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Overcoming social oppression: Using dialogue and theatre to reveal oppression and foster healing


Mona C. S. Schatz, DSW
School of Social Work
Ft. Collins, Colorado, United States

John R. Tracy, Ph.D., LCSW
University of Guam
Mangilao, Guam

Sandy N. Tracy, Ph.D.
Program Supervisor
National Family Caregiver Support Program
Adjunct Professor of Social Work
University of Guam
Mangilao, Guam



Even if it appears that the top political leaders are the primary players in social and political conflicts, all members of society are affected, feeling the vulnerability and oppression that insidiously operates below the surface of daily life. The longer the periods of oppression, the more emotionally weakened individuals and families become. Social psychologists, social worker change experts, and others have utilized large and small group techniques that access earlier personal memories – family memories and interpersonal conflicts – to explore the nature of oppression. Whether in conference settings, educational environments, or specialized professional training programs, professionals (e.g., Jones, 1996; Schatz, Furman, & Jenkins, 2003) have offered creative group-oriented approaches, e.g. theatric and dialogue group processes, to examine the personal nature of oppression and the healing that can come from these group experiences. This paper explores creative theatre and dialogue in multinational learning settings.

Overcoming social oppression: Using dialogue and theatre to reveal oppression and foster healing

Current global crises induce anxiety no matter where one lives. The 2001 bombings in New York City and Washington, D. C. signaled a new message of vulnerability that reaches beyond national shores. This vulnerability is accompanied by oppression; America is viewed by certain nationalist groups as a world power that is exploitive, disregarding the needs of poorer, more marginalized peoples. Historically, oppressing other social groups in a society has existed throughout all periods of social and economic development. Wars, ethnic conflicts, cold wars, are all mechanisms that have been and are still used to oppress others.

Even if it appears that the top political leaders are the primary players during these social and political conflicts, all members of society are affected, feeling the vulnerability and oppression that insidiously operates below the surface of daily life. The longer the periods of oppression, the more emotionally weakened individuals and families become. Even when major social and economic transitions occur, such as in the former Soviet Union, some people have problems accepting such changes, in part, because of the historical trauma and loss(es) that have made life so threatening and scary.

Healing the populous – healing families, healing those who have fought for their country, healing among those who were targets of hatred – becomes crucial to significant and meaningful social change. Some experts such as Volkan (1999) have offered thoughtful and relatively extensive explanations for the constructs of ethnic hatred and sustained ethnic group affiliations. Others have addressed the importance of conscientization (Freire, 1990) to foster change in politically oppressive environments.

Social psychologists, social worker change experts and others have utilized large and small group techniques that access earlier personal memories – family memories and interpersonal conflicts – to explore the nature of oppression. Whether in conference settings, educational environments, or specialized professional training programs, these professionals (e.g., Jones, 1996; Schatz, Furman & Jenkins, 2003) have created a unique group process that seeks to examine the personal nature of oppression and the healing that can come from these group experiences. A major premise of this paper is that personal and community liberation begins by reconnecting with and disclosing personal memories of oppression, healing personal wounds, and cleansing ourselves of the contaminants of hatred, bitterness, fear, self-blame, shame, and collusion. Through the creative dialogic group process not only can participants begin to free themselves of the oppressor within, but at the same time discover community and learn the power of peace and justice-making. This paper presents an overview of this process and several brief examples.
Relevant Background

The most relevant areas that serve as background for this paper are the areas of thought and memory and their connection to how one feels and experiences personal and/or social oppression. We hope to show how memory provides the raw data for one to be able to reflect; memory also serves to inform one’s view of freedom – social and socially prescribed; and, memory creates an opportunity to move toward justice-making in social experiences. These next few pages will give context for understanding.

Slavenka Drakulic (2004) provides a recent example of how one grew up in Croatia with a “socially acceptable” history that gave “false” memories, and how false history retains its own experience of personal and social oppression. Drakulic states, My generation grew up never learning history – history as we knew it was a lie, a deceit…. On the one hand we had memory, but on the other hand we had history textbooks, which shaped history to suit the Communist Party Ideology. (p. B7) Describing the pain and horror of the Croatian wars, which according to later history never happened, Drakulic provides a stark picture of not only memories of oppression, but how lies become part of the oppression. To Drakulic, “there is no justice without truth….” (p. B8).

Drakulic’s (2004) story is similar to that of indigenous people worldwide who have had their true history distorted and skewed to fit what the powers that be want known and remembered. George Orwell’s (1946) Animal Farm presents the kind of mentality involved in burying the truth and replacing it with lies. Such manipulation is not the exclusive property of totalitarian nations. Suppression and distortion of memory exists in virtually every nation by way of self-serving politicians, bureaucrats, historians, and news media. Drukulic declares that if people are to overcome social oppression, they must get at the truth – they must remember. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission held in South Africa is a valuable illustration. In the group exchanges at Truth and Reconciliation meetings, much of the time is spent telling about an experience, and the role the person played (Avruch & Vejarano, 2004).

