Theater as power: New professor brings Caribbean performance practice to Berkeley
The campus's first social justice theater professor, Timmia Hearn DeRoy, talks about how Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival practice, rooted in emancipation, drives her work today.
By Anne Brice
Read a transcript of Berkeley Voices episode 114: 'Theater as power: New professor brings Caribbean performance practice to Berkeley.'
Timmia Hearn DeRoy: Theater and performing arts often, perhaps most frequently, uphold existing regimes because that’s where the money is. That’s where the power is. It takes a lot to create art. And so when we look at the most prominent forms of theater practice, they are so often the ones that are upholding the status quo.
Narration: This is Berkeley Voices. I’m Anne Brice.
Today we hear from Timmia Hearn DeRoy. She is a new assistant professor of social justice theater and directing in UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies. She’s the first faculty member at Berkeley hired specifically as a social justice theater practitioner and joins several professors in the department who incorporate social justice methodologies into their teaching. And she’s one of 10 recently hired professors in the Division of Arts and Humanities.
DeRoy’s research explores what goes into creating social justice theater, or what she calls narrative justice playmaking, and how it’s different from other forms of theater.
Timmia Hearn DeRoy: A lot of times we hear narratives around, “Oh, this piece of work is telling untold stories.” First of all, the story wasn’t untold. The story was just untold to some people.
Generally, what that means is this story has not been widely spread among those in power, and that by telling these untold, quote-unquote, stories to those in power, we will change the minds of those in power to give those who have been silenced more voice, more rights, etc.
Narration: This is advocacy, she says. It’s an appeal for justice, which is important and needs to keep happening. But it’s not social justice theater, because it keeps the power in the hands of the powerful.
Instead, she says, social justice theater actually aims to contribute, in real time, to social transformation.
Timmia Hearn DeRoy: Sometimes that looks like disrupting. Sometimes that looks like protest. But often that also looks like people from a specific community that have been marginalized developing their own performance techniques to tell their own stories for themselves, in their own ways, in manners that help them understand their realities better in ways that are self-affirming.
My work is a lot about: How do we position ourselves? How do we be really honest about our identities? And how do we research ourselves and use our understanding of ourselves to make the world a more just place, as opposed to perhaps going around and researching other people. I’m a big advocate of self-research, autoethnography, of looking at the ways in which our stories influence other people’s realities, but always starting from where we are.
Narration: DeRoy has many communities and cultures that make up her identity, all of which inform how she moves through the world and the type of work that she does.
Her dad is Jewish, from Israel. Her mom is multiracial, from Trinidad and Tobago, an island country in the Caribbean. And DeRoy, who is queer and light-skinned, grew up in Lawrence, Kansas.
Timmia Hearn DeRoy: I am what you can consider a person who passes for white. And that's a huge part of how I am viewed in the world, how I'm seen in the world, the opportunities that I'm given in the world.
Narration: She says that being both part of the power structure and a member of marginalized groups has allowed her to write and direct performances in a nuanced way, always holding many different perspectives in the process.
In 2022, as a graduate student at the University of Kansas, she directed Everybody, a 2017 play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins about the unexpected nature of death. It’s a modern adaptation of the 15th century morality play called Everyman. The student-actors performed Everybody during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Timmia Hearn DeRoy: So in a global pandemic, where every single one of us have been deeply, intimately affected by the effects of COVID, we are all direct recipients of this trauma, of this social problem, this violence. Of course, some communities have been more affected, and some individuals have been more affected.
But the whole production (of Everybody) was designed around: How can we generate collective healing around the collective loss that we’ve experienced? And also: How can we train our students, because it was a university production, to share power? Because we’ve seen that how not sharing power when it comes to trying to solve social issues over and over again continues to marginalize those who are not in power. So power sharing is very important.
Narration: The script for Everybody is designed as a lottery. Five actors learn all of the parts, and each night, they draw at random the characters they’re going to play. One person gets the lead role, who also is the one who dies in the play.
In DeRoy’s version, they instead asked audience members to vote using a QR code for which actors would play each role that night.
Timmia Hearn DeRoy: So they (the actors) would get a live text on stage, and then they would go to their places and play it. But the conceit behind that was not just the fun of getting to vote on your peers, but that it reminded all of us that we are collectively responsible for each other’s lives because you’re literally voting on the person who’s going to die in the play.
Narration: The main character, though, is also a coveted role, and the actors would advocate to the audience for one another to get a chance to play it.
Timmia Hearn DeRoy: And the reason I bring this up as a great example of actual grounded theater that makes a change is because all of the students who participated in this project left this project understanding what power-sharing means, having participated and made their own decisions to share power and to advocate for others to share power. So it wasn’t just a play, it was also a training — an allyship training, a power-sharing training.
And because everyone felt so invested in the collective of this production, there was this sense of unity, there was this sense of love, there was this sense of standing up for each other.
