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On a Mission to Heal the Planet: An Interview with Dr. Amanda Kemp
Note: This interview is the fourth in the Acting in Faith series of interviews with Quaker activists. I define activist in the broadest sense - those working for justice and healing in many divergent ways. - Lucy
by Silas Wanjala
Dr. Amanda Kemp blends activism and spirituality, theatre arts, and history. She is a playwright, a poet, a performer, a master teacher, and consultant. She earned her B.A. from Stanford University, where she helped to lead the Stanford Out of South Africa divestment movement and the successful struggle to revamp the university's Eurocentric humanities requirement. A poet and playwright, Amanda left politics to pursue a doctoral degree in performance studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. She has published articles about South African politics as performance and performed a one-woman show on being Black, but not African, in South Africa.
Amanda has taught at Cornell University, Dickinson College, Millersville University, and Franklin & Marshall College, where she served as the chair of Africana studies. In 2007, Amanda founded Theatre for Transformation, a performance method and theatre company whose mission is to create a world of forgiveness, abundance, and peace. She is the author of the currently touring plays "To Cross an Ocean Four Centuries Long” and “Sister Friend: Phillis Wheatley and Obour Tanner on Love, Freedom and the Divine.” Amanda is a member of Lancaster Monthly Meeting of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. We talked one morning at Pendle Hill, a Quaker Retreat and Conference Center outside of Philadelphia. For more about Amanda or her work, please see www.theatrefortransformation.com. - Silas Wanjala
Silas Wanjala: Would you talk about your interest in peace and social activism?
Amanda Kemp: When I was a child, one of the first people to catch my imagination was Martin Luther King, Jr., and the whole idea of nonviolent change. I grew up in a neighborhood that was very tough and everybody fought. I remember when the kids would gather whenever a fight was going on and would encourage those involved just as if it was a performance. It felt wrong to me. I was attracted to Martin Luther King, Jr. because I felt he was somebody who dedicated his life to something that was much bigger than his individual self. That to me was what I wanted to do.
SW: How did you work with the inner urge of embracing nonviolence?
AK: In college I majored in history and African American studies. History was primarily United States history and the African studies was focused on African American literature. When I was in college the student anti-apartheid movement was growing in the country. I had been involved in the anti-apartheid activities back when I was in high school. So when Stanford students started looking at our investments in South Africa, I was naturally concerned about that. We didn’t want the university to create profit from hurting and so we created a movement. The student organizations on campus pressured the university to pull out from working with certain companies.
SW: Later on you travelled and worked in South Africa. What had attracted you to go there?
AK: When I went to South Africa I was already in graduate school. (I had done two years in performance studies.) It was the part of Africa that I knew most about because of my political interest and what it symbolized in the world. I was so passionate and connected with it and I was really burned out with school and just wanted to leave the United States. In graduate school I had felt like my creative voice had just been shut down, I was only writing academic papers. So I wanted to get out and reshape my perspective. The work that I was asked to do in South Africa was to do a report on the contemporary women’s movement. It was a chance for me to learn about South African women. I got involved in jazz music in South Africa. By performing with other performers and poets I rediscovered my own creative voice.
SW: You witnessed the historic elections in 1994. What was your experience of that?
AK: That was my highlight. I saw President Nelson Mandela dance the victory dance on the stage. I had been involved in the anti-apartheid movement here, and what he represented to me was the possibilities of something unexpected, the unknown. I never dreamed that I would be part of this. When I was in school in 1990, I was part of this vigil in Los Angeles in which people waited when he was to be released; we were up all night watching the TV. It felt like the culmination of lots of peoples’ hopes and dreams, all around the world.
There were lots of instabilities and unknowns, and so when the elections happened without a lot of bloodshed and were fairly free and fair, it was a wonderful moment. I was part of hundreds of U.S. observers who were there to go to different parts of the country to watch the elections.
SW: Speak about racial justice and inequality, especially here in the US.
AK: I feel like my work is for racial justice, and it is broader, too. It is spiritual. The plays that I do don’t only address the mind, but also go below the mind to the heart, to the inner workings of the heart. By doing so they alter who you think you are and what you think is possible.
Sometimes we limit ourselves because we have a lot of cynicism. If we take that approach, nothing new is possible. If you stay with what is already known, what has been there before, then it’s likely you will presume that all the forces are stuck against you. As a member of an oppressed people, there is a certain way we can look at the world and just decide to go to bed. The corporations have too much power, the electoral process is controlled by money, people are beating their kids to death, so much violence exists in our communities. It can look so corrupt and just not salvageable. But to me, where the mind is limited, the heart is limitless.
From the heart, everything is possible if we can put aside stuff and give people hope and inspiration through stories. How they interact with each other can be different. When they see something on stage their hearts can open. In the recent production that we did (To Cross an Ocean Four Centuries Long…) there were about seventy people on the stage, of those only seven were people of African descent. It is a production about people of African descent whose ancestors were enslaved telling our stories. Ninety percent of the cast was supporting the telling of that story and were willing to be emotionally invested and supportive. We were working together and there was healing that took place on that stage. The audience was watching this body of support, was watching this predominantly white singing group supporting black actors who are going through their pain and transformation. Such an occasion says that there is something possible.
