Aaron Zilbermann was fresh out of college and teaching middle school in one of the worst neighborhoods in Oakland, Calif., when one of his sixth-grade students was shot and killed in front of the school. As the dying 13-year-old crawled in front of a crowd of children looking on, the greenhorn theater teacher knew he had to change the way he taught.
Zilbermann was trained to spot gang behavior in his young students and believes that student was murdered over gang colors. Although he was not a social worker, he became one by necessity to his students, giving out his cell number and working with his students during off periods and after school.
“These kids were dealing with a lot of trauma,” he says.
He moved up to teaching high school and there was given the tools he now uses in his new Dallas-based theater company, which he co-operates with Tiana Kaye Johnson. Metamorphosis: A New Living Theater is an extension of everything Zilbermann collected over the years teaching theater to kids in trauma.
He started an after-school theater program in the Oakland high school, and together he and his students created a piece about race relations. It was then that Zilbermann began to understand the daily struggles interfering with his students’ ability to process the world around them.
These observations led Zilbermann to The Theatre of the Oppressed, a theatrical practice developed in the 1970s by Augusto Boal as a means of enacting social justice and change. Boal's methods utilize the audience as members of the performance, which allows the piece to change and morph.
Zilbermann was particularly interested in how this method could break down the divide between audience and actor and how it might benefit his students who were dealing with daily traumas and needed a safe place to unpack those burdens.
Zilbermann began to use this method in his teaching and realized it was having an impact on his kids.
“We acted out a scene that happened to my student in which he was racially profiled by a police officer. During that scene, he got so worked up that he said, ‘What’s the point of any of this?’ and walked out," he says. "Then he came back.”
That return was everything to Zilbermann. When he utilized the techniques described by Boal, a lot of intense work happened. The student that walked out said he felt a sense of empowerment by acting out that scene.
When Zilbermann returned to Dallas in 2011, he began to work with the Dallas public schools and Big Thought, a Dallas nonprofit that works to eradicate opportunity gaps that get in the way of students' potential.
Big Thought connected him to homeless resource centers and juvenile detention centers. There he incorporated theater and spoken word into his curricula. His work in Dallas eventually connected him to Johnson.
Johnson is a resident company member at the Dallas Theater Center and a theater activist. As a member of Progress Theater, Johnson performed in an intense ensemble piece called The Burnin’, a touring production that tells the story of two nightclub disasters in which many African-Americans were killed, along with the events leading up to and surrounding those tragedies.
An Oak Cliff native, Johnson was also Miss South Dallas. The fierce and poised former pageant queen used her tenure to affect change in her hometown. Now, as director of education for Metamorphosis Theater, Johnson will take those skills and apply them to theater and education in Dallas.
Johnson uses a technique called SoulWork, a method created by her mentor and former professor. It’s a way of becoming emotionally available during scene work and learning to understand and experience emotions in a variety of ways. Johnson says this heightened, immediate work makes for a very potent theatrical process that lends itself to social justice.
She says the process of SoulWork is a different take on the way theater is taught or directed.
“As both a director and educational director, I want to help expose actors, artists and audiences to plays, techniques and pedagogy that is different than European or American techniques.”
Metamorphosis will present its first play, Dutchman, Amiri Baraka’s 1964 work about a tense encounter between a mixed-race couple on a subway in New York City. Dutchman will run for three performances at Arts Mission Oak Cliff.
Zilbermann says the best way to describe the play is by comparing it to the 2017 psychological horror film Get Out, in which a black man accompanies his white girlfriend home for the weekend to meet her family.
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He believes the play is undoubtedly a “fuck you” to Baraka’s white, Jewish wife. It deals with resentment, overcoming oppression and frustrations over privilege, bringing to light the complications that arise in relationships when one person can assimilate but the other cannot.
Each of the three performances will include a “post-show engagement,” a conversation about race and privilege that Zilbermann and Johnson hope will facilitate discussions that can lead to action. Zilbermann, who is Jewish, participated in an Arab-Jewish action group in college that helped to cultivate difficult conversations. He hopes to see similar results with the Dutchman talkbacks.
Zilbermann hopes the results of the post-show discussions will lead to action in subtle ways. He and Johnson aren’t naive about the potential; they just want dialogue that can eventually facilitate understanding of the different struggles we encounter as human beings.
Dutchman opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 9, at Arts Mission Oak Cliff, 410 S. Windomere Ave., with additional performances at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 10, and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 11. Tickets are $12 at morphdallas.org.