Freire’s (1969/1998; 1990) ideas are particularly relevant to multicultural environments as Freire identifies key concepts of the oppressor and the oppressor within, the banking system of education, critical consciousness, liberatory education (education for freedom and hope), working together across boundaries, and praxis. The oppressor is the person or system in dominant power that subjugates those who are not in power. The oppressor within is that internalized oppression that allows oppressed people to continue to go along with the oppressor. The banking system of education is the idea that those in power have knowledge to impart to those who do not have knowledge, and fill their students with knowledge, which the students accept as an investment for their future. Critical consciousness is that awareness of one’s place in historical context, which for many oppressed people is liberating. This awareness on a deep level of the personal is related to the possibility of freedom, which brings hope (Freire, 1998). When a person understands the oppressor within, he or she has education for freedom and hope to make a revolutionary change. Working together across boundaries brings unity in diversity. Praxis is the interconnection of theory and practice, interrelated systemically to bring meaning and change in concert (Freire, 1969/1998; 1990; Freire & Macedo, 1995).

Theatre and dialogue, as professional tools for use with large and small groups, can help access memory, consider aspects of “truth,” and initiate a healing process toward freedom and justice. Augusto Boal (2003), activist and creator of the Invisible Theatre and Forum Theatre writes, “This is theatre [and performance], the art of looking at ourselves” (p. 15). Boal explains that the performance given by participants forms a game that involves dramaturgy, staging, and the performance itself. Dramaturgy is the rules; staging asks the actors to have physical styles of playing which successfully articulate their characters’ ideology, work, social function, profession, etc. Thus, theatre is able to allow community members, as members of small or large groups, to remember significant periods in either personal or socio-political history, and thereafter, to reflect upon the theatric experience. Theatre allows participants to access memory and reflect in such a way that each can unite the past with the present.

The unity of reflection and action establishes a powerful link between the work of Boal and that of educator and activist Paulo Freire (1990). Freire names the combination of reflection and action as praxis and teaches that freedom cannot exist without praxis. According to Freire, there is no freedom if one reflects without action and there is no freedom if one acts without reflection. The two go hand in hand. Through praxis, one achieves freedom from memories of embedded and embodied oppression. Further, through praxis, one becomes fully human. These ideas can be viewed as parallel. As Boal (2003) states, “each is both spectator and actor—spect-actor” (p. 15). As spect-actors, we have a critical consciousness that is able to ask questions, affirm difference, and dialogue. Thus, participants can move toward freedom from oppression through the performance.

Introducing and describing the process of praxis and theatre is central to this paper. Importantly, emotions of fear, worry, anxiety, stress, even physical and emotional pain, and anger are strong elements of these processes. These emotional elements are not avoided. They are understood as defenses that actually block one’s movement toward freedom, toward being fully human. Fear, a primary destablizer, acts with these other emotions in ways that bury hope and hinder healing. Events of the past serve as the oppressor within us (Freire, 1990). The oppressor within adheres to a dichotomy between oneself and the other in terms of reflection and action. Freire emphasizes that education or political action that fails to respect the worldview of students or fellow citizens (all people) constitutes cultural invasion and oppression, no matter how positive the intentions.

Although more could be said about oppression and how oppression is stored in one’s memory and personal view of his or herself, there is a need to move from this overview into some further description of dialogue and theatre. These two techniques work with: (a) one’s memory, (b) one’s view of social history, and (c) a set of techniques that can contribute to healing for both individuals and the social collective.

Dialogue and Theatre: Using Large and Small Groups

Dialogue as a process for groups consists of four main building blocks (HRI Inc., 1999 as cited in Schatz, Furman, & Jenkins, 2003) identified as 1) suspension of judgment (listening without forming personal objections and/or opinions), 2) assumption identification (deconstruction of personal assumptions), 3) listening, and 4) inquiry and reflection (Bohm, 1985). In the dialogue process, group members are encouraged to ask questions in the sprit of gaining additional insight and perspective (Bohm, 1986). Questions are not asked to ascertain the correctness of ideas, but instead, questions are offered in order to draw out connections and provide additional understanding.

In promoting egalitarian relationships, dialogue groups are consistent with the core values of the social work profession internationally (Estes, 1999; Ramanathan & Link, 1999). “Among the most important reasons why dialogue groups work is that people's basic needs for human connection and belonging are provided for in the process, simply by its design” (Schatz, Furman, Jenkins, 2003, p. 489).

