wanted to bring this project to civilian audiences as well, in order to give the families, friends, neighbors, and co-workers of warriors a window into the reality of coming home after deployment. Bryan told me the Washington, DC community was the most important place to start this national dialogue. So I asked how Woolly could help.

In our 30th anniversary season, we pledged to connect our art more strongly with our community. This Tuesday, we will pilot an effort to unite civilian and military audiences that will be replicated in regions across the country. We look forward to welcoming many of our DC neighbors into our theatre for the first time. And we look forward to learning something new about playwriting, because some things come alive only when the right play is met by the right audience. And we look forward to discovering a way to serve our country as artists. It’s a modest kind of service, to be sure. But these past few weeks, as I’ve talked with folks from Walter Reed, Uniformed Services University, and the National Naval Medical Center, I’ve felt something stirring here at the theatre that I can only describe as very, very new…

~Miriam Weisfeld, Director of New Play Development

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