Solo artist Jamal Harewood specializes in creating “temporary communities through participatory events.” In The Privileged, performed as part of the Sprint Festival at Camden People’s Theatre, the assembled participants are asked to prepare for an encounter session with a polar bear by removing their bags, shoes, and coats. In the absence of a polar bear handler, numbered envelopes contain instructions to be read aloud by an audience member. In many cases, participants are instructed to nominate each other for tasks; this creates a community investment in carrying out the instructions.
The piece cleverly lulls its audience into a sense of camaraderie and playfulness with the chance to pet the bear (whose name is Cuddles), followed by a rousing group game of “predator and prey” (a version of Red Light Green Light). Soon, however, the orders stop seeming funny as they demand increasingly extreme and demeaning treatment of Cuddles the bear, who is, after all, not a bear at all, but a black man. A few of the nominated nominees/volunteers felt the need to voice that they were “really uncomfortable” carrying out the orders, but this did not prevent them from doing what the instructions said, with the encouragement of other group members.
It’s a chilling reminder that if you already think of someone as an animal, it’s easy to justify treating him as such, no matter how much evidence of his humanity you see.
The Sprint Festival continues through March 29.