Accepted paper:

Acting and activism in contemporary Jaffna


Isabelle Clark-Deces (Princeton University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper relates the many attempts to revive activist theater that I observed in Jaffna in summer and fall 2015. It suggests that this kind of theatre constitutes a critical venue for cultural reflexivity in contemporary Jaffna society.

Paper long abstract:

Based on recent ethnographic fieldwork in Jaffna, this paper explores the role of theater in social activism in contemporary Jaffna. Theatre as an effective medium to bring forth important messages emerged in the late 1970s along with the rise of the communist party in Jaffna (and Sri Lanka in general). It reached its peak in the 1980s with "participatory" plays that dealt with the problems of the war-torn society and "action groups" that created a "therapeutic space" for traumatized war victims. Activist theater declined after the defeat of the LTTE, which was known to use plays to recruit militants and further its political agenda, and the occupation of Jaffna by SL authorities. As writers and directors were investigated and intimidated, only plays with no political message were performed and many producers migrated abroad. This was true not just of theater but of all arts. In this paper I want to relate the many attempts to revive activist theater that I observed in Jaffna in summer and fall 2015. I show the difficulties associated with this revival, difficulties that for the most part stem from the association of theater activism with LTTE recruitment. Yet, because theatre has re-emerged as the only "public" outlet for expressing frustrations (with the war and its aftermath, as well as with current rapid social and familial changes), I argue that it constitutes a critical (although far from neutral) venue for cultural reflexivity and for the renewal and healing of Jaffna society.

panel P36
Anthropology and the post-war present in Sri Lanka: ethnographic reflections