The dialogic approach allows participants to express themselves authentically and without fear of judgment. Bohm and Edwards (1986) formulated dialogue groups as a means of recreating communal experiences. They suggest that people have become more competitive and less cooperative in their communication. On a global scale this competitive process contributes to many present day social problems (Bohm & Peat, 2000). The process of dialogue groups moves members away from competitive ways of being in social interactions and more towards egalitarian and caring relationships. Dialogue is a synergistic experience. Group members share their ideas, concerns, hopes, and even dreams about how they see their life unfolding and transforming (Schatz, Furman, & Jenkins, 2003, p. 491). As illustrated in the work of Schatz, Furman, and Jenkins (2003), the creative dialogic group process opens group communication, so that with this process one can begin to free her or himself of the oppressor within, and, at the same time, discover the supportive “glue” of community, seeing possibilities to move into stronger alliances that foster peace and justice-making.

Theatre as praxis, dialogue and action, can be a powerful liberatory tool in healing individuals as well as communities. If theatre is “the art of looking at ourselves” (Boal, 2003, p. 15), then to really look at ourselves, we need to recall the truth and not present a fictitious portrayal, which only serves to further oppress ourselves, and distort the truth. Liberation requires truth from within and from those around us if we are to move toward liberation. The popular theatric arena does not require or expect to portray truth, but psychodrama and Life Theatre are venues to address the truth, disclose and confront oppression, and even find alternative solutions.

Theatre can be used to portray experiences in one’s life. Family therapists have used psychodrama. Moreno founded this approach (a recent citation describing psychodrama would be Holmes, Karp, and Watson (1994), and later, family “reconstruction” (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 1996; Nerin, 1986) which is, in part, a therapeutic innovation developed by Satir (1988; Satir & Baldwin, 1983) in the late 1960s. Family reconstruction is a public re-enactment or theatric representation of family situations. Goldenberg and Goldenberg (1996) indicate that family reconstruction guides families to unlock dysfunctional patterns (p. 162).

Value of disclosure

Disclosure opens the door for change. It opens the door for healing the wounds of oppression and its contaminants, which include revenge, hate, anger, blame and/or self blame, guilt, related physical maladies, etc. Disclosure opens the door to empowerment, and teaches how to confront oppression. Disclosure work builds community, makes peace, reveals the truth, and restores justice. Initial disclosure work is best performed in a safe environment where participants are seeking healing. However, there may be a need for confrontational disclosure that shakes the lies and challenges the hegemony of oppression. This work needs to be done by those who have already confronted the oppressor within.

In memory work by the authors, focus on disclosure includes use of group sculpting, poetry, narrative, play, painting, and drawing to allow the participants to express the re-construction of their memories of oppression. This work is directed toward those in the initial stages of healing and liberation.

Groups as Community

In working with disclosure of oppressive memories in group, the facilitator discusses group rules of confidence and self-responsibility regarding disclosure and participation. The facilitator must clarify the risks involved in this work and give people the choice to become involved. It is important to discuss the use of memory so that the participants are aware of the pathways such as meditation, reflection, and action. Further, group members need to discuss the use of memory disclosure as a way to identify experiences of oppression and marginalization and how this work can lead toward personal healing, liberation, justice, and community work and action. In this process, the facilitator discusses the process of the workshop about to take place and explains the use of artistic expression, the group as a support system, potential outcomes, and types of follow-up work that will take place in the process. The facilitator also assures the participants of the overall potential of positive outcomes of the process, outcomes that may include physical as well as emotional and social benefits.

Recent Examples

At a multinational professional conference in Azerbaijan, social workers, educators, and psychologists (Schatz, 2004) from more than 11 countries discovered that a common theme among everyone was recently experiencing either terrorism or ethnic conflict in their own countries. Over many days, and within various workshops and home-based dialogue group experiences, group members explored how each was impacted by their country’s ethnic conflict and military violence. Some recounted the loss of family members; others described how they had played significant roles as helping professionals in war torn communities. For example, as Americans were talking about their lack of support for the U. S. presence that was, at that time, in Afghanistan, they learned that the Tajikistanis were grateful for America’s presence, in part because their country was now safer because the gun smuggling that had been taking place in Tajikistan had ceased.

During a unique experience in a town outside of Chernobyl, in the Ukraine, one of the conferees was able to recount in extensive detail her experience as a teenager during the Chernobyl crisis of 1986. Her ability to narrate the environment and her own experience in that crisis brought every group member to a deeper understanding of the fear that existed in those first hours when the radiation was leaking from the power plant.

