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Author: Kendrick Foster
Date: Spring 2019
From: Harvard International Review(Vol. 40, Issue 2)
Publisher: Harvard International Relations Council, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,313 words
Lexile Measure: 1430L

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In the existentialist play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the Player, a traveling actor, exclaims that "We're actors! We're the opposite of people!" Reflecting a popular sentiment that theater is inaccessible, unrentable, and removed from the needs of ordinary people, the exclamation overlooks the strides that popular theater (e.g. Hamilton) has made in communicating relatable social messages and bringing new meaning to its audiences, entertaining them all the while.

While the entertainment value may attract most audiences to modern theatrical performances (as they surely did during Shakespeare's day), playwrights and theatrical troupes across the world have tailored their performances to achieve another goal: conflict resolution. Traditional popular theater and innovative forms of participatory theater, in which actors engage directly with the audience, have started to address a wide range of conflicts at a localized level, ranging from recent and acute violent conflicts to remnant hostility from past strife. In turn, these methods provide insightful lessons for conflict resolution across the world.

Theater Be My Friend

Nigeria offers an example of successful conflict resolution efforts, both through traditional and participatory theater. Although the struggle against Boko Haram has captured the world's attention, the international community has generally overlooked a raft of other conflicts within the country. Farmers and herders have engaged in disputes with a religious undercurrent over land use, ethnic groups have fought over local governance, and focal groups in the Niger Delta have fought multinational companies' attempts to exploit the region's oil resources.

However, groups across the country have increasingly adopted theater as a means to resolve these various conflicts. One playwright, Ben Tomoloju, tackled many themes related to conflict in his play Askari.A Vole for Tolerance. In the play, a tyrannical ruler, Lord Askari, embarks on a senseless war against two neighboring ethnic groups. Eventually, religious groups and international peacekeepers combine forces to slop the fighting. Although fictional, the play attempts to illustrate the causes of conflict (identifying competition for resources, a lust for power, clashing value systems, and information asymmetry), the impact of the conflict on focal communities, and the interests of various stakeholders in the conflict. Tomoloju aimed for a realistic depiction of the causes and consequences of conflict, something unattainable in a more formal educational program. In turn, the play makes it easier to offer solutions to the conflict, as it clearly elucidates how various stakeholders impact the conflict's progression, and, by extension, how the various stakeholders can change their actions to resolve the conflict. Additionally, Tomoloju wrote dialogue in several native languages, such as Yoruba, to make it more accessible to local populations. Indeed, the form of theater, with its oral communication, allows it to effectively reach illiterate groups within society. In a country without much of a theater infrastructure, the play reached audiences nationwide, and producers turned the play into a movie, reaching an even larger audience.

One strand of participatory theater, known as theater for development, has emerged to help resolve- Nigerian conflicts. As defined by the anti-poverty group Participate, theater for...

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