Books Study Blog

5 Human Rights Plays Everyone Should Know

Peter Weiss, The Investigation (1965)

The Investigation is a harrowing drama about the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials held by the German government to prosecute crimes committed at the Auschwitz concentration camp. These trials lasted from 1963-1965 and charged twenty-two defendants with 4,243 counts of murder and 28,910 counts of accessory to murder. Unlike the earlier Nuremberg trials in Poland, in which former SS officers were tried for crimes against humanity as recognized by international law, the Frankfurt trials represented the German government prosecuting its own citizens for violation of state law.

This play is a documentary drama constructed verbatim from archival records and reports. Weiss himself attended the Frankfurt trials as a journalist, but he did not attempt to reconstruct the narrative of the courtroom proceedings in his play. Instead, he represents the facts of the case as reported by the judge, nine witnesses (composites of a larger number of real people), the prosecuting attorney, and eighteen named defendants. The five-hour play is comprised of eleven

cantos that each relate a different story of the atrocities committed at Auschwitz. The audience must bear witness to their horrors of the Holocaust without the distraction of anything fictionalized or narrativized. The Investigation is both a powerful play and an important contribution to the historical archive of World War II.

Rachel Corrie, Alan Rickman, and Katharine Viner, My Name is Rachel Corrie (2005)

In 2003, a young American activist named Rachel Corrie was protesting the demolition of Palestinian settlements in Gaza when she was killed by an Israeli Army bulldozer. This event ignited an international media firestorm that brought renewed attention to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To this day, there is disagreement about whether Corrie’s death was an accident or whether she was intentionally targeted by Israeli Defense Forces.

My Name is Rachel Corrie is a one-woman play assembled by journalist Katharine Viner and actor Alan Rickman (who directed the play’s original production) from Corrie’s own letters, emails, and journals. Viner and Rickman were committed to representing Corrie’s politics as well as her personality, and the play is an angry and elegant depiction of a committed human rights activist. While it was well-received when it opened in London in 2005, it’s planned New York Theater Workshop premiere in 2006 was indefinitely postponed because of its controversial political content. The play has subsequently been produced at a number of venues in the U.S.

Jane Taylor, Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997)

After the brutal reign of apartheid ended in South Africa, the government established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to solicit testimony from those who wished to share their experiences as victims, survivors, or perpetrators of the racist system. Playwright and Jane Taylor and director William Kentridge collaborated with South Africa’s famed Handspring Puppet Company to create a play combining music, puppets, animation and documentary footage to tell a story of life under the brutal apartheid regime.

In addition to primary source text from the TRC testimonies, this play also includes the character of Ubu Roi, a vulgar, greedy antihero created by French playwright Alfred Jarry in the 19th century. Ubu and the Truth Commission reimagines Ubu as a South African police officer who has an unquenchable appetite for torture, sex, and food. The amoral Ubu, who gleefully works to erase evidence of his past crimes, is juxtaposed with the wrenching testimonies of those who survived under the oppression of apartheid. In addition to the text of the play, a video recording of Handspring’s 2015 revival is available online.

Caridad Svich, Upon the Fragile Shore (2015)

A U.S.-born playwright of Cuban, Argentine, Spanish, and Croatian heritage, Caridad Svich is accustomed to writing cross-cultural tales of migration and diaspora. Upon the Fragile Shore is a play for four actors that tells nine interconnecting stories from the U.S., Nigeria, Syria, Malaysia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Venezuela about the intersection of human rights and environmental crises. Svich exposes how these crises are often caused by humans and wrapped up in global networks of money and power. Each section of the play traces a different story of devastation, including terrorist attacks, biochemical weapons, erosion, imprisonment, and state violence. The play revolves around a witness figure who lives near the Gulf of Mexico and watches how humans work to destroy each other and the planet itself. Ultimately, this “play-conversation” asks the audience to think about how the actions they take every day affect others around the world as well as the future of our planet.

Augusto Boal, Theater of the Oppressed

Although this isn’t a traditional play, Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed philosophy and exercises are amongst the most popular theater texts for exploring questions of human rights onstage. As a theater director and writer working in Brazil, Boal experimented with approaches that allowed audiences to participate in and speak back to the play itself. In the 1960’s he developed the idea of a “spect-actor” a part spectator/part actor that would allow anyone watching the show to stop what was happening and give suggestions that would change what happened onstage. The scenarios for the plays in question were all designed to investigate or highlight structural and societal oppression, and the spect-actors became a way for the community of performers and audience members to try out different ways of approaching and understanding social problems.

Boal paid a political price for this activist work. In 1971, he was kidnapped by the Brazilian government and exiled to Argentina. He later moved to Europe began formally writing and teaching about his Theater of the Oppressed work. After the military junta was removed from power, Boal returned to Brazil in 1986. In 1992, he ran as an at-large candidate for a city council seat in Rio de Janeiro. He used his political power to help continue his theatrical work and developed a new theatrical form – Legislative Theatre – to work with local to collaboratively develop new approaches to solving community problems, often leading to actual legislation. While Boal passed away in 2009, his books of theater exercises and philosophy, including Theatre of the Oppressed, The Rainbow of Desire, Legislative Theatre, and Games for Actors and Non-Actors, continue to be used by theater practitioners across the globe.

About the author

Margaret Lebron

Margaret Lebron is an academic, performer, and social justice worker based in Chicago, IL. She has a PhD in Performance Studies from Northwestern University where she studied theater groups that worked with military veterans. She has also worked in nonprofit theater and housing justice organizations across the United States.