Activist shows how to break free with Theater of the Oppressed

    Hector Aristizábal gave a performance born from torture Thursday night in Fisk 217. Video by Tom Nunlist and Genevieve Knapp.

    Hector Aristizábal could be your neighbor. He’s about 5 feet 7 inches, a stocky guy with expressive eyebrows that dance under his dark, curly hair when he talks about his family. You might see him next to you in line at the supermarket, and his friendly smile might make you smile back.

    Aristizábal is a torture survivor. He’s an actor and an activist who was arrested and brutalized when he was 22 by the U.S.-supported military in Colombia. On Thursday night he performed his play Nightwind and gave students an upclose understanding of excruciating pain.

    “Something died in me at age 22 in that chamber,” Aristizábal said. “Something died, but something else was born. This play is one of the things that was born.”

    The artist used Theater of the Oppressed techniques to tell the story of his experience. His performance on the stage of Fisk 217 combined psychotherapy with theater, drumming and dance. After the play he invited the audience of approximately 40 people to participate in a group meditation and theater exercises.

    “I was surprised by how inclined I was to participate,” said Mykell Miller, a sophomore in McCormick who got on stage as the audience hugged, howled, and danced. “I felt like I was a part of it all.”

    When he asked students to physically depict NU’s relationship with the Evanston community, one girl skipped in front of the stage and shot the audience bemused looks hinting of condescension. Though unusual, participants said Aristizábal’s techniques are potent.

    “I see people transformed, or at least provoked enough to examine the issue of torture,” said Vivien Sansour, Aristizábal’s partner in the theatre arts company
    ImaginAction. “I see the heart awaken to take action.”

    Aristizábal works as a therapist at the Hospice of Pasadena and is active in several other therapy programs. He attended the Northwestern Conference on Human Rights two weeks ago.

    Aristizábal said that he can’t offer advice about how to change the world. Each individual knows what he or she can do and then does it in his or her own way. But people need more imagination, he said.

    “The biggest problem in our country is the collapse of imagination,” Aristizábal said. “Fantasy is the fastest way to escape, and we are always escaping. How many of us really live in a community?”

    Aristizábal suggested that students get in touch with themselves, their lives and the real world. If students aren’t getting into trouble, he said, they’re living their parents’ fantasy and not their own lives.

    For Julio Montaño, a social scientist from Colombia who lives in Evanston, the play hit home.

    “It is extremely hard to watch that, coming from the same place, the same situation that he did,” Montaño said through a translator. “It is terrible to listen to that story and to know that is part of the story of my country.”

    Although a native of Colombia, Aristizábal has become an American citizen. He criticized American foreign policy for violating its international agreements and hoped Americans would realize what they’re doing to the world.

    He asked, “What will it take for us all to wake up and see what we are supporting?”

    Aristizábal will be performing a Theater of the Oppressed workshop on Friday at noon in the ballroom of the Theater Interpretation Center.


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