Narration: This type of performance isn’t how most theater has traditionally been designed, she says, where everyone has a role in the cast, and each role fits into a hierarchy.
Throughout her training, DeRoy, who first got into community theater in Kansas at age 9, saw these power structures at play.
[Music: "PolyCoat" by Blue Dot Sessions]
And it was in Trinidad, where her mom grew up, that DeRoy developed her own social justice theater research and practice.
Carnival: An outcry against injustice
Narration: After DeRoy graduated in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in theater studies from Yale University, she moved to Trinidad to connect with her family’s roots.
There, she worked at the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, where she was the director of the School for the Arts, and Director-in-Residence. She directed several productions, including An Echo in the Bone by Dennis Scott and A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare, and she developed six new plays.
While she was there, she also learned more deeply about Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival, an annual festival started in the late 18th century by the islands’ enslaved population as a way to disrupt political realities.
Timmia Hearn DeRoy: Carnival is a massive party that has a huge sociopolitical root and is all about emancipation and reparation.
Narration: To understand what it means to the culture, she says, it’s important to know the country’s complex colonial history.
Here’s a very brief summary:
Trinidad and Tobago, a dual island Caribbean nation, was inhabited by Indigenous tribes for thousands of years, then claimed by Columbus in the name of Spain in the late 15th century. Most of the Indigenous population was attacked and seized for slave labor on other Caribbean islands, which were also colonized by Europeans.
In the 17th century, the French settled in Trinidad and Tobago. They brought with them enslaved Creole, or Caribbean-born, people and set up a plantation society. Then the British took ownership from Spain in the late 18th century. As demand for sugar spiked across the world, enslaved people, mostly from West Africa, were brought into the country to work on the plantations.
For entertainment, both French and freed people of color held masquerade balls. And enslaved Africans, who brought with them their own mask traditions, were excluded from the masquerades. So they decided to enact their own Carnival as a form of retaliation and resistance. During the festivities, they mocked their oppressors, impersonating them in exaggerated ways. Over time, Carnival became a unique way for them to express their identity.
Timmia Hearn DeRoy: And then when enslavement ended in the 1830s, they (the British) brought in a lot of indentured laborers, mostly from India, but some from China. So the society is now West African. It's part East African. There's still a significant indigenous population in Trinidad and Tobago. We've got various European influences, and we've got a large Indian and a smaller Chinese population. They're all bringing together their culture and their food and their performance practices to form what is the Creole Carnival of today.
Narration: Carnival is a two-day street festival with deep spiritual ties where people promenade down the street, playing music, dancing and wearing costumes.
There’s a stylized form of performance called Ole Mas, derived from West African mask traditions, rhythms and dances of the original Carnival, where people wear elaborate costumes and perform practiced walks and dances, participate in competitions, give speeches, and dress like characters, often as a political response to injustices happening in the world.
Timmia Hearn DeRoy: Trinidadian Carnival, you know, it’s social justice theater in practice, every moment, it’s all about emancipation, the subverting of the powerful narrative through humor, through performance, through doublespeak. And it just taught me so much about the possibilities of the art form.
Narration: It starts with a celebration called jouvey, which is a Creolization of the term “jour overt,” French for “day opens.”
Timmia Hearn DeRoy: Revelers cover themselves in, traditionally, mud and paint and oil, but increasingly these days, other kinds of substances, too, like chocolate, and dance to the beat of the steel drum and tamboo bamboo, which is beating bamboo on the ground to make rhythms.
This all comes from the history where African drums were banned, and so people of African descent had to find different ways to express their music, by beating paths or beating on the ground. The only musical instrument created in the 21st century is the steel pan, which came out of this need for people of African descent in Trinidad to drum as part of their celebration, ceremony, spiritual practices.
Carnival starts with this greeting of the day. People dance to the sun as the sun rises. It's a very spiritual experience, very emotional experience.
They're literally practices of releasing trauma and stress and pain. And they do leave you feeling renewed and revived and reborn. So that's Carnival. It's a rebirth. It's a ritual ceremony. It's performance. It's an outcry against injustice.
[Music: "Keeping Up" by Blue Dot Sessions]
Narration: At the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, the longest running theater in the Caribbean, DeRoy met one of her great mentors, Tony Hall, whose theatrical practice developed from growing up playing Carnival and from studying theater in Canada and England.
Timmia Hearn DeRoy: And he created, well, he doesn't like to say he created... he observed a process that he called Jouvay Popular Theatre Process, off of which my narrative justice playmaking is largely built.
It’s about playmaking, how to make plays in this sort of inside-out manner, this iterative manner of creating these plays that really interact with the social environment and are able to create social change. Tony revolutionized the way I looked at the world, and everything I do is built on his practice.
The transformative power of performance
Narration: DeRoy’s narrative justice playmaking framework, an observation of centuries-old practices from all around the world, breaks down the steps of social justice theater into four stages.
The first thing that performance allows us to do, she says, is survive.
