Mourning Through Ritual Performance

200,000 American lives have been lost to COVID, racial violence goes unchecked, our democracy teeters toward despotism, and everything feels broken. How do we grieve in the face of tragedy? The pandemic keeps us from what we wish to do most right now: gather, share stories, have fun, sing, laugh, cry, and experience art together.

In Judaism, mourners symbolically help fill the grave by throwing handfuls of dirt onto the coffin. As we throw the dirt onto the coffin, we face death in all its finality. After the burial, people “sit shiva”— seven days during which family and friends visit the home of the mourning family to grieve and pray. The central quality of shiva is solidarity—feeling held and loved by our community as we work through sorrow. As the kaddish is sung and food is brought to the table, we remember and we weep for a time, to prepare to begin life without the loved one.

Ritual is a communal performance. In most cultures, as in Judaism, there is some sort of script for reckoning with death: staging to be enacted, prayers to be read, songs to be sung. Structure comforts and guides in times of tragedy. Rituals free us from wallowing and bumbling in blind despair by creating a powerful shared experience with all those who are grieving, who have grieved, and who will grieve. They allow us to see ourselves as a piece in the unbroken fabric of human experience.

Good theater does the same thing. When I was ten years old, I saw a production of As You Like It at Playmakers Theater in Chapel Hill. In the final scene of the play, eight newlyweds dance in the Forest of Arden. I vividly remember that scene: flowing dresses, amber lights striking the paper-mâché trees, and all of us sitting quietly in the dark, listening to a fiddle play while watching the couples twirl. In that moment I felt a profound sense of community with the audience, the actors, and everyone who had seen and will see the lovers dance beneath the boughs of the Forest of Arden. Theater and ritual tap into the same uncanny sense of wholeness that frees us from loneliness.

In this moment of intense isolation, most of us crave the sense of togetherness we once took for granted. “Zoom theater” is not very close to what we used to call “theater.” This is not to invalidate Zoom productions; I think they are a legitimate avenue for theater-makers to do work during this pandemic. I’ve seen some Zoom shows I really loved! But in my mind, theater by its nature requires presence to generate the community that defines it. Theater in a traditional sense does not exist right now, because community in a traditional sense does not exist right now. Nonetheless, performance—namely its fundamental, ritual essence and as a universal way in which we, as humans, relate—abounds in new forms.

Theater and ritual tap into the same uncanny sense of wholeness that frees us from loneliness.

For example, the staging of social distancing during the pandemic can be seen as a kind of performance. Masks are obviously a central feature of the theater: they hide individual expression and turn an actor into an archetypal character. In this moment, masked strangers around us project a mystical anonymity. Once costumery, masks themselves are now symbols of ubiquitous death: theater has assumed a serious relevance. Our mundane lives have become full of strange new rituals to which we have grown partially accustomed. Consider the now-commonplace performance of passing someone on the sidewalk: one either crosses the street or scoots awkwardly onto a patch of grass and turns away to let the other go by. Or, consider cleaning your groceries with Clorox wipes, or sanitizing your grocery cart, or opening a door with the least amount of finger-contact possible: actions that would border on theater of the absurd if performed with such repetition a year ago. Of course, our actions in this moment have consequences that are anything but imaginary. But I believe that taking time to see the symbolic dance of this moment allows us to experience it more wholly and appreciate more deeply all that has changed. We may find glimpses of beauty, reckon more deeply with our loss, or find solace in the shared forms of these movements.

After a string of anti-Black violence in America, a community of resistance has formed, filling the streets grieving and demanding action. Of course, protest is not theater, and equating the two runs the risk of making a spectacle of Black death and racial violence. Still, it’s worth noting that all protests utilize elements of performance, insofar as they foster community through song, dance, dialogue, movement, and ritual. Communal performance—especially in the face of violence, death, pain, and as a form of resistance—channels individual emotions into a symbolic mode that allows them to be amplified and felt more deeply. Protests exist somewhere on the threshold between performance and ritual, in which we occupy the role of both performer and observer tapping into a shared sense of being and community wherein anger can be amplified. Protest is an expression of loss and frustration, yet it demands progress and struggles toward life.

I don’t know how to grieve and help others grieve this year—so much still awaits us. In the meantime, before we can fully gather again as a community, perhaps there are ways to take advantage of the rituals we now perform with strangers—in protests, on street corners, in grocery stores—to remember a sense of that solidarity, even and especially in the midst of violence, death, and hopelessness. We can tune into the often painful, occasionally profound, movements of life if we look through the lens of performance, and perhaps we can—for a flash—feel less alone. 

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