Chelsey Sapp, a 33-year-old Cree Muslim woman, watched the performers on her screen intently as tears filled her eyes. An actress dressed in black grabbed colourful scarves and put them in a bag one by one, then lugged it over her shoulder as Sapp looked on.
“She said something like, ‘It’s so heavy for me,’” Sapp recalls, recognizing the symbolism of the weight she carries herself from her hardships – intergenerational trauma as an Indigenous survivor and the discrimination she faces as a Muslim woman.
Sapp wasn’t just experiencing catharsis through watching another character. She was experiencing her own life story played out (on Zoom) by local theatre company Third Space Playback Theatre Edmonton. Performing their brand of playback, a participatory form of improvisational theatre, the actors “played back” the stories audience members shared with them.
“It was just amazing,” Sapp says about the special performance she calls The Life of Chelsey. “When they played [my story] back to me, I looked at myself and I’m like, ‘Wow. That’s one courageous, resilient woman right there.’”
When the actors completed Sapp’s playback, there were few dry eyes in the virtual space. The March, 2022, performance was the first collaboration between local grassroots organization Sisters’ Dialogue and the theatre. The groups organized the exclusive Playback Theatre performance just for Muslim women, mostly from the Edmonton area, to facilitate healing from the gendered Islamophobia and racism they’d experienced in the city and to foster sisterhood through art.
Over the past two years, Edmonton and its surrounding area have seen a string of reported physical and verbal attacks against racialized Muslim women. Recent data from Statistics Canada showed that while overall crime was down 10 per cent in 2020, reported hate crimes were up 37 per cent across the country. That number doesn’t include the numerous hate crimes that go unreported or incidents that don’t fit the legal bill of a hate crime.
“Month after month, there is another attack and most of the victims are Black Muslim sisters,” explains Wati Rahmat, a Malay Muslim woman living in Edmonton. “It’s created a lot of fear and anxiety amongst women.”
Rahmat co-founded Sisters’ Dialogue in 2021 in reaction to the attacks. While other community organizations and different levels of government responded to the attacks with programs such as self-defense classes for Muslim women, Rahmat says she noticed that victims were often left out of the responses.
“Every time there’s an attack, there’s a lot of media attention and outrage from the community but then it’ll just dissipate,” she says. “But no one’s really saying ‘Hey, we’re here for you. We are your sisters, and we care for you.’”
Rahmat recalls after the first series of attacks from December, 2020, into early 2021, “nobody was talking about mental health. Nobody was talking about victim support.” Rahmat’s organization aimed to fill that gap, and with its Third Space collaboration, give Muslim women the community support they desperately needed.
Third Space’s artistic director and art therapist, Lucy Lu, explains that Playback Theatre was developed in 1975 in New York by Jonathan Fox, a student of improv and oral traditional storytelling, and Jo Salas, a musician and activist, along with other members of the original company. Over the next 15 years, the theatre was brought to audiences in Japan, Switzerland, Australia and many other countries where new companies began to emerge. In 1993, The School of Playback Theater was established in New York, later becoming the Centre for Playback Theatre. According to the International Playback Theatre Network, the art form is practiced in over 70 countries and employed in a wide variety of contexts from sparking social dialogue to team-building and more.
In a playback theatre performance, the actors on stage engage with the audience, inviting them to tell their stories. At this event, Sapp shared her life story in the intimate company of fellow Muslim women and only female performers from Third Space. Sapp recalled overcoming her tumultuous childhood, abuse and alcohol addiction, and shared her dream of publishing a book one day – an autobiographical telling of her resilience.
Once the story is shared, the actors “play it back,” repeating the storytellers’ dialogue, turning bits and pieces of the story into an interpretative dance, or using props to replay significant moments, often with live musical accompaniment. Despite the actors never having heard the stories before they take the stage, they produce complete performances that often evoke strong emotions from the audience.
“For women to just express themselves and see their feelings being acted out, it’s very cathartic,” says Rahmat. “It’s very visceral.”
For Sapp, seeing her life played out on screen helped her see just how much she had really gone through – something she realized she rarely gave herself credit for.
Rahmat and Lu aim to continue their collaborations, aspiring to eventually make a session open to non-Muslims to watch.
Building on the foundation of playback, Third Space caters its performance to the community it is invited into with an intentional attempt at decolonizing the practice. Lu says that her company attempts a culturally sensitive approach that values a community’s experiences without retraumatizing anyone. After each storyteller speaks, Lu asks them, “Would you like to hear your story played back?”
“Because people have been so violated from intrusion in their space, the [ask for] permission is to signal for all of us that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to,” Lu explains.
For another participant, Asha Yassin, seeing her story played back made her realize she wasn’t alone. Yassin, a counselling psychology student and Sisters’ Dialogue member, remembers feeling apprehensive about playback at first, but left feeling a sense of Muslim sisterhood.
“My intersecting identities of being a Black, visibly Muslim woman make me such a vulnerable target,” Yassin shares. In her story, the hijab-wearing mother said she feels unsafe outside the walls of her home. Yassin recounted having a discussion with her classmates about their self-awareness levels. “A lot of them would say maybe a two, maybe a one [out of 10], and I was just so surprised by that,” she says. “That’s a privilege.” When telling her story to the playback group, Yassin shared that her self-awareness level is always at a “10 out of 10″ and “it never drops.” Yassin says she’s been followed in stores and on the street multiple times, been verbally assaulted and even spat on in hateful incidents.
In her playback, the actors emphasized Yassin’s worry and desire for comfort and protection outside her home. She watched as performers repeated her words like “self-awareness” and acted out the walls that represented her safe haven from the racism and Islamophobia she encounters on a regular basis.
After watching her playback performance, some of the words and movements she had experienced through her screen stayed with her long after the metaphorical curtain had dropped. Yassin says she felt like she could now take a step toward finding ways to navigate society in a safer manner after receiving private messages from other participants who related to her story.
Yassin shared that playback was triggering, but not in a negative way.
“Sometimes you’re triggered and you’re afraid – you’re worried it brings back emotions,” Yassin says. “But in this particular situation, I felt like this is a door that I could finally open to start my journey to healing.”
Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.