Performing Trauma: 9/11, Katrina, the Guerra Sucia

A review of Performing Nation, Performing Trauma: Theatre and Performance after September 11th, Hurricane Katrina and the Peruvian Dirty War, by Katherine Nigh.

Katherine Nigh prefaces her dissertation with her own memories of the morning of September 11, 2001. Nigh was living in New York City when the World Trade Center was attacked, and she recounts her memories of this event and its impact both on her personally and on the larger community of New Yorkers. Personal reflection and perception are a frequent feature of writing about national trauma, and by locating her own historical position at the time of the event, Nigh places her dissertation within a tradition of such writing by Ann Cvetkovich, E. Ann Kaplan, and other trauma scholars.

In her introduction, Nigh argues that readers can benefit from using the concept of national trauma as an analytical frame for events that have wide-reaching effects on a national scale. She describes trauma theory and the way that scholars such as Cathy Caruth, Shoshana Felman, and Dori Laub have framed the discipline. Briefly, in the Freudian tradition, the experience of trauma is a break, where normative capacities for memory are delayed. Persons living through trauma do not disremember traumatic events, but instead re-enact or repeat those traumatic events in harmful or damaging – but not conscious – ways. When extremely painful or shocking events happen on a much larger scale, Nigh argues that we might productively use the concept of national trauma to describe the feelings of disidentification, disaffection, and anomie experienced by people in an affected nation.

Throughout her dissertation, Nigh gives examples of how an event becomes a national trauma, arguing that national traumas are created; they do not simply occur. Instead, events that involve personal grief and mourning are transformed by media, corporations, and government agencies into national events. This can often happen quite quickly, as personal acts of mourning are co-opted and become part of a larger “script” utilized by media and government officials in public responses to tragedy.

In her first chapter, Nigh outlines an idea of critical generosity – using the work of theatre-scholars David Román, Jan Cohen-Cruz, and Rebecca Rovit – to describe and complicate the work of the theatre critic. The critic writes constructively about performances that are intended to work as reparatives or modes of healing, for either audience members or performers. Nigh’s work describes performances that precede events with the potential to be traumatic on a national scale. These performance events create alternative spaces for mourning and testimony that are allowed to go off-script by responding to tragedies in ways that differ from more official or government-endorsed responses. This work follows in the tradition of Diana Taylor’s The Archive and the Repertoire, describing how performance events create narratives and construct spaces where different types of knowledge can exist counter to those which dominate the public sphere.

Chapter 2 describes two performances that responded to the tragedies of September 11, 2001. The first is Stonewalk, a performance event where participants from September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows pulled a one-ton gravestone from Boston to New York. Nigh describes how, because the group is an anti-war coalition, family members of victims of the September 11th attacks felt silenced and unrecognized within national discussions of this “national tragedy.” The event of Stonewalk, however, provided a location for people to publicly mourn this tragedy in ways alternative to the violent aggression and xenophobia proposed and supported by the government of the United States. She also describes the play Patriot Act and the ways in which this more traditionally theatrical performance created a space that acknowledged the ways in which certain people were excluded from the new national identity created by news media after the terrorist attacks.

In chapter 3, Nigh discusses the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as a national trauma in the United States. She is fascinated by Katrina specifically because it was not framed as a national trauma by U.S. American news media, but rather was treated as though it happened to people existing outside of a normative national identity. She focuses in particular on then-president George W. Bush’s reference to the suffering of “the people of this part of the world,” a remark Nigh characterizes as unconsciously exposing “who and who is not considered to be a part of the nation” (pp. 100-101). Because of the lack of concern and attention shown by the nation toward the sufferings of New Orleanians, Nigh finds that performance events allowed audiences to process and understand this trauma. She focuses, in particular, on the play The Breach by Catherine Filloux, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and Joe Sutton. Her second object of study is the first Mardi Gras celebration following Hurricane Katrina (in 2006). By examining these differing performance events, Nigh finds that these two theatrical events (and a second production of The Breach in Seattle) were able to refuse the dominant news media narrative about victims of Hurricane Katrina. In turn, they were able to refashion national identity in ways that allowed for victims to mourn and work through potentially traumatic events.

Nigh’s fourth chapter is a discussion of the Peruvian Guerra Sucia (Dirty War) and theatrical responses to two decades of terrorism and genocide perpetrated against Peruvians by their military and by guerrilla terrorist organizations. She first examines the ways in which the Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación (the Peruvian Truth & Reconciliation Commission) used specific theatrical techniques to assist victims of the Dirty War and to authenticate the testimonies they gave before the Commission. She also interviews members of Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani, a theatre collective founded in 1971, describing in detail an original performance, Sin Título, which addresses the testimonies of victims. She finds that Yuyachkani’s work, in particular, deftly negotiates and addresses the relationship between national identity, national mourning, and personal grief.

If we follow the frame of national trauma as a productive perspective on nations dealing with the aftereffects of violence, Nigh’s dissertation demonstrates that theatrical arts and performance actions have the ability to create spaces where those who have experienced violence can work through trauma collectively. They can create forums for testimony and understanding, while effectively remaking the nation through the identificatory practices of the audiences and performance practitioners. As theatres and performances respond to national traumas, they often allow for opportunities where audiences can find both healing and unity.

Aaron C. Thomas
Visiting Assistant Professor
School of Theatre
Florida State University
acthomas@fsu.edu

Primary Sources

In-depth interviews with the members of Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, and the playwrights of The Breach and Patriot Act.

Dissertation Information

Arizona State University. 2011. 207 pp. Primary Advisors: Tamara Underiner, Matthew Whitaker, and Stephani Woodson.

Image: Yuyachkani’s Augusto Casafranca in the play Sin Titulo. Lima, Peru. Photograph by Katherine Nigh.

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