December 3, 2013 By Rebecca Silva
Before attending Ambassador Theatre’s production of Protest, I read most of the play, leaving the ending untouched so that I would be surprised during the show. The text is, after all, the crux of activist Vaclav Havel’s play about two men who choose different paths in their lives to address and fight for social justice in their country. I must say, this production was extremely unique, well-done, and thought-provoking. Director Dr. Gail Humphries-Mardirosian’s vision certainly came to life in the parallel stories of Stanek/Vanek and Stankova/Vankova as she expertly explored the realities of working towards social justice by using the relationships between each set of characters as a vehicle to demonstrate the choices one must make throughout one’s entire life.
In Protest, Stanek and Vanek (as well as their female counterparts) are foils to each other. Throughout the play, Stanek and Stankova seem to remain the dominant characters, each having the vast majority of the dialogue and being the character who has to make a choice. Vanek and Vankova, on the other hand, seem more submissive yet steadfast each in their own regards. Ironically, it is perhaps Vanek and Vankova that are dominant because, ultimately, they are the ones who provoke Stanek and Stankova into a downward spiral of doubt, thought, and intense questioning of both the self and of others.
There is a single difference between Stanek/Stankova and Vanek/Vankova: Vanek and Vankova remain steadfast in their political activism. They adhere to their beliefs and never surrender, even though it means that they are in danger, as made evident by this character’s recent release from jail. Stanek and Stankova, on the other hand, have compromised their beliefs for security. These characters were previously artists who gave up their passions, dreams, and activism to protect their family. Stanek and Stankova remain partially politically active (when it interests them), as they operate from the sidelines anonymously.
The question which Protest asks is this: what is the best way to champion social justice? Is it better to stick hard and fast to your values even though this decision may leave you incapacitated, rendering you to unable to contribute to the ongoing battle for social justice? Or rather, is it wiser to save yourself, so that way you can still work behind the scenes throughout your life? On one hand, Vanek and Vankova are more dedicated, honest, noble, and respectable for adhering to their self-governing principles. On the other hand, they are foolish and their lack of tact leads them straight into jail, where they cannot do anything productive to further their cause. Meanwhile, Stanek and Stankova are pragmatic in their efforts to secure protection for themselves and their families, although their tact and indirect contributions to the fight towards social justice may be seen as weak at best. Did these characters, perhaps, go back on what they once stood for?
The complexity of the decision is even more complicated when one approaches social justice through the lenses of different genders. In Ambassador Theatre’s production of Protest, Vanek and Vankova certainly seemed more noble, while Stanek and Stankova appeared utilitarian and rather nihilistic. This may be due to the fact that I am a woman, but I found the scene between Vankova and Stankova more intriguing, fresh, and exciting. Stankova was extremely powerful, commanding the scene yet flustering all over the place, while Vankova was soft-spoken, but firm. For me, Stankova’s decision to protect her life and family was much more credible and respectable than Stanek’s. I admired her manipulative nature and inner strength. This is the paradox of feminism: that women’s rights remain a hot topic in the realm of social justice, but a strong woman does not always champion women’s rights. The image of Margaret Thatcher comes to mind– a powerful woman who thought of herself as a man rather than a woman equal to a man. Dr. Gail Humphries-Mardirosian did an excellent and quite effective job creating a new point of view of social justice issues, and especially highlighting the thoughts of a strong woman who puts her life at risk by threatening to upset the system.
Most recent social justice issues have to deal with inequality. This often means social inequality in human rights, more specifically with regards to discrimination in employment opportunities and salaries, as well as marriage rights. Just as controversial and important is economic inequality, especially prevalent in poverty and homelessness. I strongly believe that theatre can be used as a tool to address these problems in our world and make a statement about them. But first, we must address injustices in the theatre itseld.
The world of the performing arts has garnered the image of overpriced frivolity for entertaining middle class citizens. This reputation needs to be torn down and built up if theatre is ever going to be used effectively in the future. There needs to be more cost effective programs that allow people of lower economic status to see shows. If theatre is to be a vehicle for political activism , it needs to be more accessible. New forms must be cultivated to bring in newcomers with no theatre background. Theatre should be more widely taught in schools to introduce the thematic elements of performance early on in people’s lives. The art needs to be much more accessible, flexible, honest, and threatening to the status quo. Each show, scene, and exercise must make a meaningful statement in its theme, or as Aristotle once wrote, in its driving thought. The theatre has so much potential to change the world through its inherently politically active nature.