The mind knows what it knows. But to me God isn’t in the mind, God is in the heart. So that is where you want to go, you want to expand people’s awareness of their heart and allow that to lighten and expand the mind. So that is what I am doing with my work.
SW: Can you talk about your company, Theatre for Transformation?
AK: Theatre for Transformation was a seed that grew here at Pendle Hill. When I came to Pendle Hill everything was uprooted in my life. I had just completed my job, my marriage had ended, and I was thinking of leaving Lancaster. So I came to Pendle Hill for a space to listen, and what came to me was scary. What I heard was to start this company and also to give my life over to this purpose of transformation, of transforming the planet, people, and community through theatre and the thing that I bring to the theatre. The form of the theatre would include movement, prayer, and everything that I know of bringing that onto the stage. I started that work and began sharing it with people. I posted my mission onto my door: “To create a world of forgiveness, abundance, and peace.” I got the message that I was on a mission to heal the world through creating forgiveness and abundance. It was so big a vision that I felt embarrassed, who was I to have this mission? I thought that people would laugh and feel that I was arrogant. But then I started the company and rewriting the play, "Show Me the Franklins!" the first play we toured as a company. The work gave form to that mission.
SW: Did you start the company just by yourself?
AK: Yes, I started by myself; I had to give up my fear. I went through a lot of emotional turmoil, spent a lot of time just crying. When you are a professor it is pretty clear what you need to do to become a successful professor. The mission to heal the planet is very unclear. People rarely make a living in theatre. I have children and did not want to be unhappy and alone. I did not want to suffer and be poor. I had fear. The thing with theatre is that it is so collaborative. So once you cast the play and you get people who are willing to be part of a play and sit around the table with you, it becomes so collaborative, it is not just about you. The play gave me community.
SW: You started Theatre for Transformation in order to heal the world. Can you speak specifically about forgiveness, abundance, and peace?
AK: I am challenged to create those things in my life. I am not perfect, but all the places in my life where I felt incomplete have come up to be patched, recognized, and cleaned out. So for me, forgiveness and healing is not abstract. I am always working to grow into forgiveness and peace, am always struggling through.
For me, forgiveness is not about forgiving someone else, it’s about looking at me. I had to look at my anger and distrust of white people. For the first play that we did when I created the company, I brought on a white director to work with us. I had never thought I would do that. It showed me all the stuff that was unhealed inside of me. The cast supported me. I know it is possible to forgive, to heal. There are generations of betrayal, anger, hatred, and shame in this country, particularly between black people and white people. It doesn’t just disappear; you have to uncover different layers of it.
SW: Share about your faith journey. How did you come to Quakerism?
AK: I joined the Religious Society of Friends due to the work of many people, including Vanessa Julye, Niyonu Spann, and George Lakey. Quakers as a community are more able to look at ourselves and say, “It is me, it is me, oh Lord, standing in need of prayer.”
When I first heard about the Religious Society of Friends it was more about ‘speaking truth to power.’ The power implied in this phrase is presumed to be out there and is right or wrong. What I see happen over decades is the recognition that it is me, not just the power that is out there, that has to be changed; it is also the power/energy within. There is a willingness within the Religious Society of Friends to be responsible and not just to say it is them, those are the bad guys and we are the good guys.
I think that my work encourages people to see inside themselves, where they are not being forgiving, where they are holding on or struck down. The Religious Society of Friends has supported the work that I am doing. Quite a number of Quaker meetings have had us come and perform.
SW: What is the future of the company?
AK: I don’t know. When I was sitting in that room waiting for Mandela to be released, I had never thought that I would be there in support of that election and watching history unfolding. I don’t know where we are being led, but I know we have things to do, theatre to create.
SW: Any last thoughts?
AK: When I said that the heart is bigger than the mind, I think of the heart like something that lives forever. In "To Cross an Ocean Four Centuries Long," one of the poems reads, ‘You must be brave, you will cry a little, tears salt the sea and make it strong, but you must be brave.’ For me, being brave when I perform is something like that—the ancestors come back to haunt me, they tell me stuff like “when you are afraid, you must be brave.” Most times when I am afraid, I am afraid of failure, being left alone, rejection, poverty. Then the pieces that I do come back and say things to me, ‘You must be brave. It is part of who we are, don’t resist it. It is okay, you can feel the pain, it the willingness and ability to feel the pain that strengthens you.’ For me, art leaves and comes back to instruct me.
SW: How have you managed to put all these pieces together?
AK: What informs my politics is the spirit. It is the spirit that is the foundation of the stuff that I do. It feeds the heart, politics, and all of that. When I was just in politics I was very dry, I am just not a political person; I don’t read the newspaper every day. I like to get below the symptoms to the cause. To me what needs to be simulated is the heart and the soul of the people, that which is unseen needs to be stimulated and nurtured and then people need to be helped to connect with that. I feel that when they are connected with what is within them, their expressions will be more just, loving, creative, and interesting.