<Book Review>
Refugee Performance: Practical Encounters
Michael Balfour
[U of Chicago P / Intellect, 2013. (316 pp., 6 halftones) ]

Refugee Performance is the first anthology to specifically unite perspectives on applied performance in displaced communities and the ensuing ethical, practical, and theoretical tensions. The contributors address representation, subjectivity, and advocacy in refugee performance, grounding their analysis in direct experience and method. Edited by Michael Balfour, the book has an undivided flow, with seventeen chapters (some previously published, some written specifically for this anthology) that are not sorted into themed sections. Balfour intends Refugee Performance as a site of dialogue: “The chapters are designed to be in dialogue with each other, not to construct a finite discourse, but to suggest, provoke and, importantly, disseminate stories and insights” (Balfour xxi). Refugee Performance has manifested this goal through the combination of multiple perspectives that don’t always agree or even ask the same questions but are united around common themes. Balfour shaped the anthology through the concepts of complementarity and congruency: the complex and diverse mix of voices produces dialogue through direct reference within chapters, the juxtaposition and conflict of ideas, and the varied, diverse backgrounds and locations driving the contributors. The theory in this anthology focuses on conflict and Otherness as the authors navigate performance work for, with, and by displaced communities as well as the ethical challenges of performing for non-refugee audiences.

The twenty contributors represent a diversity of backgrounds that blend theory and practice: most contributors work with a performance studies, ethnographic, and/or activist frame and cover a diverse range of locations, including Iraq, Thailand, Serbia, Uganda, Sudan, Croatia, the United States, and Australia. Some have personally experienced displacement, while others have entered refugee communities as outsiders to develop performance-based projects. The contributors come from different academic backgrounds, including music and media studies, performance studies, theatre studies, and anthropology; others have backgrounds in law, welfare, education, and community development. They cover technical training from music and dance to formal theater and pedagogical performance. Each contributor situates his or her account in a particular experience, performance style, and refugee community, giving the book the desired foundation in storytelling.

Some contributions foreground an aesthetic approach to refugee performance, from play excerpts to analyzing the implications of primarily artistic work. One is an excerpt from a play called Forged in Fire, collectively created by Okello Kelo Sam, Laura Edmondson, and Robert Ajwang’, where a solo performer portrays multiple perspectives on conflict in northern Uganda, calling on the audience to participate in the performance. There is an introduction that explains the context of the play’s development and production, but primarily the chapter lets the play stands for itself. Sanja Nikcevic’s chapter recalls a Croatian playwright who scripted true refugee stories into plays, focusing on the playwright’s work and exploring why the pieces were never produced in Croatia. Felecia Faye McMahan contributes another account of artistic practice: Sudanese refugees, young men from the DiDinga tribe, refashioning traditional music and songs through creative reconstructions of what they remember from before being abducted. Another play excerpt, by Zlatko Topcic, stages social conflicts over rape during war, demonstrating how some chapters are literal examples of storytelling that stand next to more conventional, theoretical chapters as an equal voice in the anthology.

Balfour enables direct, as well as implied, dialogue between the chapters, as some of the more recent authors quoted their forebears directly, such as Dwight Conquergood’s seminal essay, “Health Theatre in a Hmong Refugee Camp: Performance, Communication, and Culture,” written in 1998. Others share themes or questions, raising issues without closing down discussion. Balfour adds insight into major themes operating in refugee performance work with a chapter on alterity and displaced communities. Tom Burvill explores the implications of Australian refugee performance practices through Emmanuel Levinas’ take on hope and ethics, while still grounding his argument in examples of refugee performance practices. Laura Edmondson highlights the ethical troubles of children performing rigid, externally imposed narratives for primarily international audiences as entertainment and incentive for donors. Yuko Kurahashi’s chapter significantly differs from Edmonson’s, instead focusing on Ping Chong’s performance work with five children and their stories, which were performed for a non-refugee audience. The chapters generate a sense of dialogue by having different authors discussing similar issues from contrasting perspectives.

Some of the chapters emphasize specific performance techniques and methods for approaching refugee communities, taking up the topics presented in the aesthetically focused chapters and the tensions addressed in the more theoretical chapters. Narrative theatre (Yvonne Sliep, Kaethe Weingarten, Andrew Gilbert) and psychosocial/healing performance (Yuko Kurahashi) are suggested methods for addressing the topics suggested throughout this anthology. Some applied theatre projects intentionally restricted the performance to the refugee community (Andrew Gilbert) or naturally had a primarily refugee audience (Rand T. Hazou’s description of the Alrowwad theatre company in Palestine). Performance can also be done collectively, such as the practices in Guglielmo Schinina’s chapter on Serbian refugee community workshops. Rea Dennis’ chapter echoes this, as she describes a technique called playback theatre, which includes audience members’ spontaneously contributing personal stories. This anthology integrates multiple approaches to refugee performance, uniting classic articles and new chapters. It will be useful for theorists, practitioners, and novices alike.

     — Reviewed by Bridget Conlon Liddell, Texas A&M University

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