In these various groups, some of the dialogue work offered participants the opportunity to express their own personal crises during earlier Communist times. In particular, one 20-something male group member recounted his many years living in the streets, unable to make a living, scrounging for food and shelter. At one point, he began to talk about his memories of his parents, when he was just about 8 years old. This is the last memory he has of his parents, as his father died when he was 8; his mother died shortly thereafter. He was orphaned and sent to live with family members. Things did not work out and this young boy was left to survive in bleak conditions, selling his body when no other option existed. Sharing these memories with the others helped him find a release inside of himself; a release of the shame he had for having had to do some things that were horrible even in his own mind. This experience of honesty, within an atmosphere of acceptance and safety, was vital for him. From this experience of telling his story, he was able to make some important personal changes. For example, he was able to find a job and shortly thereafter, found a suitable place to live. He had been without either a job or a home environment for over 11 years. His oppression was both self-enforced and sustained by repressive public policies and cultural norms.

Box One: Sculpting oppression through racism

A participant from Korea acted out, through group sculpture, an experience she had when she first came to the United States, as a student at a small university. She sculpted her experience of being snubbed by classmates on the first day of class. She believes that this was due to her race.
Others in the workshop group also were able to present similar memories of oppression. Most used body and group sculpting as a way to express their memory of their experience of oppression and involve others in that experience. Sculpting involves participants allowing their bodies to be positioned as if they were like clay in a sculptor’s hands. It has been used successfully as a valuable method of expression and group work in addressing personal therapeutic issues and many other social issues. Sculpting is a tool used by family therapy practitioners such as Virginia Satir (1988).

In a family training program, the opportunity to use a theatre approach gave group members the opportunity to create new solutions to new social challenges. Again, because the participants in this training program were members of former satellite Soviet countries, the 1990s had been a time of major transition. One of the recurring themes that surfaced in this family training program was the frequent loss of young adults who were immigrating to Westernized countries, including Germany, Israel, and the United States. The training leader decided to use a theatric approach in order to have the group consider the many problems and challenges that exist as family members emigrate. The first three acts were scripted by the training leader. In these acts, players were asked to portray the varied stages of planning for an emigration—talking to friends and family, applying for visas, negotiating costs for leaving the country, etc. After these first three enactments, four groups were formed from the participants. In these groups, the members had to write the final act and create a realistic conclusion or solution to this play. Each group acted out their final act. The first three acts were informative, illustrating the clarity of emotions and context that informed this specific issue. The last act, the multiple finales, were all creative portrayals of how families and other significant others coped with and supported the decision of the émigré. The participants learned so much. The acting allowed for both dialogue, and also for the widest range of emotions to be shared – laughter, crying, shyness, fear, conflicted emotions, and anxiety.

The debriefing after this theatric experience was as vital as the theatrical components. In the ensuing discussion, participants were able to create ties from personal actions to impacts for families, communities, and even nation states. They were able to see themselves in the play. For example, the concern that a country would lose its brightest and best educated surfaced as an issue for the enactment of an émigré. Conflicting ideas about freedom surfaced as well as the conflicts participants feel about seeing their friends and family leave the country.

At the 2004 international conference of the Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed (PTO), a group process approach was used in a workshops led by Tracy and Tracy to introduce the idea of accessing personal memories related to overcoming oppression. A range of preparatory exercises facilitated group cohesion and loosened inhibitions among group members, thus increasing tolerance, acceptance, and respect. Achieving safety, acceptance, respect, etc. was accomplished through cohesion building exercises, self expression exercises, group sculpting, relaxation exercises, and non-verbal, pantomime acts related to simple themes (e.g., meeting someone on the street or greeting a stranger) prior to the disclosure process. These exercises fostered greater awareness of each person’s personal space, while working toward greater trust, support, and free expression among the group members. Moving to a more personal level of disclosure, the workshop leaders used self-introduction and sharing of a positive experience. Together these created a safe place to examine personal experiences of oppression. This began a process for accessing memory. The group processed these positive experiences through the use of talking-point questions, such as, “What makes experience positive?” and, “Why describe the chosen experience?” Group members discussed the value of disclosing memories of oppression covering the reasons, the goals, the process of self-choice, personal responsibility, and group responsibility. Additionally, group members were given time to reflect on oppressive memories and pick one they wished to disclose.

Concluding thoughts

In the introduction to this paper, we described a stage filled with current acts of terror and oppression throughout the world. In concluding, we suggest that important creative, artistic, dialogical approaches are available and have been successfully used to teach professional colleagues, students, and lay people how each one can use creative group approaches to address these difficult circumstances. We introduced the concepts of oppression and memory as vital elements of social malaise. We examined how memories can stall people’s ability to transform a situation. Memory allows people to learn, to work for us, to better integrate our understanding, and move to newer opportunity for social and community experiences. With creative tools such as theatre and dialogue, social workers and professionals fostering human growth and community change can move to new opportunities for personal and social freedoms, fostering real opportunities for individuals to become part of non-oppressive communities, thus initiating peace-building which is the most important tool for this millennium.


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Mona Schatz can be reached via email at

John Tracy can be reached via email at

Sandy Tracy can be reached via email at


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