If you need an explanation for how a campus-born theater festival has been able to lure such luminaries as former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka into its lineup, Cynthia Schneider has one answer.
“We’re in Washington,” says Schneider, former U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands and now co-director of Georgetown University’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics. “People like to talk.”
Discussions will follow internationally themed performances across the city for the next several weeks as part of the lab’s inaugural CrossCurrents festival, starting April 4 with a two-night stand of Phantom Limb’s “Falling Out” at the Kennedy Center — an experimental work about the tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. Other tentpoles include free performances on the Georgetown campus by singer-writer Somi, who will excerpt her anticipated jazz opera “Dreaming Zenzile,” about South African singer-activist Miriam Makeba.
CrossCurrents marks an expansion of the seven-year-old lab’s mission, which Schneider describes as seeking an intersection where politics can be informed by art. Schneider says she remains impressed by the effectiveness of American cultural diplomacy during the Cold War, and that during her time in The Hague she saw how performance opens up viewpoints on critical issues.
“The United States is quite unusual in the world in the degree to which we tend to keep culture and politics separate,” says Schneider, whose biographical slash line includes art historian. “The lab tries to leverage the local voices of artists in other parts of the world who are expressing a narrative that’s different from what’s coming out from the government, who express the aspirations of the people. This leads, at the very least, to a deeper understanding of the region.”
The Nigerian poet-dramatist Soyinka, now 84, will appear alongside Nigeria’s Renegade Theatre and the drama “The Chibok Girls: Our Story,” which chronicles the 2014 kidnapping of 214 schoolgirls by Boko Haram. Renegade continues to update the “testimonial theater” to stay abreast of events.
“This is still an unfolding drama,” lab co-director Derek Goldman says of “Chibok Girls.” “It’s not in the past tense.”
“Chibok Girls” is written and directed by Wole Oguntokun, a former lawyer whose early theatrical work in Nigeria included a political satire called “Who’s Afraid of Wole Soyinka?” Soyinka has penned a new long-form poem about another mass kidnapping of schoolgirls, this one in 2018. “A Humanist Ode for Chibok, Leah” gets its first public readings at Georgetown in May.
“I had no idea all that would come together,” Goldman says.
The lab’s programming attracted a fellow traveler in “Reading Lolita in Tehran” author Azar Nafisi, whose 2014 nonfiction work “The Republic of Imagination” inspired a new collection of resistant writing offered in partnership with Woolly Mammoth Theatre. The free event April 15 at Woolly features selections by Nafisi, Soyinka, James Baldwin and more, with “Noura” writer-performer Heather Raffo and former Woolly artistic director Howard Shalwitz among the actors handling the readings.
“She’s talking about the power of literature,” Goldman says of the collection he curated with Nafisi. “And it felt to me like the arguments resonated with the way theater was operating in places I was visiting around the world.” The centuries-old tradition of repression and censorship, Goldman says, indicates that “government gets the power of art that artists don’t always understand.”
The step toward theater feels risky to Nafisi, but only slightly; she describes growing up in Iran and hearing poetry performed in coffee shops. “Stories were made to be told,” Nafisi says. “There’s a sort of magic in mixing written and oral traditions.”
Jumbling forms is part of Goldman’s goal as the festival presents work that includes the marionette-multimedia-butoh mash-up of “Falling Out” (which is also part of the Kennedy Center’s Direct Current festival) and the immigration-gentrification song cycle of Somi’s “Petite Afrique.” “Chibok Girls” will be performed during the festival’s final three-day event in May called “The Gathering,” with artists from more than 40 countries on hand, and Goldman wants “The Gathering” — where Albright will be among the participants — to be less a parade of academic panels than “a catalyst for new relationships and collaborations.” The sessions will be live-streamed; Schneider emphasizes that the festival, which the lab hopes to renew every two years, is not designed to be a hothouse. Forging a broader base for art and politics is the goal.
She uses the Egyptian revolution to illustrate. “Many people were taken by surprise,” Schneider says of the 2011 uprising. “But the discontent was evident in movies and novels. That’s a very different image than you get from a dictatorship that’s lasted for 30 years. That’s what we do: try to bring to light the narratives that give insight to what people on the ground are thinking and hoping.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s first name. This version has been updated.
At the Kennedy Center, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Georgetown University. globallab.georgetown.edu.
Dates: April 4-May 11.