Nikki Shaffeeullah introduces the Stages of Transformation project, and reflects on abolition movements and what they mean for the performing arts in so-called Canada.
Stages of Transformation: What if we believed it was worth it?
“Abolition is about presence, not absence. It's about building life-affirming institutions.”
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
What do abolition movements have to do with the performing arts here in so-called Canada? Like many, I believe that without the framework of abolition, all of our work in the theatre sector to achieve racial justice, gender justice, disability justice, trans justice, climate justice, and all other forms of justice, will fall short. Abolition offers a rigorous lens through which to examine these issues, and pathways toward change. Like theatre itself, abolition is about the power of human relationships, collaboration, generative conflict, and imagination.
Abolition is a movement that works toward health, safety, and wellbeing for all, by focusing on the project of abolishing the colonial state systems of police and prisons, and the carceral logics that they produce. The movement for abolition, long led by Black feminist revolutionary thinkers and activists, encourages us to push our imagination past liberal reformist approaches to fixing institutions, and instead to dream up entire new paradigms of how we as humans can relate to each other, even in our most challenging and complex moments. Abolition offers transformative justice, a holistic framework that centers the healing of those who have experienced harm, holds accountable those who have enacted harm without treating them as disposable, and seeks to prevent further harm by transforming the conditions that enabled harm to happen. To create, watch, or otherwise experience theatre is to participate in the collective imagining of other worlds; perhaps we, for whom theatre is a part of our ongoing lives, are uniquely resourced to take up the creative work of abolition.
To create, watch, or otherwise experience theatre is to participate in the collective imagining of other worlds; perhaps we, for whom theatre is a part of our ongoing lives, are uniquely resourced to take up the creative work of abolition.
At first introduction, some fear what abolition proposes, assuming that the prospect of a world without prisons or police would mean a world with neither safety nor accountability, with increased harm and no consequences.
But as activist and writer Mariame Kaba reminds us, “we’re not abandoning our communities to violence... we want to make [police and prisons] obsolete” by nurturing ways of addressing harm that centre survivors and transform the root causes of violence. And, of course, the current system is not actually working: it is a racist, classist, ableist system that disproportionately targets Black, Indigenous, poor, and mentally ill people; it is a colonial and patriarchal system in which Indigenous women are the fastest-growing population in Canadian prisons; it is a system that allows those with power and privilege to constantly enact harm of all kinds – from sexual assault to wage theft to settler colonial genocide – and still evade legal consequences. We are presently living in a society with abundant violence and little accountability.
Transformative justice and abolition movements propose alternatives that seek meaningful accountability, justice and humanity for everyone. Transformative justice offers a series of
practices that go all the way to the root of the problem, and generate solutions and healing there, such that the conditions that create injustice are transformed (brown 146).
The carceral state is not just the police; it is not just prisons. Carceral logics are embedded in every facet of society, in the arts, and in ourselves.
The carceral state is not just the police; it is not just prisons. Carceral logics are embedded in every facet of society, in the arts, and in ourselves. As Angela Y. Davis puts it:
“The retributive impulses of the state, the retributive impulses of state punishment, are inscribed in our very individual emotional responses. The political reproduces itself through the personal.” (p. 106)
The carceral state produces a litigious culture of winners and losers, which makes us reticent to acknowledge shades of grey. The carceral state produces a defensive and individualistic culture of self-preservation, which discourages us from stepping into collective care and from offering support to others when they have experienced harm. The carceral state produces an unforgiving and conflict-averse culture that makes us hide our wrongdoings, creating secrecy and shame and preventing us from holding ourselves accountable when we misstep.
The prison industrial complex is woven into the state, and every arm of the state, including health care, education, social work, and yes, the theatre sector. When arts institutions do harm, that is state harm. The carceral logic of the prison industrial complex is woven into our artistic training and our mainstream practices of art-making, as it is in all facets of mainstream Western society.
Canadian arts organizations reproduce the logics of safety and security created by the prison industrial complex. Arts companies directly partner with the police, with for example police presence at outdoor festivals. Most organizational policies regarding safety and security in theatre workplaces and events instruct staff to involve police at the earliest signs of perceived disruption or harm, failing to account for the further harm that police can inflict on communities already marginalized by the state. Few theatre companies have practices for supporting survivors of harm that do not rely on calling in the mechanisms of the criminal justice system. An abolitionist approach asks us to consider how we can meaningfully keep each other safe in artistic spaces – all of us, even those who are disproportionately targeted by state violence.