Timmia Hearn DeRoy: In the most difficult circumstances, it’s often the stories and the hope that we tell each other about ourselves that allow us to keep not just living, but wanting to live. And that’s a really big difference within oppressed societies: Are you living because you’re trying to survive? Or are you living because you passionately want to be alive?
Narration: After survival comes emancipation.
Timmia Hearn DeRoy: So how does theater and our performance actually break our sometimes literal enslavement?
The rituals and the performances that helped people gain freedom and helped colonies gain independence. Those are very literal emancipation performances. But they’re also all the performances and the practices and the storytelling that led to the emancipation.
And then there's the continuing emancipation of the mind, emancipation of the self from the structures, such as colonialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy. These performances allow us to free our minds from this mental enslavement, so to speak.
Narration: The next stage is reparation.
Timmia Hearn DeRoy: So of course, we're in a conversation internationally about actual reparations for the transatlantic slave trade and for all of the labor that was stolen from so many of our ancestors. And so there are ceremonies and rituals of actual reparation.
But also, beyond that, reparation is a reparative. It's about repairing the harm that was done. This is where we move from just telling the stories to actually being able to repair the harm done. And so much of repairing of the harm is the next step after the emancipation. So I now know that I deserve this life. What does learning and living this life mean? How can I heal? It's collective healing. And the ways in which so many of our storytelling practices permit us (to take part in) collective healing.
Narration: And the final stage of social justice performance is self-actualization.
Timmia Hearn DeRoy: I talked a lot about this earlier. How do marginalized communities find ways to not just free themselves from the bond and heal from the harm, but then live full, beautiful, self-actualized lives?
And theater and performance helps us do all four of those things. And it's not a linear path. It doesn't go one after the other. I just broke it down for ease of understanding.
[Music: "Bedroll" by Blue Dot Sessions]
Narration: After four years, DeRoy left Trinidad and Tobago and moved to Toronto, Canada, to work for the CaribbeanTales International Film Festival. After a year, she returned to Kansas, where she worked in a community-based program in a public elementary school.
Then, she decided to go to graduate school at the University of Kansas. There, she directed several productions, including In the Blood by Suzan-Lori Parks, about a Black woman who is homeless trying to raise five children on her own.
Timmia Hearn DeRoy: This production also deals with sexual violence. This production also deals with misogynoir, which is misogyny specifically directed at Black women. It deals with death and violence against young Black men. It's a very difficult and violent subject.
I didn't want to create a production that excluded the very people who the play talks about. I wanted to create a production that would not just include but center the perspectives of the people who are most affected by the content of the play.
And so I moved even deeper into the disability justice conversation, and then I started pairing that with trauma-informed best practices from trauma studies. And I started looking at how we can also provide not just accessibility for physical disablement, but accessibility for mental and emotional disablement in the forms of trauma, PTSD, as well as the whole spectrum of mental disability, from autism and on, everywhere.
I learned a lot about relaxed performances, how to make performances not overwhelming for people with sensory sensitivities, how to make sure that people — and I strongly recommend that anybody read the disability justice primer Skin, Tooth, and Bone, created by Sins Invalid, because that's where I learned so much about how to actually create sensory-sensitive productions, not overwhelming productions, and also just accessible in so many ways.
And then combining that with my work on trauma-informed practices, I think we managed — I wrote my master’s thesis about this — we managed to create a play that was far more inclusive than it could have been, though I know that there were many ways that we could have continued to be better.
To enact disability justice, you always have to be thinking about everybody with every different ability and being open to learning where you feel short because you will always fall short because there? are always people you didn't know about.
Narration: Right now, DeRoy is working on a very personal play about a queer couple’s reproductive journey, inspired by her own experiences.
Timmia Hearn DeRoy: And what it’s designed to do is raise awareness about all the social inequities and difficulties that were faced by myself and my partner, and others who have similar positionalities to us, during pregnancy journeys. And the ways in which our parenthood and our abilities to become parents and our abilities to parent in a safe and healthy way — I’m using a reproductive justice framework — are disrupted by the medical institutions and the policies that are surrounding us, and by the ways in which queer and racialized people trying to parent get a certain kind of scrutiny and a certain kind of violence that other people don’t have.
So that’s me as an artist, working within my own community, not just to raise awareness to those who are in power, but also to empower people like myself to know how to self-advocate, to know what it actually means, to know what these processes are.
Narration: Social justice theater, she says, is a vital tool in creating more just societies — one that promotes shared power and self-empowerment and helps break down the structures of domination and oppression that colonialism has built into so many societies across the world.
This fall, DeRoy is on a research semester, and in the spring she’ll teach her first classes at Berkeley — an advanced stage directing course and a course on post-/de-/anti-colonial performance literature.
I’m Anne Brice, and this is Berkeley Voices, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
In the next episode, we’ll continue where we left off — this time with Angela Marino, an associate professor in theater, dance and performance studies — who will discuss the ways that social justice theater methodologies have the ability to transform our campus and help create a more genuine democracy.
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