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Report on Sistren, Jamaica by Helen Drusine

KINGSTON, Jamaica -- Two mothers are complaining about their pregnant teenagers. One mother complains that John got her daughter pregnant and “You know John is no good; John is a thief, a gunman.” The second mother is so proud because her daughter got pregnant by a “gentleman,” at the “top of his class.” But even with the “good guy” the girl still has to drop out of school (the guy doesn’t) and the mother is not happy that the girl got pregnant so young and is not married.

“It’s still humbug she,” says Jerline Todd, a member of the Sistren Theatre Collective of Jamaica. She is describing one of the role-playing workshops the all-woman collective has been doing for the past 25 years on such topics as teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, incest, child abuse and rape. The objective is to “do plays about how we suffer as women” and “how men treat us bad.” Through drama, song, dance and personal testimony, Sistren confronts the public with the problems facing women and brings pressure on society to change.

The position of women is the starting point, often in a national or international context This includes the impact on women’s lives of the under development of Jamaica or the external debt and the increasing militarism of the region. Women’s struggles against domestic work, unemployment, economic and sexual exploitation are also explored. Domestic violence is juxtaposed to street violence and militarism; the impact of stringent economic measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the decline of the sugar market are linked to day to day health hazards and stresses, emigration and increasing male violence; exploitative employment practices are placed alongside rising unemployment.

Sistren works primarily with and for working class women, and is committed to using drama to explore issues of women’s oppression. Performances are held in poor rural and urban communities, in schools or outdoors. The language of the plays blends Creole with traditional popular rhythms. As part of its 25th anniversary celebration, Sistren is now giving a workshop geared to encourage inner-city women to develop skills needed to establish small businesses. The special Entrepreneurial Skills Training Workshop, to be conducted daily through April 20, will focus on tie and dye silk screen printing, jewelry making, marketing of small businesses, and gender sensitivity in business.

Lana Finiken, 48, Sistren’s current director and one of the five original remaining members, described how Sistren’s first production emerged out of hours of group discussion and storytelling. “Downpression Get A Blow” about garment workers forming a union to defend their rights, was performed at the annual Workers’ Week celebrations in 1977.

“Most of us had been working as street sweepers and later as teacher’s aides. We were 13 working class women from the very poorest parts of Kingston and we met on a Michael Manley Government Emergency Employment Programme for unemployed women,” Finiken says. “Most of us were born in the countryside, many were brought up by grandmothers or aunts, we left school early and came to Kingston to look for work. We had no background in drama but used material from our own lives. Most of our plays come from hours of storytelling and listening in the poor communities. Improvisations eventually lead to a script.”

Among the 11 other plays they have done are “Bellywoman Bangarang” about teenage pregnancy and mother-daughter relationships and “Mirro Mirro” about the factors that impact on the sexuality of male and female children and adults showing how the media and societal demands influence the perception of self. Bellywoman, Finiken says, reflected most of the members’ personal stories about getting pregnant too young, not knowing what to expect and having little or no support from parents. Finiken was 20 when she had the first of her four children. She has since lost two to what she calls “reprisal or revenge killings” in the community.

“We rarely have sets on stage,” Finiken says. “We use our bodies to depict everything from machines to furniture to makeup. In Bellywoman, part of the set was in the audience -- almost like a bridge. We were trying to bridge our experience , to cross that bridge to give our kids the education we never had so they would not repeat the same problems, so the future generation can learn from the past.”

The collective educates through entertainment, using such techniques as role play, improvisation, oral history, folklore, rituals, traditional ring games and popular songs. Because audiences are invited to participate, to take sides in disputes, to offer opinions, to think and analyze, “Bellywoman,” with its six scripts, is still a work in progress. The aim is to get women to find solutions to their problems and present them transformed into drama, song, and poetry.

Todd describes a skit where women are sitting around complaining about how poor they are, how they don’t have anything. “After one goes to Mrs. G to ask for some banana, another woman asks her ‘Why she go to Mrs. G to ask for some banana when she could plant a banana and in six months time have enough for herself and even sell some.’ We are trying to show that you can use your own backyard to move ahead in life. If you have an old wash bin you can plant scallions, peppers. Use it for your own purpose and to help others too.” One community, says Finiken, used the methodology Sistren taught them to successfully demand water and electricity from the City Council.

Sistren wants to expose issues affecting women and to encourage people to challenge the forces oppressing them. For example, the play ”QPH,” highlighted the plight of women in a nursing home where all the women died during a fire in the l980s. It dramatized the maltreatment of the women, and the rape of many because of a lack of security. Another play, “Heroine Nanny,” was about the first slave women who fought against slavery. As a result of the play, Nanayah, their leader, is now a Jamaican national hero.

Since 1980, Sistren has traveled throughout Jamaica, the Caribbean, North America, Europe and Africa reaching about 20,000 women. Finiken has performed at many United Nations conferences on women, including the Grassroots Women’s International Academy last June. Finikin, a member of GROOTS International (Grassroots Women’s Organziations Organized Together in Sisterhood), has been invited by that organization to write a new play for the UN’s Commission on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg next August. Its subject - women and sustainable development.

Most of the women’s groups in Jamaica today came out of Sistren’s work, Finiken says. “We took the taboo issues no one would touch and brought them to the forefront.” The Woman’s Crisis Center, she says, works with battered women and has set up shelters for them and Women’s Media Watch monitors the media and how it portrays women and stories affecting women.

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