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Jussie Smollett and the Theater of the Oppressed

Jussie Smollett and the Theater of the Oppressed

Photo: Unsplash/Peter Lewicki | Photo: Unsplash/Peter Lewicki

Strange as it may seem, an International Theater of the Oppressed actually exists.  It was founded by Augusto Baol, a Brazilian who sought to eradicate the distinction between actors and audience by having both involved in revolutionary theatrical activism that emphasized the victimhood of the oppressed.

Though there now seems to be a cast of thousands vying for roles in self-scripted plays featuring victimization and oppression, Jussie Smollett appears to have been one of the most recent players auditioning for the starring role in Baol’s theater. 

As the whole world now knows, Smollett created a play designed to reinforce his identity as a victim of racism and homophobia.  By writing his own script and hiring Nigerian thespians to perform in his racially themed production, he hoped to raise consciousness of racism as well as to effect a pay raise. His elaborate theatrics pulled in the Chicago police department as unwitting and eventually resentful players on a revolving stage of virtue signaling. Smollett’s vogueish concept was revealed as a complete hoax designed to garner him sympathy as well as to extract greater financial remuneration from FOX productions.  As an angry Chicago Chief of Police stated, Smollett merely wanted “to promote his career.”

If Smollett’s drama was a one-off production, there might not be much to worry about. Unfortunately, activist drama has many permutations, with many actors lined up to play in scenes designed to draw in empathetic fellow revolutionaries. 

The big questions about invented victimization scenes are these: How did Smollett and other hoaxers get to the place that made-up dramas of self-authentication damaging innocent people were considered a valid form of protest? How did elaborate lies deliberately designed to enhance victimhood get their start?  What ideas have prevailed in order that lying is valid political stagecraft? Most importantly, how has the theater of oppression invaded politics in order to fundamentally transform society? How have actors such as Smollett, Christine Blasey Ford and now perhaps Michael Cohen, who is playing a role as political star in the House, gained parts as actors in victimology plays?

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Partly due to the moral paroxysms of World Wars I and II, existentialist philosophers and playwrights gave up on traditional forms of drama and began drawing on themes that resulted in what became known as the Theatre of the Absurd.  One idea of the new approach to drama was that the human condition was essentially devoid of purpose or meaning and that the individual could only authenticate himself by a desperate act. As Albert Camus, the famous French novelist, wrote in his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” “What [a man] believes to be true must determine his actions…There is but one useful action, that of remaking man and the earth.  I shall never remake man.  But one must do “as if.”

It was the “as if” that began to dominate post World War II drama and eventually politics during the ’50s, '60s and ’70s. The idea was to act out what one believed to be true regardless of what larger society might consider true. Revolutionary zeal and outrage were considered keys to authenticity.  The consequence was a spate of dramatic ventures dubbed “happenings,” events designed to dissolve the traditional boundaries between viewers and actor in order to create changes in social structures. To put it another way, the line between drama and activism is erased and the idea of drama as created entertainment or as a vehicle for expressing the joys and sorrows of the human condition was replaced by close encounters of the revolutionary kind. The purpose was to break down the barriers between the actors and the spectators so completely that the spectators became part of the play, reinforcing the status and beliefs of the actors; thus becoming part of the script.

The concepts behind the “happenings” gradually became absorbed and lately have become unarticulated assumptions behind most modern political stagecraft, spilling over into street performances such as the recent Jussie Smollett drama. You, the onlooker, were supposed to have been drawn into his perceived experience of racial and homophobic victimization, joining in his rebellion against oppression.

For Smollett and those who imitate him, the anti-hero hagiography must be written and dramatized in real life. He must seek to bring down any narrative that might contradict his view of himself as victim. He must increase the circle of people who affirm him by being outraged by his victimhood. He must be authenticated, even if it means destroying others. But his stage craft goes further than mere corruption of an ancient art form. To utilize trendy terms, Smollett’s choreographed intersectionality as gay, black and politically left wasn’t enough to authenticate himself.  He must constantly reaffirm the narrative of himself as victim; bringing into his circle anyone who is also outraged by his victimhood.

Smollett was committed to the idea that he could create his own truth and act on it, no matter what the results. The absolute ultimate in play acting in order an abstract concept like eternal oppression is creating and reinforcing that concept, even when your “truth” is a lie.  If by a lie you can rearrange the entire world order, reinforcing and authenticating your almighty oppressed and victimized SELF, you have succeeded in acting “as if” it is true.

To put it another way, Jussie Smollett’s acting “as if” his victimization was true is seen by the Chicago Police Department as a faked hate crime, but for Smollett, his actions are not considered “fake, as he genuinely believes his eternal and ineradicable victimhood authenticates his political theater of the oppressed.  The earthly realities of his lies and treachery toward his friends are insignificant and even justified because the ideas of deeply engrained racial injustice and homophobia transcend and therefore justify any action taken to authenticate them. His political theater of the oppressed is truth. The rest of society be damned if it does not see truth as he sees it.   

In the theater of the oppressed, it’s always OK to act “as if.”

It’s OK to act “as if” you are a girl if it will win races. After all, ideally there are no inherent differences between male and female.

It’s OK to claim act “as if” you are a native American if it gets you a position at Harvard. After all, you also may be able to garner sympathy and reparations for the oppressed.

It’s OK to act “as if” you are black if it means you can land a job with the local NAACP. After all, your pretended experience of blackness may also point out the greater crime of institutionalized racism.

In short, creating your own “truth” is always OK as long as the “as if” feels authentic or serves larger goals.  For those who will not be drawn into the never-ending theater of the oppressed, “as if” theater looks suspiciously like lies, treachery, farce—a con game.

