Untouchable voices, not only in India

Tabea Mangelsdorf, from Germany, plans on performing "Untouchable Voices" in Europe with Ms. Procter. — Photo by Susan Safford

Although the term “untouchables” was abolished in 1950 under India’s constitution, the outcastes or Dalits as they are now referred to, continue to be relegated to a position outside society. In rural areas especially, the Dalits, most of whom are extremely poor, are considered unclean, and are therefore denied access to water supplies and many public places.

Two young women, students at Principia College in Illinois, spent four months in India talking to and living among Dalits as part of a study-abroad program. They were so affected by the experience that they were inspired to create a performance piece focused on the plight of these disfranchised people. They have been touring the U.S. for the last year with their show titled “Untouchable Voices.” Last Saturday, May 14, they presented this combination of monologues and original songs at the Vineyard Playhouse in Vineyard Haven.

The two collaborators, Anna Procter, 23, of Australia, and Tabea Mangelsdorf, 25, from Germany, met in college. Ms. Procter was studying theater arts and Ms. Mangelsdorf music. While in India they joined a program studying the Dalit culture, and their individual research projects were on the roles of theater and music, respectively, in the liberation movement. Interviewing Dalits in southern India, the two women realized that the arts had no place in the world inhabited by some of the planet’s poorest people.

“We found that people don’t have the time and don’t have the resources for music or theater,” Ms. Mangelsdorf said in a recent conversation.

So, instead of exploring how the arts influenced their study group, the two women used these same arts to create the voices of this often-ignored group. They completed the performance piece and presented it to their instructors, who encouraged them to share it with other schools and institutions that promote social justice.

Pam Benjamin, founder and director of Sense of Wonder Creations — a program for children that encourages social, environmental, community and cultural awareness on Martha’s Vineyard — discovered that the women would be performing around Boston and invited them to share their story with Vineyard audiences. The show was also presented to students at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School on Friday.

Ms. Benjamin says that she is always looking for opportunities to host events that promote her organization’s ideals.

“I love the way that the show was not only about the untouchables in India. It was about having compassion and understanding and not looking down on any group in any country,” she says.

Ms. Procter wrote the monologues, which she performs. The pieces are based on actual conversations that she and Ms. Mangelsdorf had with the people of India. In each, she completely inhabits her subject, from an impoverished Dalit woman and a hopeful outcaste child, to a scornful woman of privilege, to a charismatic leader of the liberation movement. Throughout, the very talented young actress perfects the musical, British-influenced Indian accent.

Ms. Mangelsdorf composed all of the songs, which are interwoven through the piece and serve as comments on the vignettes. She performs her compositions with a lovely, classically trained voice and plays piano. For this performance she was accompanied by Nate Frederick of Boston on guitar and drums.

Ms. Procter starts off the piece by paraphrasing Shylock, the persecuted jew of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” “If we are pricked do we not bleed? If we are tickled, do we not laugh?” She adds, “If you oppress us, will we not want freedom?” Throughout the piece, the two women manage to portray the humanity, generosity, and indomitable spirit of the Dalit people, who opened their homes and selflessly shared their most intimate thoughts, as well as their meager resources, with the two foreigners.

The most poetic of the monologues concerns an encounter between a beggar and a small boy on a train. Ms. Procter uses this incident from her travels to demonstrate the resiliency of the human spirit. Her subject manages to transcend even the most crushing dehumanization, and the women were very obviously touched by this brief encounter, which Ms. Mangelsdorf also relates through her music.

The women conclude each performance by equating the plight of the Dalits with that of marginalized groups in our own society. They make themselves available after each performance to answer questions and share stories with the audience. Opening up a dialogue is part of their mission, and these post-performance sessions often last up to two hours.

“Something we’ve thought a lot about as we’ve gone on with this show is ‘How can this have a practical feedback loop?’ We want the reaction to be that it’s in our lives that compassion needs to take place. We hope we are able to reach out and be able to understand people within our own communities,” Ms. Proctor said.

The two women plan to tour throughout Europe. Says Ms. Mangelsdorf, “We would like to share it as much as possible at as many venues as possible.” They will be performing the piece at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival in August.

These talented artists hope to work with the indigenous people of other global societies and will continue to use their artistic passions to foster awareness and compassion. Ultimately, they hope to involve a variety of artists and incorporate other forms of expression — film and photography, painting and writing — into their performances.

Says Ms. Mangelsdorf, “We would like to bring all of the arts and different ways of understanding together so that it’s a full human experience.”

Gwyn McAllister, of Oak Bluffs, is a frequent contributor to The Times.