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Acts of Witness

Last January, revolution tore across the Middle East during what has come to be known as the Arab Spring. This widespread spirit of social unrest permeated as far as Wall Street, inspiring the eventually international Occupy movements.

Only one year later, theater company StreetSigns will capture these themes of oppression and inequality in Acts of Witness, a production of two theatrical events presented in rotation at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro from Mar. 2-20.

“It’s an interesting challenge and way of going to the theater and wrestling with these two different pieces, talking about seemingly different things, but then seeing their connection,” StreetSigns director Joseph Megel said.

The theatrical events include Blood Knot, a two-man play written in 1961 by South African playwright Athol Fugard and performed by local actors J. Alphonse Nicholson and Lucius Robinson. The second and more contemporary play, Poetic Portraits of a Revolution, features spoken word poets Will McInerney and Kane Smego, and the works of translator Mohammad Moussa and photographer Sameer Abdel-khalek.

Blood Knot, chosen to honor Fugard’s visit to UNC next month and directed by Megel, depicts the heart-wrenching allegorical struggle of two half-brothers, one dark-skinned and the other light-skinned, during apartheid in South Africa. While for us apartheid seems an element of the past, Blood Knot challenges norms of inequality that persist today.

“People probably look at Blood Knot and think it belongs in history, that apartheid is gone and we’ve solved all our issues,” Megel said. “This isn’t true. The notion of a post-racial world just doesn’t exist.”

Poetic Portraits of a Revolution, an unconventional poetry-driven play that incorporates spoken word, photo and video, brings light to a more current revolution. The play documents the lives and experiences of ordinary people amidst the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions that UNC graduates McInerney and Smego and NC State student Moussa and graduate Abdel-khalek witnessed first-hand during a trip to the Middle East last summer.

“We’re used to the top-down structure of mainstream media where you flick on a TV and see these out-of-context, zoomed-out images of world events,” Smego said. “Our goal is to flip it and use people in the story to help others understand world events.”

In hopes of expanding the positive influence of their youth poetry organization, Sacrificial Poets, overseas, McInerney and Smego partnered with the Academy Award-winning Empowerment Project last year to travel to Egypt and Tunisia. There, they interviewed people of all social classes—some who were excited to share their perspectives, others fearful of the poets’ aims.

“We want to share the stage with them,” Smego said. “We want the audience to feel what it’s like to be there—riot police, tear gas canisters falling, placing people in those moments and putting theme face to face with the human beings behind the moment.”

Megel agreed, emphasizing this theatrical technique as a way to engage local audiences in international events at both the personal and political level.

“We have a motto here at StreetSigns: Not there and then, but here and now,” Megel said. “Apartheid [as depicted in Blood Knot] may have happened long ago, but there are issues that we need to be talking about, here and now. Poetic Portraits of a Revolution relates to the now.”

With Acts of Witness, which will include post-performance audience conversations, StreetSigns aims to reignite discussion of these contemporary social, political and cultural issues through the lens of interdisciplinary artistic media.

“An artist’s job is to bring light back to the human element.” Smego said. “The cool thing about an artist in connection to activism is the idea that is that we don’t show things as what they are, but as what they can be.”

Acts of Witness will run March 2-20 at the Carrboro ArtsCenter; check www.artscenterlive.org for ticketing information. Poetic Portraits of a Revolution includes a photo exhibition running through February in the Bryan Center and a preview performance tonight at 5 p.m. in the John Hope Franklin Center.

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