Unfortunately, as the theater of the oppressed intrudes into government, academia and churches, whole institutions become stages for the oppressed.  Meanwhile, the con game against truth becomes weaponized and increasingly authoritarian in opposition to those contesting the lie and refusing to participate in the play acting, including the play acting that now characterizes the Left. (Though the Right is not entirely guiltless and often acts as mute spear carriers in the ongoing opera; perhaps relegated to bit parts in the drama, but still players.)

As Victor Davis Hanson put it in his essay “Autopsy of a Dead Coup:”    

“Left wing social media and mainstream journalism spread sensational lies about supposed maniacal Trump supporters in MAGA hats. They constructed fantasies that veritable white racists were now liberated to run amuck insulting and beating up people of color as they taunted the poor and victimized minorities with vicious Trump sloganeering—even as the Covington farce and now the even more embarrassing Jussie Smollett charade evaporated without apologies from the media and progressive merchants of such hate.

“…Trump’s low polls, his controversial reset of American policy, and the general contempt in which he was held by the bipartisan coastal elite, celebrities, and the deep state, meant that even illegal means to continue the campaign-era effort to destroy Trump and now abort his presidency were felt to be moral and heroic acts without legal consequences, and the media would see the conspirators as heroes.”

Again, the supposed moral high ground of the theater of the oppressed justifies the lies, treachery and chicanery. As for those who resist participating in the script and who insist on being spectators who speak out on behalf of truth, they are seen as deserving the fate of Marcus Tullius Cicero, whose head and hands-- trophies for Marc Anthony--were fastened on the walls of the Roman Rostra in order senators knew what happened to people who would not act in the ongoing destruction of the Roman republic.

As Augusto Boal said, for the theater of the oppressed, “spectator is a bad word.”  That is, of course, because a spectator is automatically someone who has the ability to critique the play.  And critique ruins the idea that everyone is to participate equally in the “happening;” and having been converted to the political religion the play is based on, to mobilize for political action on behalf of the latest victims of oppression. The idea is continually to create a flash mob, which drawing on the collaborative abilities of the web and media is then--according to “happenings” artist Allan Kaprow--committed to “a moral act, a human stand of great urgency.” As Kaprow stated, the happenings “professional status as art is less critical than their certainty as an ultimate existential commitment.”

In the always happening and shifting theater of the oppressed, we find a new and radicalized form of the medieval Morality Play. Hollywood has recognized the power of the theater of the oppressed and churns out literally hundreds of quasi-religious morality plays committed to the same themes and goals as Smollett and other “happening” playwrights.

The idea is to make the whole world actors in the revolutionary dramas, with all of us drawn in to strut our brief hour upon the universal stage, which is populated only by those who play the part of either victims or oppressors. The goal is indeed an International Theater of the Oppressed, in which all the world’s a stage and we are but actors upon it.  Dividing the entire world into categories of victims and oppressors justifies the destruction any oppressive entity, be it a person, institution, nation or church.  Destruction is seen as liberation. 

For the victims, there is hagiographic status that places the protagonists beyond good and evil, elevating him or her beyond present status as mere mortals and attaining the permanent status of saints. As for the victim, he or she must indulge in continuous self-critique. Becoming and remaining a victim requires more and more purification, greater and greater victimhood, much as a religious person like Martin Luther sought sanctification by continual confession, self-examination and flagellation. She or he must wear victimhood like a hair shirt.  He must be sure his pain must be ever present to the world.

For all the oppressed, their wounds never heal, but only go deeper and deeper, for there is great reward for self-flagellation. The more one is a victim, the more holy he or she becomes. The victim must always remain a victim; the star of every show; the main focus of every story; the chief mover of history.

As for the oppressor, there is the possibility--though very highly remote--of the death of the old self and rebirth of the new.  If he or she confesses guilt as oppressor and vows the tithes of reparations, be those reparations money, status or jobs, there is hope of temporary forgiveness by the oppressed. 

Where in all these dramas of oppression is the place for Christians on the world stage?

Christians should be and are the true actors of resistance. The Church, as she has done in the past, must resist false narratives and work for relief of the truly oppressed, including persecuted Christians in countries like China. Here in the West, the Church must resist the current pushes toward infanticide, legitimization of pedophilia and sex trafficking; just as some once resisted chattel slavery.

The Church must resist the false narratives of oppression and those who seek to change the historic narrative of Christianity concerning human identity as male and female, the honor of marriage and family; and most importantly, the biblical and historic knowledge of the Trinitarian God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. She must resist rewriting the script of liturgy according to identity politics and the narrative of victim and oppressor.  She must resist sacralizing the current political and societal obscenities such as same sex marriage and the attempt to eliminate the distinctions between male and female.

She must, in brief, return to the proclamation of the gospel of Christ and salvation from the oppression of sin in all its manifestations.

The Christian narrative presents a cosmic drama in which each human player acts out a role either for good or evil, with eternal consequences attendant to his or her choices.  Every person on the face of the planet has a choice to either follow the script written by Truth or to make up a play that is a lie. 

Therein is the true division among each of us who strut out little hour upon the world stage; and therein is the true drama of salvation.

Joshua confronted the Israelites of old with such a choice, and the choice remains the same for each person today: Choose between God or the very Devil. The Hebrew warrior’s challenge remains the challenge for us today: “If serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.”

May the Christian’s answer be, “But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

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Fay Voshell holds a M.Div. from Princeton theological Seminary, which awarded her the prize for excellence in systematic theology.  Her thoughts have appeared in many online magazines, among them The Christian Post, RealClearReligion, National Review, American Thinker, CNS, LifeSiteNews and Russia Insider.  She may be reached at fvoshell@yhaoo.com

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