UNESCO organizes theatre performances for displaced people in Haiti
A theatrical project supported by UNESCO with the Haitian street theatre troupe Zhovie aims to give displaced people in Port-au-Prince a moment of joy and solace, and to help relieve their fears after the 12 January earthquake that left many of them with nothing. Zhovie gave the first performance of the play “Zonbi Lage” on 11 April in a camp in the Haitian capital to an audience of several thousands.
The play, the first event of this kind to be staged in a temporary camp since the disaster, revisits the great myths of Haitian culture, with special reference to Voodoo. Several songs from the traditional repertory were added, inspiring the crowd of spectators to sing along. The Acra camp shelters some 20,000 people in makeshift tents and shacks on Delmas Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Port-au-Prince.
“The purpose of this theatre production is to provide a therapeutic experience for the earthquake victims, particularly young people,” explains Jean Joseph, a Zhovie player who teaches philosophy in a senior high school in the capital. “If we want to help the survivors, it’s not enough to give them food. Mental health counts as much as physical health. We, the actors, have to help these depressed, desperate people and try to revive their hopes. A positive memory, a good laugh, can nourish a person for months,” says the amateur thespian.
Zhovie, founded in 2004, is a street theatre troupe of 14 actors and three percussionists. Its show, “Zonbi Lage”, evokes the quake through texts written by Haitian author Frankétienne, a UNESCO Artist for Peace. Characters on stage include Baron Samedi, Voodoo divinity of the dead, and the zombie, a living-dead slave.
The aim of the play is at once therapeutic, cathartic and “psychosocial”, i.e. it takes into account the individual’s links to the collective. Psychosocial support helps relieve and heal psychological wounds caused by disasters or violence.
Besides material support, which is obviously essential, art and culture can also help Haitians heal from and overcome the trauma they have suffered. These restore a sense of normality despite the difficulties of daily life in the camps. Art and culture can bolster social cohesion and lend moral support to displaced people, according to UNESCO. Culture confers upon people a strong sense of identity and belonging, both of which make it easier to cope under difficult circumstances.
Asha-Rose Migiro, the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, attended the performance and said, “The population needs food for the soul too.” The theatre troupe is now much in demand and UNESCO is planning to sponsor a series of performances in other camps for displaced persons.
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