Arts organizations follow the litigious logics of the prison industrial complex. They do so when they use status quo contracting practices that primarily defend the interests of the party who holds more institutional power. The structural realities of not-for-profit theatre organizations create boards of directors who prioritize their accountability to the state and their funders over their accountability to the communities in which they live and work. In the culture of the theatre sector, we see patterns whereby consequences are determined not by the degree of harm caused, but often by social position of the person who has caused harm. Abolition invites us to imagine ways of working that do not revolve around defending those with the most power, but instead treat everyone’s best interests as important.
The arts sector enacts the extractive practices of the prison industrial complex. Artists routinely wrestle with institutions over issues of fair compensation, authorship, and agency. Collective understanding of what harm even is continues to centre on capitalistic concepts like theft of property, and fails to include colonial harm like theft of culture. Labour structures benefit and protect those with the most systemic power. Abolition asks us to move from transactional to relational ways of working that hold the entirety of each other’s humanity, including spirituality and culture, as paramount, beyond the frameworks of colonial capitalism.
Collective understanding of what harm even is continues to centre on capitalistic concepts like theft of property, and fails to include colonial harm like theft of culture.
State systems strive to uphold themselves even when they aren’t working – in doing so, they prefer reform over transformational change. Abolition calls attention to the limitations of reformist approaches and asks us to look at the roots of institutional harm. When the police kill a person, reform says let’s spend millions of dollars to put cameras on police, whereas abolition says let’s defund the police and invest money in community programs. In theatre, when communities call out racial injustice or gender-based violence in theatre, reform says let’s hold some workshops on EDI or anti-harassment training, or increase funding to large institutions to run community programs. Instead of addressing inequity through topical initiatives or further bolstering the institution’s power, abolition asks to investigate, what are the roots of the racialized and classed structures that maintain the sector’s persistent proximity to white and class-privileged audiences? How much do these institutional structures end up influencing the art we produce? Perhaps abolition can instruct us to move away from institution-centered solutions to these issues, and to instead resource artistic work and communities that are already happening in non-institutional spaces (in community, on the land, and beyond). Additionally, the institutional ‘cult of personality’ that permeates our working structure serves to insulate prominent figures from accountability when they do harm. Abolition asks how we can hold even those with power accountable, and continue to make sure spaces are accessible to those who have experienced harm, including when they do not hold systemic power.
The aforementioned “retributive impulses of the state” limit how we enter artistic creation processes. Theatre is an art form rooted in collaboration, and collaboration necessarily begets conflict. Artists are subject to the same limitations produced by the carceral state, and “the reality that most of us are walking around with a dearth of accountability skills” (Perez-Darby 107). Artistic training spaces teach us how to interpret a script and hang a light but do not equip us with skills or critical frameworks that support truthfulness, care, healthy risk-taking and equitable conflict navigation in creative collaboration. Instead of stepping into a creative process hoping for minimal conflict, abolition invites us to intentionally develop skills in conflict navigation, facilitation, and communication. Abolition values the potential for artistic conflict – in stories, in rehearsal rooms, between art and audiences – to beget powerful growth on all sides. Abolitionist frameworks can help us be more conflict-informed, and more generous, resilient, and powerful collaborators. Abolition can help us to be even better artists, making even more innovative, truthful, and urgent work.
Abolitionist frameworks can help us be more conflict-informed, and more generous, resilient, and powerful collaborators. Abolition can help us to be even better artists, making even more innovative, truthful, and urgent work.
The prison industrial complex is perhaps most artistically offensive when its tendency towards disposability shows up in the actual content of art. Many stories on mainstream stages, especially when the justice system is part of the backdrop rather than the critical subject of story, latently reinforce carceral logics, e.g. that those labeled by the state as “criminals” will always be villainous, and that the conflict ends when the cops show up. Abolition usefully complicates our notions of good and bad.
