The Litooma Mission
I am a performance director, and playwright who, for over twenty-two years, has conducted workshops and created performances that blend scholarly research, cultural reclamation, social and political reconciliation, drama therapy, and aesthetic production. My work utilizes traditional, ritual, mythological, and performance expressions specific to the context and objectives of a project. Context, in its fullest and most comprehensive understanding, shapes each project.
The work is grounded—methodologically and theoretically—in my nine years as director of Tuma Theatre, an Alaska native group in Fairbanks. The work and research in Alaska garnered invitations to work with a variety of groups internationally similarly concerned with the issues of preserving and utilizing traditional performance expressions. Subsequent projects include work with a Russian group devoted to pre-Christian, Slavic rituals, the Sakha National theatre of central Siberia, and two projects with the Zulu. Others include work with the !Xuu and Khwe Bushmen, the Greenland Inuit, Tamils, a multi-ethnic performance that toured Zambia, and a wide range of workshops, teaching, residencies and research and performance projects in Korea, China, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Kenya, and throughout Europe (among the countries, Poland, Estonia, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden) and the United States. Litooma projects are supported by a variety of NGOs, foundations, academic, and governmental agencies and often includes in-kind support and self-funding. Projects are organized under the auspices of Litooma, essentially a one-man research and performance initiative that partners with theatres, centers, universities, and community groups.
Typically a Litooma performance project requires a three month residency which, 1) field research and documentation in ritual and traditional performance takes place, 2) followed by workshops with local performers, a skills exchange and performance laboratory and, 3) the creation of a devised, ensemble created performance, which becomes an embodiment, diagram, and venue for social and cultural remediation and expression.
The short-term objectives of Litooma include: indigenous and traditional performance research and documentation, education and skills exchange, social reconciliation, cultural activism, and artistic production. The long-term objective is a comprehensive methodological and theoretical documentation of traditional and indigenous performance expressions, their function and context.
The ambition is to articulate a viable alternative to the ubiquitous western performance expressions that are shaping our emerging global culture. Essentially a project, including the one documented below, aspires to identify, document, and apply indigenous and traditional expressions as an alternative. Rather than adopting western dramaturgical and performance expressions unquestioningly Litooma seeks to activate performers as activist, creators and tradition bearers who reimagine and empower themselves and cultures through the medium of performance.
This approach functions on multiple levels simultaneously, and often includes aspects of personal, social, and cultural reconciliation. In this way, a unique cultural expression and worldview, often syncretic, always dynamic and unique, is given expression, enriching and evolving, not only personal and cultural identity, but also the dialogue of globalization. Each culture offers up unique resources and perspectives that are marginalized or disappearing.
During this critical time of an environmentally stressed planet, all knowledge, including orally transmitted and especially placed-based and embodied knowledge, is valuable, if not essential. Each voice of the earth must be articulated and heard—performance transcribes the earth’s knowledge. In many ways we are all becoming indigenous again, maybe out of the necessity of survival, we are all becoming a part of an emerging culture called earthlings.The Lozi people of southern Zambia believe their ancestors live on an island in the sky called Litooma, which humans call to earth during performance.
The songs, dances, and rhythms of performance are a call serving to create a site that brings the many parts of the community together to perform as an expression of communality and continuity. The rhythm of the land unifies and propels the event, the community is reaffirmed, problems and conflicts are identified and sorted, and the totality of the world is revealed. All earthly and human issues are inter-related and only coherent in terms of other parts of the larger community. All human sickness is spirit sickness—weather, migrations, good and bad fortunes—are related to the fragile balance of place and its inhabitants.
The function of performance is to break down the boundaries between realties and community participants as to reaffirm, and in so doing, rebalance the world, human and non-human alike. When the Lozi performance is finished, the island of Litooma, the village of ancestors, returns to the sky to watch over the earthly community. Other community members (humans, animals and other elements alike) return to their way of being in the world, boundaries separating them until they perform again.
“Indigenous” and “traditional” are often problematic, overlapping, and fluid terms. When using the term “indigenous” in reference to performance, I mean a performance language (actions, regalia, rhythm, song, and structure) that implicate and express specifically an indigenous worldview. Within the indigenous worldview humans are only one part of the community, the conveners of an event that brings together other members of the community of place, namely, the animals, spirits, ancestors, and elemental forces of nature.
Performance within this context has the implied objective of celebrating, remediating, and balancing a community of place. Performance in this context is a functional interaction to effect real and practical change and shares the characteristics most vividly exampled by the ritual and shamanistic practices of hunting-gathering groups.
The elements of the indigenous performance are shaped by and expressive of this intent. When using the word “traditional” I mean those actions, regalia, sounds, music, and structures that have been codified by a culture and become mnemonics and containers of cultural memory. Traditional expressions may very well have indigenous origins and indigenous performance manifestations serve a similar mnemonic function, however, the fundamental difference is that traditional performance expressions (folk dancing for instance) are not focused on the objective of expressing and/or remediating place.
Traditional performance expressions can be atomized, travel, and be reconfigured. Indigenous expressions have currency only relationally to a larger community of place context, functionality and objective. Indigenous performance expressions out of context become something else, they may become traditional, but their function changes.