2020: YEAR OF THE ICONOCLAST – Natércia Napoleão
In February of this year, I flew to Vancouver to attend Coyuntura 2020, an international theatre gathering where Latinx theatre artists from all over the world discussed a variety of topics and took workshops led by some of our most innovative leaders.
On the first evening of the weekend gathering, I attended an opening panel discussion. At the end of the discussion there was an opportunity for an open mic question and answer period. Renowned Chilean playwright and moderator Carmen Aguirre invited anyone to come up and to not be shy. A few seconds went by and nobody budged. Then, to my own surprise, I started to feel my legs move and straighten, pushing my body towards the microphone. I had no questions planned for this acclaimed female panel of international Latinx theatre leaders, but I knew I’d find one within three seconds of arrival at the microphone. I took a breath, opened my mouth and nervously said in a low voice “Hi, my name is Natércia Napoleão and I’m an Alberta based Brazilian actress.” I then looked down at my shoes—I could not meet eyes with these powerful women—and added: “Is there hope?”
The answer they gave was not the answer I was expecting. The crux of my question, according to them, was related to more than theatre or art; it was the question of someone who lives against the backdrop of a supercharged political time, when images of fascism can be seen in both my native and adopted cultures. It takes the form of Trump. And Bolsonaro. And immigrant families torn apart at the border. The need to break such images has become a defining drive in artists of colour.
Break the system, break those images. Break them open, break them apart.
This word has been following me.
Stemming from the Greek words eikon, meaning “image”, and klastes, meaning “breaker”, the iconoclast is the one who up breaks up old ideas. I see the women on that panel—las veteranas (the veterans)—as the iconoclasts of this movement. And when they included me, I began to see that I too could become part of the answer to my own question about hope. In my corner of the world that means breaking the bedrock of white supremacist theatrical models.
I’m erasing the pyramid and drawing the circle. I’m jumping away from the familiar and falling into the unknown. I’m divorcing atrophy, courting action. I’m cutting ties with silence and weaving threads of meaningful dialogue. I’m walking away from being window dressing and stepping into the downstage light.
It is time for us to break up with our old ideals of theatre.
But in the midst of this break-up, we still feel trapped in the rigid systems we’ve created. The system itself—powered by authoritarian structure and capitalism—is functionally racist. The pyramid of authority keeps an elite few in the position of gatekeeper, whether they want to be or not. The communal voice (the circle) is filtered through the elite, instead of empowered themselves. Those who work for change spend all their time fighting to free their hands from the bureaucratic red tape in our institutions. So we keep bargaining, grasping tightly to our place in the theatre ecology. Justifying that choice because it’s our “right” to be there. And if things do change, where will we belong?
I want to belong. But more than that, I want what is best. These are the questions that will break the image: What is best? What does our community need to thrive? How can we be of service to our art form so that it can breathe freely and fulfill its potential? How can we be in service to our diverse audiences? How can we welcome them into the theatre for the first time? How can we teach them that they belong? How can we teach our white audiences that diverse stories and bodies belong? What are each of us willing to lose in order to have these uncomfortable, yet necessary, changes?
Our theatre community is in need of healing.
When we have uncomfortable conversations about our racist practices, when we acknowledge how our choices have shaped our community, the deep wounds have a chance to heal. Conversations give us power.
At the end of that night in Vancouver, I was standing outdoors speaking to a dear colleague who was enjoying a cigarette. A young person of colour came up to me, interrupted our conversation, took my forearm gently in their hand and looked into my eyes. They said “Yes. There is hope,” and walked away.
Hope only survives when there is action to keep it alive. So it’s my belief that we all need to be the iconoclasts of our theatre community. Take action, and look forward to the sweet rewards waiting for all of us on the other side of this moment.
I’m looking forward to the work: to building new traditions and creative modalities; to seeing someone else tearing them apart when they become obsolete; to being afraid and doing it anyway; to taking risks.
I’m looking forward to the relationships: to meeting new faces; to rediscovering someone I thought I had figured out; to listening; to forgiveness; to being a friend.
I’m looking forward to experiencing plays I didn’t even know were possible. I’m looking forward to looking forward.
These are some of the thoughts that have been following me around for a long time, but there’s something about 2020 that has brought them together for me.
This is a new experience. I’m still figuring out how to be active: I’m writing letters, engaging in inspiring conversations, and working with theatre artists on ideas to create meaningful change. I don’t know exactly where it’s going, but it’s getting a little clearer every day.
So I’m feeling hopeful.