In the past few years in particular, the theatre sector has been asked by communities within and around it to confront issues of racism, gender-based violence, ableism, and more. Addressing these as compartmentalized issues, separate from each other and from the core work of creating and sharing art, does not lead to sustainable change. I see abolition as a framework to hold, a through-line to track, a thesis to guide, a rooting from which to grow our approaches to many of the big questions swirling around our ether. There is the elusive, subjective, and magical work of creating art. There is the organizational, logistical, practical work of producing, programming, and delivering art. There is the work of witnessing art. In all of these spaces, there is the opportunity to work in abolitionist ways.
Working to confront the roots takes more time. It goes against capitalistic sensibilities of efficiency. These approaches go against many of the working behaviours we have internalized over time when making art under capitalism, in a sector well known for being underfunded. But still, giving ourselves permission to go slowly when necessary can be transformative. We know that quick and reactive approaches to calls for justice usually create further harm: tokenism, apologies without action, rushed work without right relationships. Abolition asks us to invest time, energy, and resources. It requires the building, negotiation, and maintenance of real relationships.
We know that quick and reactive approaches to calls for justice usually create further harm: tokenism, apologies without action, rushed work without right relationships. Abolition asks us to invest time, energy, and resources. It requires the building, negotiation, and maintenance of real relationships.
What if we saw this work as worth it? What if we sat with the challenging feelings, the capitalistic constraints, and the fear of the unknown? What could we build? I believe we can make a better future world, and in fact, I see so many brilliant and loving people and communities already doing it. Stages of Transformation is an exploration of the ways in which abolitionist work can happen, or is already happening, in performing arts spaces across this land. The work might be called abolitionist by those doing it, or it might not. In any case, this work helps me to imagine what worlds are possible, on and off the stage.
Stages of Transformation includes text, audio, video, and visual art, and with it we seek to provide multiple points of entry into this conversation.
The brilliant Mpoe Mogale joins me on the curatorial team for Stages of Transformation; they also offer a short video on somatic abolition, reflecting with dancer Pam Tzeng, on what it means to bring abolition into the body — the embodied connection being a fundamental piece of abolition in addition to, of course, theatre. In Theatre as Healing for Formerly Incarcerated Women, Amina Mohamed, an abolitionist community worker and my fellow member of Confluence Arts Collective, interviews three artists with lived experiences of incarceration: Charlene Chapman, April Lebine, and Laverne Malcolm. Charlene, April and Laverne discuss the Canadian prison system’s impact on women, and the role that theatre and the arts play in their own journeys. In their visionary image series Envisioning Presence, designers Rachel Forbes and Joanna Yu take up the abolitionist idea of racial equity as community care.
Theatre-makers Cole Alvis, Audrey Dwyer and Kim Senklip Harvey join me for a panel conversation called Storytelling the Justice System, discussing how their own works have engaged with notions of justice in form, content, and process. A second panel, Theatrical Interrogations: Cops in the Spotlight, sees Mpoe discuss the intersections of policing and theatre with playwright/performers Omari Newton and Makambe K. Simamba, and applied theatre scholar Taiwo Afolabi. Designer Bianca Guimarães de Manuel ruminates on healing and transformation in her image series Unsettled. Mpoe and I conduct a series of audio interviews, with theatre leaders Tanisha Taitt, Yvette Nolan, and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, on topics including conflict transformation, organizational governance, and collaboration.
These are just some of the offerings, coming from our wider community, gathered together into Stages of Transformation. I deeply agree with adrienne maree brown when she says, “Every member of the community holds pieces of the solution, even if we are all engaged in different layers of the work” (63). I hope that by platforming these works in proximity to each other, we can individually and collectively find more pathways into the ideas of abolition and transformative justice, and what they can mean for us in the theatre.
As I am continuing to learn, abolition, including its application to arts practice and other vocations, is long-term work. It is difficult and complex work. It is possible and worthwhile work. It certainly will not be accomplished at any one institution alone, or within the scope and time frame of this project. It is joyful and life-affirming work, and every step along the way matters. I believe it is worth it.
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brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy. AK Press, 2017.
Davis, Angela Y. Freedom is a Constant Struggle. Haymarket Books, 2016.
Kaba, Mariame. We Do This ‘Til We Free Us. Haymarket Books, 2021.
Perez-Darby, Shannon. “The Secret Joy of Accountability.” The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence in Activist Communities, edited by Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. AK Press, 2011. Pp 101-113.